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Cruising for kicks in Southern California

With its characterful islands, Hollywood heritage and stretches of pristine coastline, Newport Beach in Southern California is the perfect playground for discerning yachties and one of the top destinations visited by celebrities. Caroline White gets duly distracted

In the experience of John Wayne’s long-time captain Bert Minshall, film stars tend to revert to type – or even typecasting – when they step on board a yacht. “Now wait just a minute,” cowboy Wayne counselled the naval architect refitting his 41 metre converted minesweeper Wild Goose, who was measuring up for decorative beams and reeling out red velvet. “I don’t want this place looking like a French whorehouse.”

When Dean Martin visited? “They were all gun freaks but we had no skeet, so my brother and I were throwing paper plates off the stern so they had something to shoot at. Dino had an Army 45 automatic pistol.” Minshall later had a rather more sedate tenure aboard Julie Andrews’ yacht Mariah: “She was a sweetheart. We were always putting the kettle on for a cup of tea.”

The waters off Newport Beach, a swatch of coast just south of Los Angeles, are a soup of Hollywood legends. A short drive from the hustle of the city, with a stock of colourful cottages and miles of protected harbour, it has been Tinseltown’s oceanside escape for more than a century. Wayne, Andrews and many others kept their boats here.

Charlie Chaplin met his wife and collaborator Paulette Goddard on the 49 metre schooner Invader on a cruise from here to Santa Catalina Island. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall used Newport Beach as a base for exploring the Southern California coast on their beloved sailer Santana, the actress’s only true rival for Bogie’s affections.

Today, it’s a smart Orange County address and even a few Hollywood heavyweights have chosen its chocolate box-pretty homes on the waterside over (or as well as) the neo-classical mansions of Beverly Hills. The meandering stretch of coast is strewn with islands, creating a Venetian style seascape of distinct neighbourhoods.

Members moor up at Newport Beach Yacht Club (one of the oldest in the US) and wander over a bridge to Balboa Island, with its sweet houses and white picket fences, saltwater taffy shops, clapboard ice cream stores and nostalgic funfair. Lido Isle, just west, is made up of smart residential homes, while Balboa Peninsula sweeps from the west, protecting the two islands with a broad beach. Newport Beach offers free anchorages to large yachts, often in the centre of town.

Boating in this town is an aquatic version of the Hollywood homes tour. “We’re coming up on Shirley Temple’s home here, with the little green shutters and the brown shingle. It’s the kind of little cottage you imagine she would live in,” says Carolyn Clark, of Newport at Your Feet tours, before pointing out Nicolas Cage’s more modern home. “This, right here, the sandy bluffs, that’s where they filmed Cleopatra,” she continues, and “this rocky corner – when Disney was making Peter Pan, the animators came and sketched this area for the Mermaid’s Lagoon and Pirate’s Cove.” This legacy is celebrated each year during the Newport Beach Film Festival, this year held from 20 to 27 April.

From here, yachties can sail north to Long Beach, south to San Diego – or further south to Mexico. Each year the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race (this year 28 to 30 April) speeds to the first town over the border with plenty of regatta ready yachts in tow. But the classic destination from Newport Beach is Santa Catalina Island, four to four and a half hours by sail, or 15 minutes by helicopter from the mainland. “There are little anchorages with only two or three boats, for example White’s Cove,” says David Shockley, former commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Association. “The isthmus is interesting too – during the Civil War there was a barracks there. It’s primitive but there’s sightseeing and some hikes.”

Most of the 75 square mile island is controlled by the Catalina Island Conservancy, with bison roaming the grasslands and Catalina orangetip butterflies fluttering about the coastal sage scrub and eucalyptus. And it is a natural movie location to visit. More than 225 movies have been filmed here since 1911 and its varied topography has doubled as Tahiti, North Africa, the American frontier and the lost city of Atlantis, while Jaws has patrolled its waters. Many of the actors who came for work stayed for pleasure – Chaplin and Goddard enjoyed angling for marlin and tuna around the island, while James Cagney anchored his yacht in Descanso Bay, where there’s now a smart beach club with live music and DJs on summer weekends. Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Betty Grable and Norma Shearer came for the social scene.

A cruise back to the mainland and south leads past the wealthy neighbourhood of Corona del Mar and its famous surfing beach, to Crystal Cove State Park’s 3.2 miles of immaculate coastline. Within this, the historic district is a scattering of vintage 1920s coastal cottages for rent – with their colourful clapboards, it feels as if Marilyn Monroe circa 1946 might appear in a doorway and invite you in for margaritas. When you’re in need of refreshments the humble sounding Beachcomber café is just as much of a historical landmark. Breakfasts are a thing of legend – particularly the coconut macadamia pancakes and steak chilaquiles, and there is an entire sub-menu for “benedict addicts”.

A short stroll inland – and you’ll need it – from here lies Pelican Hill, a resort that is among the most exclusive addresses in the US. It’s also a great stop for smart seadogs who want a night or two on solid ground and is a firm favourite with celebrities: David Spade, Greg Kinnear and Sofia Vergara are the latest batch to check in. The architecture is Palladian, partially in sympathy with the area’s Mediterranean climate, and the landscape is studded with cypress and sevillano olive trees.

The restaurant Andrea, looking out to sea, has 2,000 bottles in its wine collection and serves pasta freshly made by its pasta chef Joey. Then there’s the 2,000 square metre spa (one of the best luxury spas in the Americas), with 22 treatment rooms, a private spa suite, fitness centre and lots more. The Amber Gold Signature Massage involves Swedish massage and dry brushing, but there’s also a list of scented baths and some serious facials. Other facilities run from two 18 hole golf courses designed by Tom Fazio to enough restaurants, bars and boutiques to keep guests entertained – even those who come to stay for months at a time.

Pelican Hill guests stay in cream-toned bungalows or villas (which are larger than the bungalows and have butler service) set in Tuscan-inspired gardens. They feature fireplaces, spectacular bathrooms, and balconies or terraces (a good spot to breakfast on pecan and raisin French toast with coconut butter and maple syrup). Not for starlets on diets, but you can always work it off exploring this gilded coast by boat.

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