Between school and work, three days was all my family of four could put together for a recent vacation. We wanted relaxation, a sense of awe and good food so imagine our surprise at finding all that in Newport Beach just a half-hour from our home. Our first stop was the Newport Bay Conservancy's Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center (2301 University Drive;  923-2290) for a lesson in how Upper Newport Bay became a critical wildlife habitat in the heart of an upscale city. Afterward, we hit the Upper Bay Trail (2.2 miles) and the Back Bay Drive (3½ miles, popular with bird watchers and drivable too). The tab for a family of four: $340, excluding taxes and fees, for two nights at the Marriott Bayview, as well as $50 for two nights' parking; $62 for lunch at Nana San; $111 for dinner at Pizzeria Mozza; $58 for lunch at Tackle Box; and $100 for a kayak tour for four.
We chose the Newport Beach Marriott Bayview (500 Bayview Circle;  854-4500) across the street from the hiking trails. Our suite had two double beds and a separate living room with a mini-fridge and sleeper-sofa — plenty space for a family with two daughters, 17 and 20, and all the stuff they can't leave home without. The hotel patio has several fire pits with views of the bay, an ideal spot to unwind at the end of the day.
We aimed to keep our dining casual, mid-range and close, although it would have been easy to splurge (we were in Newport Beach, after all). We treated our sushi lovers to lunch at Nana San (3601 Jamboree Road;  474-7373, no website), a small but popular restaurant in a strip mall, followed by dinner at Nancy Silverton's and Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza (800 West Coast Highway;  945-1126). Highlights included the Brussels sprouts pizza and caprese with roasted cherry tomatoes and creamy burrata. The next day we strayed down the coast a bit to the Tackle Box (3029 E. Shore Ave., Corona del Mar;  723-0502. Parking $8 an hour). The snack shack of "Top Chef" contestant Brian Huskey is right on the beach. We loved the pork belly bánh mì, fried catfish sandwich and buffalo cauliflower.
Thanks to the Newport Bay Conservancy's two-hour kayak tour ( 923-2269), we witnessed an animated spat between a heron and a duck, gawked as a flock of birds flew by at eye level and paddled past tall cordgrass used by endangered Ridgway's rails to weave nests that rise and sink with the tide. The tour, which leaves from the Newport Aquatic Center (1 Whitecliffs Drive;  646-7725), started with a quick lesson, but we moved across the bay at a leisurely pace. Tours are at 10 a.m. on weekends. Prefer to stay on land? The conservancy also offers free nature walks almost every weekend. Check its website for details.
Our visit to the Environmental Nature Center (1601 E. 16th St.;  645-8489) was ill-timed because the seasonal butterfly house wasn't open. (The exhibit is now open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily through August). Short, meandering trails behind the center are lined with plants from California's diverse habitats, including desert scrub, freshwater stream and redwood forest.