Driving north along Pacific Coast Highway, you'll take in a long and winding sprawl that reveals the best views of what picturesque Newport Beach has to offer.
From its southernmost tip - technically called Newport Coast - the road dips down and dramatically frames the 3.2 miles of typically calm waters that belong to Crystal Cove State Park. Perhaps the crown jewel of Newport's coastline, the park boasts seven distinctive coves for sunbathers and tide-pool enthusiasts; 1,100 miles of underwater wildlife preserve for divers; 2,400 acres of backcountry in Moro Canyon for hiking and primitive campers; and 80-foot bluffs lining the beach, along which you can stroll with endless ocean views.
If a steep hike with gear strapped to your back doesn't sound like your idea of fun, Crystal Cove has 57 sites for both RV and tent campers, too. Still, the ultimate way to experience this region is to rent one of 17 available beach cottages - located on the sand and up along the bluff - where there's also a Historic District and Village, complete with true oceanfront dining and a full bar at the Beachcomber Café (thebeachcombercafe.com); plenty of picnic tables; and education centers.
Did you know the Bette Midler/Barbara Hershey hit movie "Beaches," along with several other Hollywood films, was set at Crystal Cove? Stop by the Film History and Media Center for more information.
Parking is $15/day with shuttle service that comes in handy due the varied terrain here. For beach cottage rental information - bookings for which happen on the 1st of each month at 8 a.m. - visit crystalcovecottages.org. Year-round park hours are from 6 a.m. to sunset daily; Historic District hours until 10 p.m.
The next coastal enclave northward bound in Newport belongs to Corona Del Mar. It encompasses a well-manicured stretch of PCH, lined with restaurants and boutiques, and is most famous for its golden-sand state beach; it's also home to Little Corona Beach, where a set of stairs leads to on-point tide pool viewing.
In need of reprieve from beach crowds or buzzing Coast Highway? Serenity awaits at the unsuspecting Sherman Library & Gardens (2647 E. Coast Hwy.). For five well-spent bucks, meander through 2.2 acres of inspiring landscapes, including the impressive, indoor orchid habitat with over 1,000 species from around the world. Be sure to come hungry and lunch at the Café Jardin, which also offers afternoon tea the second and last Wednesday of every month. Happy Hour Horticulture and more quirky special programming is offered to green-thumbs throughout the year. Schedule your trip around an event; for more information, visit slgardens.org.
From the bluffs in Corona Del Mar, you can see Newport Harbor - but if you keep driving along Coast Highway, you can be in it thanks to the manmade nature of Balboa Island. You can access it one of two ways; drive across a small bridge, or take a five-minute ferry (with your car if you'd like) from the Balboa Peninsula, right next to an old-fashioned arcade. No visit to "the island," as locals call it, would be complete without a Balboa Bar or Frozen Banana from a little stand called Sugar and Spice; it's been serving up the sweet stuff since 1945.
The Balboa Peninsula is also home to The Wedge, a world-famous beach with treacherous shore-break and waves known to reach 30 feet during peak conditions. From its shores, enjoy views of Corona Del Mar State Beach and Newport Harbor, in addition to the main event: aquatic daredevils battling it out over furious waves.
Since you've driven all this way, it'd be silly not to indulge in a foodie-cult-favorite with Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee. Though technically in neighboring Costa Mesa, the confections here are made from scratch, fried every hour, and include addictive flavors like Butter & Salt, Oregon Huckleberry and Saigon Cinnamon. Just a whiff of the place is intoxicating. Check their website for seasonal offerings. 270 E. 17th St. #18. sidecardoughnuts.com
Compact treats make for fine beach grub, so it's convenient that Pie-Not The Aussie-Style Bakery, is located right next door to donut heaven. Choose from a variety of hot, ready to eat pies with traditional flavors like ground beef, minced onion and gravy, to the more SoCal-ish, handheld Hippie Roll, a buttery pastry filled with spinach, ricotta and walnuts, plus a kick from cayenne pepper. 270 E. 17th St. #17, Costa Mesa. pienot.com