By Janine Robinson
Only minutes after launching our stand-up paddleboards into the Pacific from a protected cove just south of The Resort at Pelican Hill,® our instructor hollered and pointed due west. “Whales,” he said, waving at us to paddle out in the direction they were heading.
This was the first time my husband, Charlie, and our two friends visiting from the East Coast, had tried SUPs, the giant surfboards riders stand up on and propel with a single long paddle. It was a bit breezy that morning, and we knew it would only be a matter of time before one of us toppled off.
But we were determined to stick with our plan: After living in Southern California for 25 years, and the last 18 in our coastal hometown, my husband and I decided it was time to find more ways to experience the ocean. I was lucky enough to have taken up surfing in recent years. But Charlie— a 56-year-old New Jersey transplant who has stuck with land sports—only hit the beach on infrequent weekends, mainly to read or walk our dog.
The idea was that we didn’t necessarily need to get in the ocean to enjoy the incredible sea creatures, resplendent views and fun activities that exist both underneath and above the surface. The local ocean experience is all about access and point of view—and lucky residents and visitors only need to pick their terms. After scouting the options—which range from kayaking in the Newport Back Bay marine sanctuary to spotting dolphins on an ocean eco-tour to surfing lessons at a local break—we decided on three points of entry. The first was trying out the SUPs. The second was to explore the waters off Catalina Island by helicopter and foot. The third was to sample the convivial boating scene in Newport Harbor.
Paddling out into the ocean was our “daring” venture. Most people try the popular new sport of stand-up paddling only in ideal conditions: a calm, flat ocean or a protected harbor. Instead, we had wind and a decent little swell. Our tour company, La Vida Laguna, had kindly offered to wait for a better day, but we opted for what they described as an “adventure.”
At first, I thought it was going to be a bust. Our friends, a father and his college-age daughter from Philadelphia, had already fallen in once. And my husband decided within the first ten minutes that he preferred to sit on his board.
“Why should I stand when it’s so much easier to sit?” he said.
Once everyone stabilized, and our instructor spotted the whales, our outlook changed. We paddled furiously to get a closer view of the mother and baby grays, which were swimming side-by-side up the coast, part of the annual migration north. About a quarter mile out, we all caught a glimpse of their enormous, cresting backs and water spouts. It was unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.
For the rest of our two-hour outing, we paddled around the local coves and out to Seal Rock, a rocky outcropping where sea lions and their babies sunbathe, bicker and bellow. By standing on the boards, it was easier to view the bright orange garibaldi darting through the kelp and reddish starfish clinging to reefs. As we headed back to shore, about a dozen dolphins glided past our boards.
“It was pretty amazing how much sea life we saw in such a short time,” Charlie said afterwards.
Bolstered by our success, we set up our second water activity, and caught the Catalina Express ferry from Newport Beach over to the quaint town of Avalon. The island of Catalina is as far from our shoreline as it is long—about 22 miles. In recent years, locals have made a collective effort to expand the tourist experience beyond the glass bottom boat rides, souvenir shops and iconic Casino building. Now visitors can do everything from ride ziplines through the scenic hills to lounging at the new Descanso Beach Club, where guests rent private cabanas on the sand and sip tropical drinks at the open-air bar.
Charlie and I had visited a handful of times over the years, but this time we wanted to push past the bustling town center. We opted to sample one of the island’s newest excursions—a sightseeing tour by Santa Catalina Island Company and Island Express Helicopters, which would drop us at a remote trailhead in the middle of the island so we could hike to a tiny resort village at the island’s isthmus, called Two Harbors.
Our pilot floated us up above the Avalon harbor for a postcard view, and then north along the dramatic coastline. We marveled at each pocket cove, scooped one after the other into the cliffs by brilliant blue, emerald and foamy white waves.
A young woman named Natalie Foote, a fifth-generation “Islander” who loves to run the trails, met us at the hilltop landing pad. Armed with water and snacks, she led us along the rigorous ridgeline trail toward her hometown of about 100 residents. Nearly halfway there, we encountered a couple of the island’s famous bison—part of the 150-or-so herd leftover from a Hollywood film production—lolling trailside.
“I like to give them their space,” she said, as we walked past the massive animals in a wide arc.
At Two Harbors, we enjoyed lunch at the only restaurant in town, West End Galley, relaxed on the pier, and even spotted a bald eagle soaring in the distance. Then the helicopter returned us to Avalon, which included a jaw-dropping tour of the undeveloped backside of the island, where the coastal geology was even more stark and dramatic.
With more time, we could have experienced the water from almost any imaginable angle. Snorkeling the local waters, which people claim feels velvety and “thick,” is world-renowned. And mini-submarines allow tourists who prefer to stay dry to experience eye-to-eye views of the saltwater fish and other marine life. Next time, we hope to ride the popular Dolphin Quest Tour, where a pontoon boat ride almost always involves a meet-up with a pod of dolphins or the locally famous schools of flying fish.
After our sea and sky adventures, it was time to kick back and enjoy the ocean the way most people do—on a boat. While raising our kids in Orange County, we used to bring them to enjoy the Balboa Fun Zone, renting bikes along the boardwalk and eating lunch at the diner at the end of the pier. We always watched with envy as couples and families zipped around the waterways in various rented crafts.
This time, it was our turn. Our dreamy electric boat rental at Bayside Marina had it all—comfy padded seating for up to eight, a center table filled with cold drinks and a decadent spread of hors d’oeuvres from Palm Terrace, the catering service from Island Hotel® in Newport Beach.
Only one thing was missing. “We should have invited some friends,” Charlie said as we climbed aboard.
Vowing to bring them next time, we listened to the operating instructions and cast off. It was easier than driving a golf car—throttle forward to go and backward to stop—and within minutes Charlie and I were snacking on the lobster-tail, goat cheese and grilled veggie snacks, cranking up the tunes.
For the first time, I understood the appeal of living along the harbor. Mini dramas played out wherever you looked: kids learning to sail Sunfish sailboats, a paddleboat hosting a wedding party, kayakers with fishing poles in tow, snazzy yachts and long ferries carrying tourists over to the peninsula. As we passed other rented electric boats, known as “duffys,” we felt a flush of pride since our craft—with its crisp taupe awning, bright striped pillows and shiny paint job—was clearly the spiffiest on the water.
Following a figure-eight route around Balboa and Lido islands, we got a kick out of reading the names of the moored yachts: A Reel Dream, I’m Broke and Cash Flow. Our map highlighted notable sights, such as the vintage Ferris wheel in the Fun Zone, the Balboa Island Ferry and tiny Bay Island that only allows the 23 residences to own golf carts.
As we studied all the water vessels and passengers, and they studied us with equal curiosity, I realized that everyone who engages with the ocean becomes part of the scenery—whether as a silhouette on the horizon, a helicopter buzzing the skyline or just another happy couple tooling around in a charming electric boat. It’s all there to experience and enjoy, no matter what age or physical condition. Mother Ocean welcomes all of us—and with a little luck and good planning—you don’t even have to get wet.
Newport Aquatic Center
Guided Kayak Tours in Newport’s Back Bay
1 White Cliffs Dr., Newport Beach
949.646.7725 | newportaquaticcenter.com
La Vida Laguna
Standup Paddle and Kayaking Tours
949.275.7544 | lavidalaguna.com
Electric Boat Rentals at
Tour Scenic Newport Harbor
949.721.0111 | greatslips.com
Santa Catalina Island Company
310.510.8687 | visitcatalinaisland.com
• Heli-Hiking Adventure (conditions apply)
• Undersea Tour (semi-submersible ride)
• Catalina Sea-Trek Undersea Adventure
(walk on sea floor with a special undersea helmet)
• Dolphin Quest Tour (ride Ribcraft in search of dolphins)
Resort guests can contact our Concierge to arrange any of these outings by calling 888.417.8619 or stopping by our Concierge Gallery.