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Look one way in Newport Beach, and you’ll see oceanfront mansions and a yacht-lined harbor. Look another, and you’ll find historic cottages, dive bars, and a friendly controversy about ice cream. With its mix of high-end living and world-class surfing waves, Newport Beach offers both luxury and beach-town delights.
Newport Beach History
Like any glamorous icon of a certain age, this coastal town has changed its identity a few times over the years. Back in the 1830s, Newport Beach was a rancho known as Bolsa de San Joaquin, owned by a settler who preferred livestock to seafaring: He had 14,000 head of cattle and 3,000 horses, but no boats. Over the next century, the community first changed its name to Newport—in the 1870s, when the main industry was commercial shipping—then to Newport Beach in 1902. After that, the town increasingly attracted tourists and Hollywood elite such as Shirley Temple (crowned the first Miss Newport Beach at age 13), James Cagney (said to have won Collins Island in a poker game), and John Wayne, who moved here permanently in the early 1960s.
The city’s heart and soul still revolve around the harbor, which comprises two bodies of water. There’s Upper Newport Bay, an ecological reserve ringed by a 10-mile loop trail that attracts birders, joggers, equestrians, and cyclists. The four-mile-long Lower Newport Bay, meanwhile, features lovely shops and restaurants—especially in Cannery Village, Balboa Island, and Balboa Peninsula—home of the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park.
Surfing in Newport Beach
Thanks to more than eight miles of coastline, the city boasts a vibrant surf culture. Tucked along the jetty that marks Newport Harbor, the Wedge is arguably the best bodysurfing spot in the country, with waves that can easily reach 20 feet in height. Most of the year, the Wedge is even considered too raucous for most traditional surfers. For more manageable waves, any surfer (or bodysurfer) has plenty of other options along Newport Beach. Experienced surfers flock to Echo Beach and Blackies, while Little Corona is popular among beginners. For a leg up, opt for a lesson at local spots like Endless Sun Surf School, Newport Beach Surfing Lessons, and Newport Surf Camp. Those searching for a gear should visit The Frog House, Newport’s quintessential surf shop since the early ’60s.
Boat Rentals in Newport Beach
You don’t have to know how to sail or own a yacht to get on the water in Newport Beach—boat rentals are a convenient option. Duffy boats, sometimes described as “golf carts on the water,” are a fun way to become captain of your own adventure. These small, electric, easy-to-navigate watercraft are available from several companies, and the similar Vision Marine electric boats can be found at Lido Marina Village. Also available for rental are yachts, sailboats, pontoon boats, kayaks, and even authentic gondolas from Italy, complete with a gondolier to pilot parties of two on a romantic cruise.
Where to Eat, Shop, and Stay at Newport Beach
In fact, you can find traces of both old and new everywhere in Newport Beach. Go to historic Dory Fleet Fish Market, which was founded in 1891 and has been operating as a fish market ever since. It sits near popular seaside restaurants such as Bluewater Grill, Fly ’N’ Fish Oyster Bar, and Bear Flag Fish Co. Note how some folks around here do the “dock and dine”—pulling their boats up to a restaurant for dinner. You can even take a Hornblower Cruises tour of John Wayne’s old yacht, The Wild Goose, and catch a view of his oceanfront mansion. Belying his cowboy image, the Duke was reportedly once a bodysurfer himself.
Then browse the boutiques of the Corona del Mar neighborhood, or go to the open-air Fashion Island, home to high-end retail stores. Come to town in spring and you can watch screenings at the Newport Beach Film Festival or listen to music at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival.
Accommodation options range from luxurious resorts to B&Bs to vacation rentals and hotels. At some, you can even pull up by boat, like at the family-friendly Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina, which features 110 acres of sandy beach and gentle back-bay waves with a laid-back luxury vibe. Choose from large cottages that sleep up to six or smaller studio cottages; amenities include four pools, kayak and Duffy boat rentals, and the kid-favorite Inflatable Water Park. Golfers flock to The Resort at Pelican Hill, with its panoramic ocean views, pristine pools, and one of the world’s best golf courses. Spa-lovers and shoppers have a go-to in Fashion Island Hotel Newport Beach, where the 20-story suites offer stunning views (Ed. note: Fashion Island Hotel has closed, but the property is slated to reopen in 2023 as Pendry Newport Beach). If a beach cottage with a rooftop deck sounds appealing, check out the sophisticated Lido House Newport Beach. For something on a smaller, more intimate scale, bed & breakfasts like the circa-1924 Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa, or Doryman’s Oceanfront Inn will fit the bill.
Beyond any glitz, Newport offers a few small but sweet luxuries—and one long-standing disagreement. Sugar ’n Spice and Dad’s, each on Balboa Island’s Marine Avenue, are proud of their frozen chocolate-dipped bananas, and both claim to have invented the Balboa Bar, a chocolate-dipped ice cream bar rolled in sweet or salty toppings. No doubt, you’ll need to try them both to form your own opinion.
For a deeper dive into hanging ten in Newport Beach and Balboa Fun Zone, check out Newport Beach’s Surf Scene and Balboa Fun Zone, respectively. For more recommendations on things to do from a local, peruse one Newport Beach–based entrepreneur’s favorite haunts.