Everything, they say, is relative. That's especially obvious when you visit a place like Newport Beach, nesting ground for L.A.'s business and social elite, where they not only have spas for people, they have spas for cars. It's where they not only have bakeries for people, they have bakeries for doggies.
Our brand new 4-wheel-drive Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi can hold its own in most places but, in Newport Beach, it might as well have been a 1989 Chevy. Scooting along on the ultra-modern MacArthur Boulevard we were being mauled by Mercedes, stampeded by Range Rovers, jumped by Jaguars and flogged by Ferraris in our never-ending quest to be cool.
But no matter. We soon would be parking our car and leaving behind any hint that we were not one of the chosen few who reside in what is arguably the Capital of the famous OC. We didn't spend enough on our outfits you say? Even the rich dress down on occasion. Not in good enough shape to be one of the Beautiful People? We'll just discreetly cover all that up.
By now you've figured out that Newport Beach is a place and culture unto itself and, yes, even ordinary people can mingle with people who spend more in a shopping spree than most people spend on their mortgage. Modern, palm tree-lined thoroughfares take visitors through some of the priciest real estate in the country, the gorgeous blue Pacific Ocean almost always visible with just the slightest elevation.
World-class shopping and fine restaurants are in nearly every part of the city. Cruise along the Pacific Highway and you pass dealers for just about any luxury car you want. Huge yachts are parked on mammoth trailers, on sale for 160 grand on up. Motorcycles here are not just every-day Harleys; no, these gleaming bikes are bigger, better and come in more colors than your cell phone.
Long established galleries, exquisite home furnishings stores and a myriad of specialty shops await you in chic Corona del Mar. Or visit Fashion Island, one of two Orange County super retail complexes that just seem too grandiose to be called shopping centers (the other being South Coast Plaza in nearby Costa Mesa). Name a store found on New York's Fifth Avenue, and you'll probably find a version of it at Fashion Island.
It was adjacent to Fashion Island that we found our hotel for this brief foray into Newport Beach society — the Island Hotel, which is the former Four Seasons and the only AAA five-diamond property in Newport Beach. The hotel changed names in 2005 when the property's owners took over management and, if it wasn't already, the hotel is now a cultural icon for the area with its attentive service, luxurious rooms and impeccable dining at the hotel's showcase restaurant, the Pavilion.
During our Saturday afternoon arrival, the hotel lobby was abuzz with wedding and other social activities. Full-tuxedoed young gentlemen were visiting with what looked like young debutants, everyone dressed and groomed to perfection. Just outside the lobby was a lush tropical garden and spectacular swimming pool. And we noticed something interesting as we got our room key and started walking toward the elevator: the fragrance of orchids — quite fitting for the "Island" Hotel.
We rode the elevator up to our junior suite overlooking the entire coastal area. As a Four Seasons, the hotel had been built to feature larger rooms — our spacious suite was even better yet. The brown, beige and pastel yellow tones made the room feel especially airy and the window shutters brought back memories of the Caribbean. Full length windows opened to views that spanned 180 degrees. DVD, electronic games, a music system, free high-speed internet access — our suite had all the bells and whistles.
It was soon time to explore the Newport Beach so we drove first to the Balboa Peninsula, a part of town teeming with young beach-goers on this Saturday afternoon. Parking isn't easy to find here on a summer weekend but, once we found it, we walked the long, wide beach where multitudes were enjoying sunny skies and a pounding surf well-suited for body surfing. Expensive vacation homes line the beach and stretch several miles along the Peninsula. The area was a bit congested for our taste but, if you like being where the action is, this was the place.
We then stopped by Balboa Island, which has a tiny, but busy Main Street — actually it's called Marine Avenue — which is just a few short blocks with about 70 shops and restaurants to explore. This little example of Small Town Americana offers a wide selection of shops in all price ranges as well as several boutiques and galleries.
The downtown shopping area is just part of the attraction on Balboa Island, an island small enough that you can walk entirely around its perimeter in less than two miles. It's fun to observe life on an island that remains exclusive because it is so expensive. There is no denying that the ever-present sunshine and the harbor views create a quiet respite from bustling city life and clogged freeways. The colorful villas and vacation-style homes on the island are opulent for their size — with these prices, no one's going to skimp on their home maintenance.
Back at the hotel, we sat down for an early dinner at the Pavilion which, for once, was a luxury restaurant that lived up to its billing. Executive Chef Bill Bracken is a culinary celebrity who has put together an amazing menu that combines not-so-unusual items such as Bone-in Kansas City steak with such things as "truffle" home fries, or crab cake with companions like Asian slaw and black bean remoulade. Deserts, such as our absolutely perfect Grand Marnier souffl', were to die for. Rounding out our experience was some of the best service we've ever had — ask for "Michael" if you want to be served by a master.
No immersion in Newport Beach society would be complete without a visit to the spa and, the next morning, the lady of our house indulged herself with a two-hour appointment at the Island Hotel's spa. Opting for the Island Boreh Bali Spice Remedy, she was covered in a blend of spices to exfoliate her skin and increase circulation. The spices were then removed with hot towels and every joint was massaged and then rubbed with warm oils. Topping off the experience was a plate of fruit sushi and hot ginger tea. She returned to our suite fully rejuvenated.
Sadly, it was then checkout time and the end of our mini-vacation in Newport Beach. We stopped for a little shopping at Fashion Island and then it was on down the San Diego Freeway where our Jeep Grand Cherokee once again could hold its own.
WHERE: Newport Beach is located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. It is easily reached on the 405 freeway.
WHAT: A playground for the rich-and-famous, but a reasonably-priced getaway that allows you to sample the good life, if only for a weekend.
WHEN: Year-round, with blue-sky weather virtually any time of the year.
WHY: The OC television show has made this area a symbol for the California luxury lifestyle.
HOW: For more information, contact the Newport Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-94-COAST or visit www.visitnewportbeach.com. The city is celebrating its Centennial this year with a beach party on October 8. More information is at www.newportbeach100.com.
Photos, from top: Beach houses on Balboa Peninsula; poolside at the Island Hotel; a Duffy boat cruises by Balboa Island; a young couple enjoys the Newport Beach surf.
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Northwest zoos, Northwest water vacations, Port Townsend and Seattle attractions.