It's always fun to drop in on the rich and famous for a weekend — even when you're neither rich nor famous — and one of the best places in California to get an up-close look at how the other half lives is Newport Beach. Actually, if we crunch our numbers a little more, it's more like the other 10 percent, because the opulence will just dazzle you.
The Balboa Bay Club will be glad to share its front-row view of the good life now that this legendary club of the Newport Coast elite has opened half its units to the general public. Before 2003, the resort's prime Newport Beach real estate was only available to members of the club. Now there are 150 rooms and 10 suites available to anyone yearning for some weekend affluence.
Staying at the club a night or two would be a sure-fire way to impress the significant other, or to completely escape from job stress, but still keep costs within reason. We consider resorts like the Balboa Bay Club "special-occasion" getaways — places we go to celebrate, not just to get away. With small houses on nearby Balboa Island going for $4 million and 100-foot mega-yachts parked in slips right out in front of your bay-view suite, the Balboa Bay Club takes you many steps beyond the average getaway.
The first clue you're not in Kansas anymore is when you cruise the circular driveway to the lobby area. Behind that line of dark-colored, late-modeled SUVs there's a gleaming new two-seat sports car you don't quite recognize because, in all likelihood, it's not the kind of car available at your local auto mall. Then it's not one or two valets, but a platoon of at least six fair-haired young gentlemen running to and fro to make certain that no one waits long for their vehicle.
And then the service gets even better. From the smiling young woman at check-in to the cordial bellhops to the extraordinarily punctual room service attendants — who managed to bring us cookies and milk while the cookies were still warm — the service at the Balboa Bay Club, during our stay, was consistently top-rate.
And then there are the rooms. Once we opened the door to our bay-view suite, we could fully appreciate the club's location and attention to detail. The sliding glass doors opened to a maritime show that continued from dawn to dusk. From small Duffy boats to super-yachts, from kayaks to college rowing teams, the sights and sounds of Balboa Bay are mesmerizing. You'll be tempted to spend many an hour on the one of your two private decks that are perfect for viewing all of the water activities.
The rooms are over-size and our one-bedroom suite actually had two of these large rooms with two bathrooms, one so spacious it had three dressing areas, a walk-in closet, a two-person Jacuzzi-style tub and a separate shower room. The bathrooms were Italian marble, the counter-tops granite and the overall design was reminiscent of those bathroom areas you see in home d'cor magazines — you know, the ones you wonder if you will ever really be able to afford.
Large-screen TV, high-speed internet, games, they're all there. And, when it came time to turn in for the night, our luxuriously appointed king-size bed was form-fitting and among the most comfortable we've ever slept on. Oh those 10 percent do live well.
The Balboa Bay Club actually was created in 1948, back when there were far fewer people living in Newport Beach and the area was a popular getaway for Hollywood elites. Today there are 2,800 members of the club, about two-thirds living on the 15-acre property and the other third using such services as the resort's spa, exercise room and Olympic-style swimming pool. Past and present members of the club include such familiar names as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Wagner, John Travolta, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carey.
The first few years of the "public" Balboa Bay Club have gone well and the resort has attracted a consistent stream of getaway travelers, most hailing from California and arriving by car — although John Wayne Airport is only a 15-minute drive from the resort. The temperate coastal weather and the property's waterfront location are big draws.
In fact, Newport Beach is a pretty good draw all on its own. Take a drive and you'll see that modern, wide 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 — and,we might mention, the club's restaurant, the First Cabin, is no slouch either. 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.
For the outdoor enthusiast, it's just a five-minute drive from the club to Upper Newport Ecological Reserve, a 752-acre coastal wetland that is home to 200 rare and endangered bird species. Visitors enjoy walking tours through the area.
On our visits to Newport Beach, we have enjoyed shopping on 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 quite lavish for their size.
From your room at the Balboa Bay Club, you'll likely see many electrically powered Duffy boats cruising the channels of the bay, and the good news is you can rent one of these boats yourself. Duffy boats are made locally and are specifically designed to take a group of people out on the water in total comfort and luxury for simple harbor cruising. The 21-foot boat we rented could accommodate 10 adults with plush bench seats on each side of the boat with table tops available in the middle for drinks or snacks. The boat was entirely shaded and had plenty of open areas on the sides to enjoy the view. It was easy to operate and requires little or no boating experience.
Our Duffy boat wasn't exactly like the 100-foot mega-yachts tied up in from of our suite at the Balboa Club -- but let's just say it was a tad bit easier on fuel.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Balboa Bay Club is in Newport Beach, which is located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. It is easily reached on the 405 freeway.
WHAT: A playland 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: "Weather and water" as one club executive explained. The weather's perfect most of the time, and the club is the only waterfront resort in Newport Beach.
HOW: For more information on the Balboa Bay Club, phone 888-445-7153 or visit www.balboabayclub.com. Be sure to check out their package specials that begin at around $300 a night. For information on Newport Beach, contact the Newport Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-94-COAST or visit www.newportbeach-cvb.com.
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
Captions, from top: Balboa Bay Club is on the water facing the Newport Beach Peninsula; Olympic-style pool at the club; a Duffy boat; shopping is always fun on Marine Street on Balboa Island
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Los Angeles, Beach Boys hometown, Huntington Beach and Getty Museum.
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