Newport Beach is only 90 minutes to the north, but it has a feeling all its own. So a day spent in Newport is really a mini-vacation.
Start by booking a morning kayak tour at Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, the 1,000-acre remains of a vast estuary that was for centuries a prime fishing and camping site for Native Americans. This mix of salt and fresh water where duck hunters once had a field day is now a safe place for 200 species of birds to feed and breed. As a stopover on the Pacific Flyway, the bay is a popular bed-and-breakfast for wintering migrants.
Two-hour weekend kayak trips leave from two locations, and are open to beginners. On a recent Sunday, our group numbered 13, including two guides.
"I've lived here for 28 years, and never even knew about this," said Debbie Lambert, who went with her family after seeing a newspaper ad.
Kayaking is great upper-body exercise, and it's a joy to be out on the water, as egrets, terns, the occasional osprey and an assortment of ducks wing overhead. In low tides, the mudflats are crowded, and you may get a chance to get face-to-face with a red-eyed Western grebe.
Hot tip: This month is a good time for close encounters of the avian kind, especially in low tides. For more information, call (949) 923-2269 or visit
After a nature-filled morning, how about an artful afternoon?
Not far from the bay, just across from the chic shops and parklike plazas of Fashion Island, is the Orange County Museum of Art. Always worth a visit, OCMA has interesting exhibitions, beautifully mounted. Its current California Biennial, on view through March 15, is a must-see for anyone whose ideas of art embrace the eye-opening, often confrontational works of today's cutting-edge artists.
The highlight of the show is an eerily lifelike sculpture by Daniel J. Martinez, first shown at the U.S. pavilion of the 2006 Biennial in Cairo. "Call Me Ishmael, or The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant" is an animatronic self-portrait of the artist in an all-white room reminiscent of a mental hospital. Once an hour, someone throws a switch and "Ishmael" goes into a kind of seizure, beating out a rhythm all its own. The piece was reportedly inspired by a scene from the cult movie "Blade Runner."
OCMA security guard Steve Schmidt found the sculpture somewhat disturbing.
"It starts to work on you," he said. "You start thinking it will creep into your subconscious and into your dreams."
Probably just what the artist intended.
Be sure to ask when the Martinez piece is "activated" - usually once an hour. Target sponsors a free day every second Sunday of the month, including hands-on activities for children and adults. For more information, call (949)-759-1122 or visit
Cool lunch tip: In between nature and art, try lunch at The Cannery, a glitzy but laid-back harborside restaurant where you can watch yachts go by while you feast on fresh seafood salad.
For more information, call (949) 566-0060.