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Orange County Itinerary

A Natural Escape

Upper Newport Bay reserve and park offer serenity--and there's shopping nearby.

May 08, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Up to 50,000 birds a day find refuge at Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and Upper Newport Bay Regional Park in Newport Beach--and so can you. Hike, bike, jog, or just relax. Then consider a visit to nearby Plaza Newport: It's got to be the classiest strip mall in the county.

EARLY MORNING 1-2

Get an exotic jump start on your day at Pacific Coffee House. Perhaps try Tanzania Peaberry ($9.95 per pound), grown on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. A cup of the coffee of the day runs $1.10. Breakfast choices include "Green Eggs & Ham," scrambled eggs with ham and pesto, $4.25. At lunch, a "Hummingbird" sandwich ($4.95, $3.20 for half) is made with turkey, Swiss and homemade hummus.

For Parisian ambience, try Pascal Epicerie. Coffee is $1.20, croissants $1.15. Among takeout items--for an amble through the reserve?--are a lamb sandwich on walnut bread ($5.55). Other gourmet items too numerous to list are prime for a picnic. Or order prepared three-course picnics ranging from $15 to $26 per person; excellent wine selections start at $6 per bottle.

MIDMORNING 3

Rampant urban development--hotels, homes, condos, freeways--encircles the Ecological Reserve, also known as the Back Bay, but that's one of its attractions. It's an oasis ringed by cliffs and bluffs, a serene escape from the surrounding tumult. It's even quieter once you get off the paved roads and back into the canyons, where a fox can make an occasional appearance.

The bay itself is nearly 3 1/2 miles long and half a mile wide. Nesting habitats exist on three small marsh islands. The tides regularly flood the islands and narrow bands of salt marsh, allowing only salt-tolerant plants such as cordgrass and pickleweed to grow.

A marker notes that the marsh, mudflats, channel and surrounding slopes are used by 160 species of birds, among them the great blue heron, snowy egret and double-crested cormorant. The clapper rail resides here year-round; listen for its clattering kek kek kek. Canoes and boats packing less than 5 horsepower skim the channels among diving buffleheads, canvasbacks and mergansers; anglers bob for mullet and croaker.

Canoe tours leave Shellmaker Island on Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. ($13 per person, [714] 640-6746). Kayak tours leave Newport Dunes Sundays at 10 a.m. ($15 per person, [800] 585-0747.) Free walking tours are offered the first and third Saturday of each month at 9 a.m.; call (714) 640-6746.

LUNCH 4-5

Pascal (next to the Epicerie) is among the county's top-rated restaurants; the cuisine is Provencal. Salads are generally under $10. But the price of lunch entrees ($10-$14) doubles at dinner time, so lunch would seem the obvious choice. (Then again, evening selections include sweetbread salad, mustard crust quail with tarragon sauce.)

The majority of lunch customers at Royal Khyber Cuisine of India opt for the buffet--salad bar, vegetable bar, lentil soup, tandoori chicken, lamb shish kebab and dessert, $8.50--or an even more elaborate Sunday brunch ($12.95, $10.95 without champagne). Add the mirrored palace decor, and this an affordable special occasion destination.

AFTERNOON 6-7

Next Designer Collection has every inch of body covered--or stripped, as the case may be. The shop offers electrolysis, waxing, facials, massage and clothing.

Romeo et Juliette may have the best cigar selection in town, but nonsmokers will find plenty too: Books such as "Country and Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless," and colorful handblown decanters, shaving cream sets and toy cars.

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