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TRAVEL

Slowing down by the bay in Newport

Times Staff Writer

One perk to loving a jet-set executive who lives in another state: traveling. I spend a lot of weekends in hotels between Orange County and Oregon. But as the calendar inched toward Valentine's Day, my beau, Ron, said he'd meet me far more than halfway.

In mid-January, he and I stayed in my hometown at the recently renovated and expanded Balboa Bay Club & Resort, a polished playground with romantic views and a storied past.

Escaping close to home is a smart luxury. It reduces the guesswork of packing and sidesteps the dreaded shoeless airport security shuffle. Instead, on an idyllic Saturday afternoon, Ron and I drove five miles from my driveway to the mellow Mediterranean-style resort on Newport Bay.

The Balboa Bay Club has been reserved for members and their guests since 1948. Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope all hung their stylish hats here. Its frisky reputation as a hunting ground for gold diggers stalking deep-pocketed divorcés was hilariously documented in "The Golden Orange," Joseph Wambaugh's 1990 parting ode to Orange County before he retreated south to Rancho Santa Fe.

Today, the Balboa Bay Club is as seemingly wholesome as Disneyland's Main Street. Two years ago, the club opened a new 132-room hotel, and for the first time the public was invited to mingle — in selected areas — with members who pay up to $15,000 to join.

A circular porte-cochere at the grand entrance serves as an elegant dividing line. Club cardholders have access to the entire 15-acre property, including a lush day spa in a sequestered tower and a fitness center. Hotel guests can use those amenities for $35 a day — but not the members-only patch of beach that Wambaugh dubbed "the kill zone."

Nonmembers are escorted by cheery bellhops to the lobby of the three-story hotel. They can drop in to the dockside First Cabin restaurant or Duke's Place lounge, or walk the gardens or the bayside boardwalk. When Ron and I arrived we felt welcomed, not deprived, by staying on the other side. That is because everyone is privy to the property's enchanting view and its well-earned sense of exclusivity, no matter how fleeting it is for some of us.

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Illusion of seclusion The Balboa Bay Club does what every great resort should: conceal the busyness of catering to crowds of people. At times we felt as if we were the only guests. We saw one woman reading, alone, in the expansive paneled library off the lobby. Balloons tethered to closed doors of a meeting room were the only clue that a party was inside.

For a tony resort on the "Orange Coast Riviera," the Balboa Bay Club is a relative bargain. At $229 a night, our generous-size room had a beckoning balcony, a down feather bed on the mattress and original artwork on the walls. There is a smaller fitness room in the hotel and a large pool in the center courtyard — plenty of places to comfortably hang out and soak up the surroundings. A no-tank-top dress code in the dining areas maintains the feel of upscale propriety.

Whenever Ron and I were on the property, we slowed down. This says a lot about the power of this getaway. Ron travels a few hundred thousand miles a year for work to tiny spots I can't find on a map. Me? I type a few hundred thousand words a year and haven't slept in since I crawled out of my crib.

Nature helped us relax here. The sky was clear, washed by weeks of January downpours, and bands of vanilla, peach and robin's-egg blue stretched across it at sunset. The 70-degree temperature brought out the sailboats and blue-awning-topped Duffy electric boats, which hypnotically glided past us like a line of well-behaved ducks.

During the weekend we made two detours off Romance Road. On Saturday, we left the resort to visit nearby Sherman Library & Gardens and again to have dinner at the newly opened 3-Thirty-3 restaurant. Neither establishment was to be blamed for pushing us off course. Here's why:

First, Sherman Gardens. This is a lovely, block-long oasis on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar, a city so scenic that the streets are named for flowers. We wandered along the brick paths past the rose garden, vine-covered trellises, water fountains and a koi pond with fish bigger than Shaq's feet. It was so quiet that I heard a leaf drop off a Chinese fringe tree.

Then, my cellphone rang. It was my friend Elliott, who lives a few blocks from the garden, upset over a breakup with his girlfriend. Could he join us? Well, we're, um, having a romantic moment and … sure, come over.

The mood shifted. Ron stopped in front of a snowflake aralia, which has leaves shaped like giant green snowflakes. "It looks like something Dr. Seuss would draw," he said. Elliott lingered over the carnivorous pitcher plant and talked about flies and spiders and other things that bug you. After an hour, our sad-eyed friend left, and we returned for another dose of the club.

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New and noisy Our other mistake? That night, we tussled with the idea of going back to the site of our first date, nearby Bayside Restaurant, where the lights are moody and the cuisine inventive. Or we could try another close-by restaurant, 3-Thirty-3, which opened three days before. Friends thought it worth seeing.

We went for new. As did hundreds of other locals. The bar was elbow-to-elbow jostling. It wasn't quiet and romantic, but it was fun to watch the single-mingling from the sidelines. We put our name in for a table, snuggled into one of the bar's low sofas and ordered a bottle of Martine's 2001 Viognier ($25). The French Viognier grape, Ron says, is predicted to be "the next big white."

An hour later, we were called to our table, one of only a dozen. The menu was mostly small plates of food. We found the two traditional-size portions and ate every enjoyable bite: a Kobe beef burger drenched with Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized red onions that came with a heap of fries made crispy in truffle oil ($9); and lettuce wraps filled with fried striped bass, Japanese clear noodles, edamame, mushrooms and sprouts ($17).

It was too loud to talk to each other, and before our ears were completely numbed by the din, Ron suggested we go to the resort's lounge to hear live music that we could hum to. Duke's Place, built where the old club bar used to be, is named after member John Wayne, who favored Sauza Conmemorativo tequila with lime. The Marc LeBrun Trio played standards made famous by another regular visitor, Frank Sinatra.

It was there, dancing in his arms, that Ron sang to me for the first time, crooning softly in my ear: "And I love you, just the way you look tonight."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Budget for two

Expenses for this trip:

Balboa Bay Club & Resort

One night with tax: $252

Drinks at Duke's: $18 Dinner at 3-Thirty-3: $108 Breakfast at First Cabin: $29 Parking: $20 Admission Sherman Gardens & Library: $6

Final tab: $433

CONTACT:

Balboa Bay Club & Resort, 1221 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach; (888) 445-7153, http://www.balboabayclub.com .

3-Thirty-3 restaurant, 333 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach; (949) 673-8464, http://www.3thirty3nb.com .

Sherman Library & Gardens, 2647 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar; (949) 673-2261, http://www.slgardens.org .

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