Copy My Trip: Whale-watching, relaxation and sweet treats in Newport Beach, California

Lonely Planet associate editor Ann Douglas Lott recently traveled to Newport Beach, California, for a sunny coastal getaway. Here, she shares some tips and insights for anyone planning a similar trip.

With a hankering for a West Coast getaway and a head start on my summer tan, landing in Newport Beach felt like the biggest sigh of relief. I was just starting to hit a trip-less lull, and nothing scratches that itch like being on a boat in the California sunshine. Also, with my only prior knowledge of the area stemming from The OC and Selling the OC, I wanted to experience the Orange County hype for myself.

Thanks to the five-hour direct flight from JFK to SNA (John Wayne Airport), I was able to dodge the explosion of chaos that is LAX and arrive at my hotel within 25 minutes of landing – a magical start to any trip. It only got better from there.

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Collage Left: a laptop on a bed in a hotel room; Right: a hotel pool and lounge deck
Left: Checking in! © Ann Douglas Lott; Right: The Pendry’s pool and lounge deck © Pendry Newport Beach

Where did you stay? What was the vibe?

I stayed at the newly opened Pendry Newport Beach. It checks all the boxes for what you want in a luxurious getaway. The rooms are brand spanking new, spacious and peaceful. The hotel has a sushi and steak restaurant, a gorgeous lobby bar and a cabaret, as well as a members-only club for local guests (mental note for when I become a bicoastal property owner, sigh). It also has a spa, where I had the most glorious massage. Most importantly, there’s a beachy pool deck with plenty of lounge chairs for what you really want to do on vacation – just relax. And while it might not be directly on the beach (it’s located right next to a shopping mall icon, Fashion Island), the crashing waves of the Pacific are just minutes away.

Restored beach cottages on a hillock and on stilts
The restored cottages at Crystal Cove State Park © Ann Douglas Lott

Favorite activity from the trip?

I love to visit a state park when I’m at the beach. The beaches are always well-maintained, you can learn something, and usually, they’re virtually crowdless. That part about the crowds isn’t the case for Crystal Cove State Park – but understandably so. The Crystal Cove Conservancy has restored 24 (and counting) beach cottages from the 1930s–50s for guests to reserve and stay in, including dorm-style rooms and entire cottages. They’re simply adorable and relatively inexpensive.

You’re probably wondering, “How can I book one of these magical cottages right now?!” Frankly, it’s pretty competitive, with reservations opening up exactly six months in advance and getting snapped up… six months in advance. But if you make an account on the website, have all of your information ready, and ask all members of your party to consistently attempt a reservation, you could be one of the lucky guests.

And now for the part where we all learn something: the conservancy hosts education programs for local students, and guests can also visit a restored Japanese schoolhouse (cottage #34), where they will learn about the community of Japanese farming families who lived here before being sent to internment camps – never to return to their farms – during WWII.

Collage Left: Exterior of a frozen banana shop with an American flag flying over it; Top right: A frozen banana; Bottom right: small sugar-covered treats with a small jug of syrup
Left: Get yourself a frozen banana at Sugar ‘n Spice © Visit Newport Beach; Top right: Or order a chocolate sprinkle-covered one from Dad’s; Bottom right: Beignets from Beachcomber © Ann Douglas Lott

Best things you ate?

If you’re an Arrested Development fan like me, you’re familiar with the Bluth family’s frozen banana stand on Newport’s Balboa Island, where you’ll find plenty of fun carnival attractions in its Fun Zone. While the Bluth family is fictional, the frozen bananas and their fame are very much real. You’ll find them at two locations, just a chocolate-covered banana’s throw from each other: Sugar ‘n Spice and Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery. They both claim to sell the original, but as a sweet treat connoisseur, I don’t think any vendor can mess up a frozen banana dipped in chocolate and various toppings.

Speaking of sweet treats, the beignets at Beachcomber Café inside Crystal Cove State Park – topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a drizzle of maple syrup – were the perfect start to a hearty breakfast of coconut-macadamia pancakes. Or you could go for the breakfast burrito at Malibu Farm in Lido Marina Village (also found on the East Coast at a location in NYC’s Seaport). 

And I can’t not mention the seafood here. My favorite fishy bites: the sushi and the bluefin tuna pizza at SET (the Pendry’s on-site restaurant), the ravioli bianco from JOEY and the seasonal gumbo special at Bluewater Grill (this southern girl always returns to her roots).

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Collage Left: A boat with a roof covered in balloons; Top right: a dolphin's fin breaches the surface of the water; Bottom Right: Seals nap in the sun on a large buoy
Left: A Duffy boat in Newport Harbor © Visit Newport Beach; Top right: Becoming a member of the pod; Bottom Right: Someone let that seal up on the buoy right now! © Ann Douglas Lott

What was the most touristy thing you did? 

If you search “things to do in Newport Beach,” you will be overwhelmed with listings for various whale and dolphin-watching tours. And I get it. There’s really nothing like being so close to the biggest creature on the planet (that’s right, we spotted a blue whale). Just make sure your tour is on a Zodiac boat. They’re super fast, and it’s a much more intimate experience since you’re just a few feet above the water. If you’re lucky enough to glide alongside a pod of dolphins, just gaze over the side of the boat, and it feels like you’re a member of the pod. We also spotted some sea lions lazily sunbathing near Pirate’s Cove. They totally understood the vacation vibe I was going for.

For a chill, scenic boat experience, book a Duffy boat cruise. You’ll see these small electric boats everywhere in Newport, slowly idling through the bay while their passengers enjoy drinks and food (you can even book rides that will show up with the drinks and food ready to go). Go for a sunset cruise, and try to find your favorite boat name in the harbor. My favorite was 401K.

Collage Left: Landscape shot of a beachside community; Right: Ann Douglas Lott sat on a bench labeled as "Balboa Island"
Left: Though it was cloudy, I got some sun in Crystal Cove State Park © Visit Newport Beach; Right: All you need is a light jacket! © Ann Douglas Lott

What should I pack?

Early May was surprisingly a bit chillier than expected, but I still managed to leave with a sneaky sunburn. Make sure these are in your suitcase:

  • Your finest beachy ‘fits. Newport has a luxurious vibe, and you’ll notice people donning their elegant linens, tasteful florals and breezy silhouettes.
  • A light jacket (it gets cold at night)
  • A swimsuit (duh)
  • SPF, a hat, sunglasses – all the UV protection!

Ann Douglas traveled to Newport Beach on the invitation of Visit Newport Beach. Lonely Planet does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage. 

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