Even though we lived in California for about five years before our year abroad in England, I can only count a handful of times when we headed south out of Los Angeles to visit Orange County. But since moving to Newport Beach earlier this year, I’ve come to realize how much we were missing out on. I think Crystal Cove and Corona del Mar, both state beaches, are top contenders for the most stunning stretches of natural coastline in California, and the Balboa Peninsula is an endless source of fun with everything from a ferris wheel to little Duffy boats that putt around the bay. We spent much of the summer exploring close to home, but our bucket list constantly growing. We were so excited to play tourist last month with a weekend staycation, hosted by Visit Newport Beach and the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach. Here is our weekend guide to Newport Beach, California.
When to Visit
Newport Beach is the ultimate summer destination, though you’re better guaranteed those perfectly warm and sunny days in July and August. Gray skies and low hanging clouds are common enough in May and June that it’s often referred to as “June gloom.” During the summer months, the population feels like it swells to two, even three times the normal size, especially on the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island. Locals and visitors alike take advantage of the long days and proximity to the ocean and bay with surfing, sailing, SUP boarding, skim boarding, and almost every other water activity you can think of.
July 4th is particularly festive (and crowded). Boats decked out in red, white and blue glide through the harbor during the Old Glory Boat Parade, and a massive firework display caps off the night.
Newport Beach is known for its mild weather all year-long, so don’t forget to bring your swimsuit even if you’re visiting in December. The water is still busy early in the morning with surfers throughout the year, but despite the good weather, you may be lucky enough to find you have a whole beach to yourself if you stop by on a mid-week afternoon during the winter. If you’re looking for a good reason to come soon, Newport Beach is hosting its 109th Christmas Boat Parade December 13-17, where the whole bay becomes aglow with thousands of tiny lights covering everything from yachts to canoes.
Where to Stay
If we aren’t able to host friends and family when they visit, we don’t hesitate to recommend the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach. Upon checking in, we found our two adjoining rooms incredibly spacious, perfect for our family of three. Both rooms had a views of the colorful grounds and the Newport Back Bay, making the large balcony a place I wish I could’ve spent more time.
With so much to do at the hotel, we didn’t have time to enjoy every amenity. Two hour bicycle rentals and green fees for the 9-hole Back Bay Golf Course are included with your stay. We spent an afternoon swimming at one of the three pools, where Hudson wished he was a few inches taller so he could use the water slide. After his swim, the bean bag toss, ping-pong, and putt putt golf kept him pretty entertained.
Even with ample seating options in our room and balcony, I appreciated all of the large and comfy outdoor lounge areas around the hotel. Overstuffed couches are lined by little fireplaces, making it a cozy place to enjoy warm evenings, especially if you’ve come to Newport Beach with friends and family.
What to Do
Newport Beach may be a small community, but we haven’t run out of options of new places to go or things to do yet. We’ve narrowed down the list to a few of the best for our weekend guide to Newport Beach.
Visit Crystal Cove State Park
Before we moved, we were debating which city in Orange County to soon call home. What drew me to Newport Beach was the 3 miles of natural protected coastline called Crystal Cove, and it’s still my favorite place to go. It’s one of the few places where multi-million, 4-story mansions aren’t cut down into the cliffs, and the incredible views get to be enjoyed by all. It costs $15 to park for the full day, or $5 for the sunset rate, which is usually about an hour before sunset. If you go as often as we do, it’s well worth it to buy the California State Park Pass.
During spring, the top of the bluffs are blanketed in bright yellow flowers, each different ramp and staircase down to the sand is perfectly picturesque, and the rocky parts of the shore create tide pools during low tide.
If you want to spend the majority of your time at Crystal Cove, consider renting one of the 21 quaint historic cottages available for overnight stays, built during the 1930s and 1940s. The Beachcomber Café, the only restaurant on this stretch of beach, is housed in a restored beachfront cottage and especially popular for breakfast and brunch on weekends, so come early if you want brioche french toast or their signature Beachcomber beignets. While two beaches around Newport have fire pits (Corona del Mar and near the Balboa Pier), the only way to get a beach bonfire at Crystal Cove is by reserving a Grill ‘N Glow experience with the Beachcomber (it’s a gas fire, but still fun for cooking hamburgers and roasting marshmallows). The rest of the beach closes after sunset, so it feels especially quiet once it’s dark, with just the drifting chatter from the Beachcomber, and a few lights on at the beach cottages.
Explore Newport Harbor
We’ve spent many peaceful afternoons SUP boarding between the shiny boats docked in Newport Harbor, and recently took our first Duffy boat ride, zipping along the smooth waters at 5mph. You can also kayak, sail, or just swim! The best place to hop in the water is along the beachfront of Marina park. There’s a roped of section, so you don’t have to worry about boats or paddles coming across your path.
Spend a day at Newport Beach
While you may spend your entire weekend in the city of Newport Beach, the actual beach part of Newport Beach is the area around the Newport Pier. Come early to catch the historic Dory fleet fish market, walk the pier, grab a donut at Seaside Donuts, or try the soft waves at the surfing spot known as Blackies, between the pier and the 28th Street jetty.
Watch surfers at the Wedge
When the waves are big (and they can get up to 30 feet at the Wedge), just watching from the sand can be an adrenaline rush. The Wedge is a popular spot for surfing, boogie boarding and body boarding at the very end of the Balboa Pier. The steep and unpredictable barrel waves at this spot are man-made, with a wedge-shaped swell forming from one wave bouncing of the jetty and then colliding with the next wave rolling in. Every time I’ve gone I’ve seen at least one surfer leave with a broken board, and people look like they’re being thrown up and tossed around like a rag doll if they hit the wave wrong, so I wouldn’t attempt unless you’re very experienced in the water.
Stop at the Balboa Fun Zone and take the Ferry to Balboa Island
You can technically drive onto Balboa Island, but long-time locals say the only way to get to Balboa Island is to take the ferry. Before you hop on (individuals are $1, car and driver are $2), visit the Balboa Fun Zone, right next to the ferry dock. The Fun Zone includes a ferris wheel that’s been spinning since 1936, an arcade that felt like a blast from my pizza-party youth past, and a handful of other fair-type rides. Hudson was a little unsure of the ferris wheel at first, but it’s slow, easy-going, and all about the views of the bay.
When we first visited Balboa Island, we were hoping to find a banana-shaped stand like Bluth’s Frozen Bananas from Arrested Development. Instead we found a few shops (sadly not shaped like a banana), all claiming to be the inventors of the “original” frozen banana. There’s Dad’s Donuts, Sugar and Spice, and Too Sweet, all within a few yards of each other on Marine Avenue. The chocolate-dipped frozen bananas and ice cream bars (known here as Balboa Bars) are pretty comparable at each of the shops, and you can coat them in your choice of toppings like sprinkles, peanuts, or crushed cookies.
If you were hoping to try the original, you’re out of luck because that shop has long since closed! The first frozen banana stand was opened across the bay on the Balboa Peninsula by a man named Don Phillips in 1940.
Indulge in some Retail Therapy
In Newport Beach, you can still soak up the sun while shopping at Fashion Island, a large, outdoor, upscale shopping center. Most walkways are centered around a water feature, like shooting fountains or a Koi Pond. Even if you don’t have anything to buy, it’s a great place to grab dinner, watch a movie, or attend one of the many community events they host, like movies under the stars or the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Watch Sunset at the Beach
I’ve become a firm believer that sunset is always better at the beach, and we head down in the evening whenever we can. Our favorite spot is anywhere in Crystal Cove. Inspiration Point in Corona del Mar and the piers are great viewing locations too.
Where to Eat
While Newport Beach has an impressive list of fine dining establishments, our recommendations are much more casual and budget-friendly, though no less delicious! I’ve already mentioned a few breakfast spots like Beachcombers and Seaside Donuts. If you’re in search of the best baked goods, head to Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Cafe or C’est Si Bon Bakery. If the line at Beachcombers is already too long, the Lighthouse Bayview Café also makes memorable beignets.
For classic American fare, visit the original Ruby’s on the Balboa Pier. The Shake Shack right off the PCH has the best shakes and arguably an even better view, where they’ll whip up any ice cream plus mix-in combo you want, and the outdoor seating is just above beach cottages in Crystal Cove. Don’t leave Newport without a trip to Saigon Beach, included in Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat for 2017. My favorites dishes are the pork belly bao and grilled pork vermicelli. For something healthy, locally-sourced and full of flavor, try Lemonade located within Fashion Island.
I hope you enjoy your weekend getaway in Newport Beach!
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