9 Reasons to Drive to Newport Beach

Boating adventures, fine dining, and the iconic banana stand await in this chill, beachside town.

About a 90-minute drive south from LA, Newport Beach is an often-forgotten gem of the Southern California road trip scene. It’s got the same beachy draw of coastal hotspots like Santa Barbara, a thriving restaurant and art scene to rival San Diego, and its own unique Orange County vibe that lands somewhere between laidback and bougie—these are the homes you’re seeing on Netflix’s Selling OC, after all.

Newport has its own set of charms, though: any Arrested Development fan already knows about Balboa Island, with its retro-cool “fun zone” and iconic banana stand, while fans of classic cinema will be excited that Shirley Temple and John Wayne once lived there. From boating adventures to fine dining, luxury resorts, festivals, and more, there are plenty of reasons to make Newport Beach your next weekend getaway. Here’s what to do once you’re there:

Balboa Island
Ronnie Chua/Shutterstock

“Charming” is always the first word people use to describe Balboa Island, a small enclave that’s just a short ferry ride from Newport proper. Once you’re there, there are quaint local art galleries, restaurants and fruit stands, a ferris wheel, knick-knack stores, and more, or you can just sit on a bench and think about how charming everything around you is.

Davey's Locker Sportfishing
Davey's Locker Sportfishing

Whether you’re a seasoned angler or new to fishing, you’ll be welcomed at Davey’s Locker, the long-running tour group that goes out for fishing expeditions with beginners and veterans alike. They’ve got half-day, full-day, and overnight trips, and if you’d rather just leave your seafood in the ocean, they’ve also got whale watching cruises, with frequent sightings of blue and finback whales in the summer and fall, and blue whales in the winter and spring.

EB Rental Ltd electric boats
EB Rental Ltd

The classic Newport boat rental is an old-school Duffy, but Vision Electric Boat Rental has modernized the experience with a colorful fleet of zero-emission e-boats that use lithium batteries and are equipped with bluetooth surround sound. Both the Duffy-ish Fantail and the sportier Volt are available for self-captained rides around Newport Harbor, with easy speeds of up to six miles per hour. Grab some drinks (if you’re not the one driving) and a picnic lunch from neighboring Malibu Farm or Zinqué for a majorly relaxing day out at sea.

Newport Aquatic Center
Newport Aquatic Center

Though Newport Harbor is crowded with docked boats and duffys, the Upper Newport Back Bay is the largest remaining estuary in Southern California and is perfect for exploring via kayak or stand up paddleboard. Head to the Newport Aquatic Center for first-come, first-served rentals and guided kayak tours from the Newport Bay Conservancy, where you can learn about the native birds and endangered species who call the bay home.

A+O Balboa Bay Resort
Balboa Bay Resort

Take that boat and dock it for dinner

One of the greatest things about Newport Harbor is the restaurants that surround it, many of which have docks where you can literally park your boat for an on-the-water brunch or dinner. Among the options: market-fresh modern Mexican cuisine from Sol Mexican Cocina, grilled Filet Mignon Skewers from Tavern House, and incredible burgers from A&O.

Sugar 'n Spice banana stand
Sugar 'n Spice, Balboa Island

Even if you’re only aware of the brilliant early aughts sitcom Arrested Development because of internet memes (and if that’s you, stop what you’re doing right now and binge what’s possibly the funniest show in the history of television immediately), you probably know that the show made popular the notion that “There’s always money in the banana stand.” Thankfully, the stand that inspired the show, Sugar n’ Spice, is still standing after more than 75 years, head there for a dipped frozen banana, and don’t be Blue about it. Be sure to also try the signature Balboa Bar, a chocolate dipped ice cream concoction that’s rolled in toppings like crumbled nuts, toffee bits, rainbow sprinkles, coconut shreds, and more.

Pelican Hill
Photo courtesy of Pelican Hill

The absolutely gorgeous Pelican Hill resort has long been one of Southern California’s iconic luxury properties thanks to an incredible pool, great service, and its legendary 36 holes of golf, split between a North and South course, both of which have extraordinary views (and extraordinarily challenging bunkers). If you’re not staying there, it’s still worth a drive for dinner at the Pelican Grill and Bar, with massive steaks and Lobster Bucatini among the menu highlights. Another family-friendly option is Balboa Bay Resort, the only waterfront hotel in Newport Beach. 

Fable & Spirit
Photo courtesy of Fable & Spirit

Southern California’s spectacular fine dining scene continues to earn Michelin recognitions, with a handful located in Newport Beach. Fable & Spirit was granted Bib Gourmand status for dishes like PEI Mussels and Cracked Pepper Bucatini, but Lido Bottle Works (New American), Sushi ii (Japanese), Marche Moderne (New French), and Italian standby Bello by Sandro Nardone made the list proper.

Sawdust Art Festival
Sawdust Art Festival

Celebrate Christmas in the most California way possible

There are a ton of holiday festivals in and around Newport, including Laguna Beach’s popular Sawdust Winter Fantasy Art Festival from Black Friday, November 25, through Friday, December 16, with a one-of-a-kind shopping experience in a winter wonderland with thousands of lights and decorations, falling snow, three stages of live music, community performances, carolers, puppeteers, art classes, and daily visits with Santa Claus. The Newport Christmas Boat Parade will take place Wednesday, December 14, through Sunday, December 18, featuring festively decorated yachts, boats, kayaks, and canoes setting sail along the harbor in a Christmastime tradition that’s now in its 114th year.

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Jeff Miller is about to rewatch Arrested Development for the 5th time. He’s on Insta at @jeffmillerla.