Joan Smith never planned to be a date farmer. The Newport Beach mother of three has a degree in business administration, a CPA license, and a passion for cooking and gardening. But one day she tasted the dates growing on her family's Coachella Valley ranch property, and her life took a serious left turn.
"My husband had been going to the Coachella Valley for years, so he knew all about dates. I had never tried them. I thought, 'Ugh, those look ugly.' When I finally tasted them, I said, 'Wow, these are really delicious.' "
The four Medjool date palms on their desert ranch yielded just enough fruit each year for gift-giving. "My friends and family always asked me if I had more and if I would sell them some," she says. Smith decided to plant more trees and kick-start a business, but quickly learned that date palms take many years to mature and bear fruit. To build up her date inventory, she started buying fruit from other growers.
"At the time, nobody was really marketing dates. I thought, 'These fruits are really special, and no one is telling their story.' "
So Smith set out to give dates a marketing makeover. Her company, Rancho Meladuco Dates, sells beautifully packaged dates online and from a brick-and-mortar shop near her Newport Beach home. Her dates have been featured in Oprah Magazine, Food & Wine, and The Wall Street Journal.
Smith has to make frequent trips to the desert to care for her growing palms, but that's a price she's willing to pay to live in Newport Beach.
"There are so many reasons to live here," Smith says. "The weather is always really pleasant—sunny and 70 almost every day—and the ocean views are amazing."
Smith says her town is known for sand and surf, but her top picks for visitors don't involve sunbathing. "My number-one thing to do is to rent an electric Duffy and cruise around the bay. Duffys are quiet and perfect for cruising—anybody can drive one. You can go out in a Duffy with your family or friends and have a picnic on the water. It's an iconic Newport experience," she says.
Riding the historic Balboa Island Ferry is also a must. "It's so fun to put your bike or even your car on the ferry, then putt-putt across the bay. You get to the island in only a couple minutes. Balboa Island is famous for its frozen bananas dipped in chocolate," she says.
Smith says another great way to see the area is to hop on a bike. "The Balboa Peninsula has a paved bike path that runs along the beach from Newport Beach Pier to Balboa Pier, about three miles. It's always busy and fun. Everybody is on their bikes going to the beach with their beach chairs strapped on their backs."
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
Smith says that every Newport Beach visitor should check out these local favorites:
Shop by the sea: “Lido Marina Village has been totally renovated, and it's the new hot spot. There's a Nobu, a bunch of cool boutiques and restaurants, and a great bookstore, Lido Village Books. Several restaurants face the water and have open-air seating—Malibu Farm and Circle Hook Fish Company are there. You can actually cruise up in a Duffy boat and have dinner. ”
Glorious gardens: “Roger's Gardens is a mind-blowing nursery and restaurant where everything is perfectly styled and beautiful. It's a destination even if you aren't into gardening. The owners are incredibly creative, and everything they do is over the top. They sell lots of California native plants, beautiful flower arrangements, and home and garden decor. They even recreated the screaming mandrake plants from Harry Potter. Now they have a restaurant called Farmhouse at Roger's Gardens that has great cocktails and farm-to-table food.”
Sunset spots: “I live in Newport Heights, and the parks in my neighborhood have spectacular sunset views. We're up on the bluff, and we have a series of parks along Cliff Drive. The parks have really tall, swaying palm trees and spectacular views. Some of the parks have a front-facing sunset view. You can see Catalina Island and San Clemente Island.”
Family-friendly: “Newport is great for families. The sidewalks are bike-friendly, so you don't have to worry about your kids riding their bikes in the street. Kids love the Fun Zone at Balboa Village on Balboa Peninsula, near where the ferry connects to Balboa Island. The amusement park has a Ferris wheel and arcade games. It's been around since the 1930s.”
Go nautical: “My number-one thing to do in Newport Beach is to rent an electric Duffy and cruise around the bay. They're these super cute boats that are named after the guy who invented them, Marshall Duffield, who lives in Newport. He was the mayor for a couple years. Duffys are quiet and perfect for cruising. Anybody can drive one. You can go out in a Duffy with your family or friends and have a picnic on the water.”