Fashion Island. (Tom Lamb )
Location: 401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. Off East Coast Highway roughly between Jamboree Road and MacArthur Parkway.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sat.; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sun.
Known for: "Overlooking the ocean, Fashion Island offers distinctive shopping and dining in a coastal resort setting." That's what it says on its website; that's reason enough to go. Situated on 75 acres on a slope above the Pacific, the center attracts more than 13 million people a year to its mix of indoor and outdoor shopping and dining facilities. It boasts dancing fountains, flower-filled courtyards, peek-a-boo views of the ocean and possibly the best piped-in music I've ever heard in a mall.
What you'll find: Orange County's only Neiman Marcus, along with Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Bloomingdale's Home Store and Macy's. Fashion Island has almost completed a $100-million face-lift, adding more than a dozen new stores and restaurants this year. The newcomers include Ella Moss, Earnest Sewn, Vince, Jack Spade, Roberto Coin for Traditional Jewelers, Sperry Top-Sider, Athleta, Vineyard Vines, Quiksilver Waterman Collection, Drybar, the Newport Colony Co., Carrol Boyes, Uno del 50 and Johnny Was. The Apple store has expanded too. Additional stores set to open during the holiday season include Rebecca Taylor, Kitson, Tesla and Casey's Cupcakes, the bakery owned by former "Laguna Beach: The Real O.C." cast member Casey Reinhardt, who won Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" this year. Coming in December: the Island Cinema, an upscale movie house for grown-ups, serving gourmet food, specialty coffees, beer, wine and champagne.
Vibe: Ladies who lunch (and, apparently, spend a lot of time getting tanned, toned, tucked and tightened); adorable dogs strolling on leashes or watching the world go by from sidewalk cafes. While South Coast Plaza has an aura of the nouveau riche and a reputation for attracting shopping tourists, Fashion Island is the laid-back, more elegant, old-school aristocrat. The crowd strolling in the courtyards on a recent weekday included Muslim women in fashionable Western dress and head scarves, two men animatedly gabbing in German, a svelte fortysomething blond (or maybe sixtysomething — see toning and tucking reference above) heading for a blow-out at Drybar, a middle-aged couple pushing their puppy in a stroller, a shorts-clad young father showing his toddler the Iris Fountain, with its choreographed waves and jets of water.
Survival strategies: On the second level of the Atrium Court of the Bloomingdale's wing you'll find a concierge desk, where you can buy guest cards, check packages so you don't have to lug them around, make dining reservations and borrow wheelchairs, strollers or umbrellas. To really take the pressure out of holiday shopping, the mall is offering complimentary personal shopping services through the guest services concierge desk or by appointment by calling (949) 721-2000. Parking options include regular lots and a couple of garages — I can usually find space in the underground one on the mall's west side, near Toni & Guy Hairdressing and P.F. Chang's. Valet parking is also an option and is available for $6 on the south side near Macy's and Fleming's and on the east side near Canaletto Ristorante Veneto.
Take a break: There's fine dining to be had at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine or Fleming's steakhouse and wine bar, located across the parking lot from the mall itself. Or go a bit more casual and grab an ocean-view seat at O.C.'s first Le Pain Quotidien, or go to Cheesecake Factory, Yard House, P.F. Chang's China Bistro or California Pizza Kitchen. Watch the crowds go by from a sidewalk table at Café Beau Soleil at American Rag Cie or Great Maple, next to Nordstrom. For healthy fare, True Food Kitchen boasts fresh ingredients and menus based on the principles of alternative health practitioner Dr. Andrew Weil. And of course there is the traditional food court, located on the first level of the three-story, enclosed Bloomingdale's wing.
Holiday cheer: A 90-foot-tall Christmas tree lights up the Neiman Marcus-Bloomingdale's courtyard, and Santa is in residence at his house on Atrium Lane. A Menorah lighting is planned for Dec. 20.
For kids: The popular carousel is gone, a casualty of the renovation despite an online petition drive to try to save it. But any mall can have a carousel; this one has a koi pond — arguably more fun for kids than sitting on a fake horse and going around in circles. The pond is stocked with fat orange fish, and there are steppingstones for those adventurous enough to cross it.
Nearby: Pop over a few miles to Rogers Gardens, the well-known nursery and outdoor décor emporium, which becomes a wonderland of Christmas trees this time of year. And for pure R&R, there's the nearby Balboa Fun Zone, with its Ferris wheel, boat rentals, Rocknbounce bungee jump (yes, bungee) and more.
Impressions: A very civilized way to shop. Sunshine, sea, splashing fountains, bright geraniums and shady pines make me feel like I'm somewhere in the Mediterranean with nothing more pressing on my mind than whether to have my nails done or hair blown out; whether to pop into Bloomie's or try on something at the Betsey Johnson boutique; whether to have a glass of wine at Fleming's or a latte from Nordstrom's e-Bar in the courtyard. Don't bother me; I'm shopping.