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A Local's New Look at Newport

Weekend Escape

Affordable resort and museums make this beach town as alluring as ever.

December 09, 2001|DAWN BONKER

NEWPORT BEACH — My cherry red paddle dribbled water onto the head of my 8-year-old son. Ethan's paddle was small but in his hands proved mighty enough to flick bay water onto my sunglasses and into the kayak we shared.

Gossamer threads of sea moss dripped from our feet, remnants of our shore launch.

"Hey, I'm wet. I'm definitely wet," my son announced.

Indeed, we were neither the driest nor the smoothest kayakers on a Saturday morning at Newport Dunes aquatic park. But we were kayakers nonetheless, enjoying a quiet lagoon, a blue sky studded with retreating clouds and the fun of paddle power. A little water in the kayak wasn't going to sink our weekend.

In fact, it was water--the pesky kind that pours from a broken sink pipe and floods a kitchen--that landed us in this pleasant spot just 15 minutes from home. A routine run of the dishwasher resulted in four industrial fans and one noisy dehumidifier coming to live with us for 48 hours in July.

My husband, Keith, and sons Ethan and Adam, 12, decided to bail out of the house. Now the challenge was to see if we could pull together a vacation-like weekend close to home on zip notice--a feat I suspect more Southern Californians are doing now that the events of Sept. 11 have made many of us less eager to travel far from home.

The mountains are usually an easy bet, but they were drenched by a thunderstorm that weekend. The freeways north and south were clogged with hordes of Southern Californians fleeing to the coast. That's when it occurred to us to try Newport Beach, our tony neighbor down the road.

But we wouldn't actually go to the beach itself, heaven forbid, being local enough to know that weekends are sardine-can crowded and beachfront accommodations pricey that time of year. Instead we plotted a weekend full of Newport Beach sites we usually zoom right by on our day trips to the beach--places such as the Orange County Museum of Art and the Newport Sports Collection, a private museum of athletics memorabilia that was sure to be a hit with the kids.

But first we needed a room. I found the best deal by dialing the 800 number listed in a Marriott ad touting low weekend rates. The Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Tennis Club offered a room for $129 on Friday and $149 for Saturday, plus parking, taxes and an energy charge.

Now, we are not ordinarily tennis club people. We are the people for whom a certain motel chain leaves that light on. We consider ice machines grand pampering. So as we pulled up to the hotel Friday evening, our boys oohed and aahed from the back seat.

Friendly bellboys unloaded our car and whisked us into an open-air lobby flanked by a garden courtyard. Our room was quiet and even had a partial ocean view. We opened the window, breathed in cool air and immediately felt like we were on a real vacation far from home. (As of press time Tuesday, the resort was offering $79 or $99 "Come Out and Play Rates" for many weekends this winter. A $79 rate at the Marriott and packages for other local hotels are available this month in conjunction with the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach; go to www.shop fashionisland.com and click on "Holiday Hotel Shopping Packages.")

For dinner we walked across the street to Fashion Island, considered the 40 or so restaurants and food court options, and chose El Torito Grill. It's a chain restaurant but its reliable Mexican food keeps the kids happy.

For starters, we munched on tortillas fresh from the grill. The kids slathered theirs in orange-honey butter, while my husband and I dipped ours in smoky salsa. The food that followed--smoked chicken enchiladas and tamales--was delicious.

Back at the hotel, we headed straight for the main pool, a large, free-form thing, pretty at night with its surrounding gardens lighted up. The boys jumped right in. My husband and I settled into deck chairs and sipped brandied coffees fetched from the hotel restaurant.

The next morning we indulged the boys in a room-service breakfast, rainbow candy pancakes served with little bottles of syrup. Sufficiently sugared up, the boys and I donned shorts and sandals and headed off for kayaking, which we had long thought of trying. Kayaks, small sailboats and paddle boats are always available for rent at Newport Dunes, five minutes from the hotel. But on this Saturday, the Southwind Kayak Center of Irvine was hosting a free tryout at the dunes.

The Southwind staff welcomed us with life jackets, smiles and encouragement. Ethan and I were helped into a jade-green tandem kayak, while tall Adam launched solo in an adult kayak. We paddled, bumbled, splashed and zigzagged around the bay. We raced a little, laughed a lot and beached ourselves just once. Sometimes we listened to the aquatic birds and the soft sound of water rippling against our kayaks.

By the time we headed in, we understood the effectiveness of the morning tryout. Onshore, we picked up Southwind's catalog and made plans to sign up for a weekend class. We were hooked.

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