Great Drives and Destinations: Newport Beach, Calif.

April 29, 2011
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Newport Beach, Calif., is as wealthy and aristocratic as its namesake, Newport, R.I., and as entertaining and homespun as what used to be Coney Island, N.Y. You get both here: The people who have it all and love it, and others who have so little and may well be more content.

Photography by the authors.Talk about a two-sided coin! Welcome to Newport Beach, Calif. -- as wealthy and aristocratic as its namesake, Newport, R.I., and as entertaining and homespun as what used to be Coney Island, N.Y. You get both here: The people who have it all and love it, and others who have so little and may well be more content.

Indeed, this is a town where some sit comfortably in the Balboa Bay Club & Resort below the painting of the late John Wayne, one of its members and former club president, and look about contentedly. Life is good. And others in town find their solace riding a bicycle down a country lane with a doggy buddy in a basket. Life is good.

John Wayne made this as much his home as Hollywood. The county airport is named after the actor, where an 8 ½-foot statue celebrates his memory. His boat, The Wild Goose, a converted minesweeper, still brings tourists to the part of town that is more used to the glitterati who sail.

Life took its time getting to Newport Beach. Big things started happening here around 1825, when the Santa Ana River flooded and changed its run to the sea. The flooding created large sandbanks and a new bay, and slowly a few intrepid souls migrated to the area. Historians Rick Adams and Louise McCorkle say that during this time, “Newport Beach was only a string of shacks on a sandy beach in front of a mudflat called Newport Bay.”

What had been a fishing village of a mere 300 people gradually grew, as entrepreneurs built docks and brought rail transportation to town. It’s the same old names of money making money: James Irvine I, with his extensive land holdings, and Henry Huntington, with his far-reaching trains. Huntington brought the red trolleys of his Pacific Electric Railway in 1904 as far down as this New Port between San Pedro and San Diego, and hungry passengers arriving by train could buy fresh fish on the beach from the Dory Fishing Fleet that had been established as far back as 1891.

The Dory Fleet is the last of its kind in the U.S.: Two men in small boats row 10 miles out to sea each dawn to harvest the trawl lines they set the day before, an approach to commercial fishing unchanged in 120 years. The fishermen still drag their boats up the beach on rollers. Their boats become their fish counters and the public still lines up to buy. (The Dory Fleet website has some great seafood recipes.) In this disparity of lifestyles that is Newport Beach, a life-size wooden rendering of a dory fisherman is mounted by the pier a three-minute drive from an auto dealership that sells Ferrari, Maserati and Tesla, the exciting Silicon Valley electric car.

The Pacific Coast Highway runs through Newport Beach and drivers heading south surely must notice some attractive places but, before they quite know it, they’ve left Newport Beach behind. That’s a pity. Someone should have suggested they glance at a map to understand the town’s layout and perhaps drive over to the Balboa Peninsula. Balboa is the fun beach place to walk around in and explore. You can take the three-car ferry from the peninsula to Balboa Island, and maybe have a coffee or a soda to go with a terrific grilled-fish sandwich before you sail. (Hint: The restaurants and goods to buy are more expensive on the island.)

The cafes and restaurants are brightly colored in most beach areas, but the artist colonies of Laguna Beach are quite close and have helped make the whole area bustle and sparkle. On Balboa Island, we are intrigued by the art when we have lunch at an Italian restaurant called “Ciao.” “The artist is Victor Ostrovsky, a Russian Jew who was born in Canada,” says restaurant owner Tony Rainone. “You never see his subjects’ eyes. He says they have something to hide.”

Ostrovsky is a former Israeli naval officer. (He was once an agent of Israel’s Mossad, so maybe he has reason to hide something himself!) The restaurant isn’t hiding its great menu, however, because when we had lunch the calzones wrapped in homemade pizza dough and the raspberry salads are flying out the kitchen and people are smiling as they eat.

Homeowners smile here as well. The houses are beautiful on Balboa Island. Small boats and yachts bob in the harbor, many tied down beside the homes. You might feel you were on Los Olas Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The homes, though, look more like those on Cape Cod. Maybe that’s why those having lunch in “Ciao” are smiling: they’re locals living in Wonderland. Certainly the streets of Balboa Island are charming and the homes stunning.

At the local firehouse, we observe an antique 1920 American LaFrance Type 75 fire engine. The company in Elmira, N.Y., built a mere 25 vehicles, but it was famous for its solid and fast six-cylinder fire trucks. It’s an Old World truck, and in some ways this part of California seems Old World too.

A couple of miles north up the hill and inland rises an area far from Old World: the glitzy shopping mall Fashion Island. All you could possibly want is here, including the grand hotel that’s the castle on the island: The Island Hotel. The hotel is centrally located for the beaches, for Walt Disney Land and for points farther south. This not a beach resort, its interior landscaping with lush vegetation is more Hawaiian. And it’s a great place to watch the sunset over the Pacific from your bedroom at the end of a busy day.

More "Great Drives and Destinations" on the California coast:

  • Huntington Beach
  • Irvine
  • Redonodo Beach

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.