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A Shore Thing

In Newport Beach, you can pop the question on a gondola, buy beachwear, dine in style or just sit and watch the waves go by.


If you agree with the Water Rat in "The Wind in the Willows" that there is nothing, simply nothing, like messing around in boats, Newport Beach is the place to be.

Here opportunities to get out on the water, as well as in it, abound. It is the perfect place to leave exhaust and exhaustion behind, to be enveloped in the dolce far niente atmosphere of endless summer.

You might begin idling along the waterfront at Mariner's Mile, the stretch of Coast Highway (Pacific Coast Highway becomes Coast Highway south of Huntington Beach) between Newport Boulevard and Jamboree Road. A variety of waterfront spots makes it well worth the trip.

Bistro 201 (333 W. Coast Highway) serves a Sunday champagne brunch for $22.95, featuring some of the best French toast around. Or check out its sister restaurant, Aysia 101 (2901 W. Coast Highway), where brunch includes an omelet station and a sushi bar.

If you're looking for local color, try locals' favorite Billy's at the Beach (2751 W. Coast Highway). The decor is Hawaiian and so is the fish--ahi, ono and mahi-mahi are flown in fresh daily. The mai tais made with Diamond Head rum are world-famous, according to Billy's menu. And yes, there really is a Billy, genial owner and host William Craig. "Owning a restaurant is like having a party for your friends and making them pay," he jokes. Billy's is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends. "We don't throw anyone out," says Craig.

If you're hungry yet hankering to get afloat, sign up for a two-hour cruise at Hornblower Cruises (2431 W. Coast Highway) for the Sunday brunch cruise with "free-flowing champagne." The trip on a 525-passenger modern luxury yacht will set you back $39.95 per person; island stopovers with the professor and Mary Ann not included.

Wanna play skipper? Then set your course for Duffy Electric Boat Rentals (2001 W. Coast Highway, open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.), where for $60 an hour you and up to 11 others can climb aboard an electric boat and tool around Newport Harbor. Duffy Rentals even provides a map of local points of interest. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are suggested for one of Duffy's crafts. There really is a Duffy too--owner Marshall Duffield, who pioneered the concept of the electric boat.

But what is an electric boat, exactly? Well, it's long and flat-bottomed, with a removable canvas canopy and clear plastic side panels to protect you from sun and spray. It comes equipped with cushions, life vests (mandatory for ages 6 and younger), CD player, folding table, mini-fridge, ice bucket and plastic cups. On-board refreshments are up to you.

Electric boats have a speed up to 5 knots. For non-mariners, that's roughly the same pace as the St. Patrick's Day Parade down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. As someone who can barely operate an electric can opener, I'll vouch for the fact that anyone can operate these boats. Clean, quiet and nonpolluting, they're totally PC. Except for one thing: no on-board restrooms!

Need be you can moor at the Riverboat Restaurant and Nautical Museum (151 E. Coast Highway), a full-scale replica of an old-fashioned riverboat. Visit its free bite-size museum (open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to admire the charming models of Newport's Ferris wheel and car ferry, complete with dolls as passengers. Outboard aficionados will enjoy the display of vintage motors, as bright and shiny as jewels. The current exhibit, "Island Pathways: Wayfarers of the Pacific," in which tiny models of outrigger canoes are displayed beneath tinkling chandeliers in the Grand Salon, continues through June 18.

If the meter on your electric boat weren't running, you could linger on the restaurant's top deck bar until sunset, enjoying the view and the Cajun cuisine provided by owners Clayton and Sandra Shurley.

Shopping, Sunsets and the Littlest Ferry

If you can manage to stay on dry land long enough to do some shopping, Kathryn Aileen's Boutique on the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk (309 Palm St.) has some see-worthy items, like sturdy canvas beach bags with seashell, fish, parrot or flowerpot motifs in a riot of colors; $38 for the shopping bag or backpack style, $48 for the duffel. Matching pareus are $19.50. Barbie fans will appreciate the marabou-trimmed phones in pink, peach, purple, green, blue, black and fuchsia, $68, and a matching pen, $5.99. Leopard fanciers will be tempted by the leopard-print phone with black marabou trim, $68; and matching lamp, $55; purse, $19.50; and chair in the shape of a high-heeled shoe, $700.

Take your purchases down the boardwalk to the Newport Landing restaurant (503 E. Edgewater Ave.) and grab a table on the upstairs deck for a drink and a fine view of the world's smallest car ferry as it makes the short haul back and forth to Balboa Island.

At peak times the wait for the ferry can be longer than the trip itself. But it's definitely worth the voyage. Marine Avenue, Balboa Island's main drag, is Newport Beach distilled to a few short blocks.

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