THE Southern California sunshine danced on the ocean off Newport Beach as we stepped aboard the boat where we would be eating our lunch. We opened the champagne, tucked into the picnic, and took it in turns at the helm to guide the boat, silent as a whisper around the bay. This was a brilliant way to sightsee, the electric motors meaning that there was nothing to interfere with the sound of amiable chit-chat and the oohs and aahs that greeted the stunning waterfront properties.
Duffy Boats, as they are called, are also perhaps the perfect union of Newport Beach’s two biggest passions – the ocean and golf. They were invented by teenager Marshall “Duffy” Duffield in 1970.
As the story goes, he was entertaining a date on his father’s gas-powered boat when, to his irritation, the engine gave out. Not to be foxed, he swiftly swapped it for a golf cart’s electric motor, and the Duffy boat was born. Now 1,500 of them swish around Newport Beach, a sizeable percentage of the 9,000 motor yachts and sailboats moored here.
“The Hamptons of Hollywood” have been entertaining the cream of west coast society for a century. The town bloomed in the golden days of the movies when stars were contractually obliged to stay within 200 miles of the studio, so that they could be on call for a shoot. Newport Beach was just far enough away from the prying eyes and lenses of LA, with pool parties a-go-go. It was home to the Rat Pack and Bob Hope, and the story goes that John Wayne gave up his dream of a professional American football career for the movies when he injured his shoulder bodysurfing off the area known as The Wedge.
Movie stars still flock here today, but you’ll find names hard to prize out of anyone in the hospitality industry. As we cruised around the bay, past the multi-million dollar homes with their multi-million dollar yachts, though, there was no doubting where they would be staying. To give you an idea of what we are talking about, in 2008 Nicholas Cage sold his modernist pile for $35m.
The town likes to play up this glamorous connection. We had a cracking seafood lunch at the Harborside Restaurant and Grand Ballroom (www.harborside-pavilion.com), where Bette Davis used to party. That evening we dined at the John Wayne Table at The Cannery (www.cannerynewport.com), a former fish-canning factory that is now a snazzy harbour-front dining spot. Here I had the finest cocktail I have ever drunk – a Spiced Pear Martini, so viscous you could stand a spoon in it.
We stayed in 847 sq-ft bungalows at The Resort at the Palladian-style 504-acre Pelican Hill. From my bath, the view went directly through my room, out across my private terrace, across the expansive golf course and right to the ocean. The best time to visit is spring (April or May) or autumn (September and October). From December to March you’ll have the beaches to yourself, and June is foggy and overcast.
In Southern California you don’t have to travel far to enjoy a complete change of scene. Newporters hop in the car for a weekend in Palm Springs Desert Resorts, where they swap beaches for mountains, snow-covered in winter against an azure sky. The Resorts are a seamless conglomeration of eight towns (they are called cities) strung along the Coachella valley. This is a year-round sunshine destination – in fact July and August are the off-season because it’s too hot.
The Resorts are spending $2bn on refreshing and expanding the facilities. If you want to try your luck at one of the casinos, the one in the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage is a good place to start. We ate our fill of steak and seafood in the restaurant before hitting the tables.
Palm Springs is also world famous for its branch of mid-century “Desert Modernism” architecture, and so much of this survives that the city is thought of as an “architectural garden”. But new gems are springing up: just one example is the Ace Hotel & Swim Club Palm Springs (www.acehotel.com), a modern-retro hang-out for couples or friends weekending from the cities. I loved it. In Indian Wells, The Hyatt Grand Champions is perfectly placed next to the spectacular new gold club, and after a morning’s round out on the green, you can kick back, lazing around one of the Resort’s many pools under a giant palm.
Between them, Newport Beach and Palm Springs Desert Resorts give you the best of Southern California, and with sunshine thrown in for free.
Balboa Boat Tours hires out Duffy Boats for self-guided tours. (www.boats4rent.com). Newport Beach: The Resort at Pelican Hill (www.pelicanhill.com), from $495 for a garden-view bungalow, $695 for ocean-view bungalow per night. Visit Newport Beach Inc (www. visitnewportbeach.com).
Palm Springs Desert Resorts: Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Villas & Spa, Indian Wells (www.grand champions.hyatt.com), from $159 per room per night. Palm Springs Desert Resorts Communities CVA (www.palmspringsusa.com). Flights: British Airways flies three times daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles from £456.40 return, including taxes (tel: 0844 4930787, www.ba.com).
GOLF | ORANGE COUNTRY
It’s no wonder Orange County is known as California’s Golf Coast (Tiger Woods has a home here).
Take your pick of eight challenging courses in stunning settings, designed by some of the world’s best architects (www.occgolf.com). The crème de la crème is the Tom Fazio-designed Pelican Hill Golf Club, with 36 holes, over 400 acres and magnificent ocean views. In Palm Springs Desert Resorts, golf is king. Among the options are two 18-hole courses, which make up the Indian Wells Golf Resort (www.indianwellsgolfresort.com). Clive Clark’s Celebrity Course has expansive views of the desert mountains; John Fought’s Players Course offers dynamic bunkering and generous fairway corridors. The 53,000 sq ft clubhouse overlooks the action. The Hyatt Grand Champions Resort is just next door, with villas offering privacy, and butler service.
SPA | NEWPORT BEACH
In Newport Beach four resort spas and luxury day spas provide a huge choice of treatments to pamper, detox and rejuvenate mind and body. Nip into the Pure Blu Spa at the Marriott (www.marriott.co.uk/newport-beach) for a buff and bronze. At The Resort at Pelican Hill, the classic Italian architecture lends itself to a spa complex of elegant stonework, arches and columns. My Oxygen Facial was gentle and enjoyable yet properly beneficial. There are so many spas in the Palm Springs Desert Resorts that even dogs are catered for (at Aqua Paws). The natural hot springs beneath the San Andreas Fault feed a number directly, such as the Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa (www.twobunchpalms.com), an a-list favourite. There’s an emphasis on wellness, and after a massage and time in the hot spring, I was certainly chilled out. The Agua Serena Spa at the Hyatt Grand Champions also has both indoor and outdoor spaces, with a full-on eucalyptus steam room.
NATURE | ECO RESERVE
Explore the central Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve (www.ocparks.com/uppernewportbay) on foot, by bike or by kayak – it’s a pristine estuary where 35,000 birds spend their winter. Take a walking tour with Newport At Your Feet (www.newportatyourfeet.com) or, for a more strenuous walk, El Moro Canyon has hiking trails. Or head to Crystal Cove State Park and Cottages (www.crystalcovestatepark.com), a rare example of an original laid-back California beach community. For Palm Springs Desert Resorts pack your hiking boots for the Santa Rosa Mountains, Joshua Tree National Park and Indio Hills. Hire performance road and mountain bikes from Big Wheel Tours (www.bwbtours.com). And learn all about the geology and rock formations, the Indians and gold-rush pioneers, with a Desert Adventures Jeep tour (www. red.jeep.com). Our naturalist guide, Morgan Levine, was hugely entertaining.