Discover Balboa Island: A Beach Village

Photographer: D Ramey Logan

A charming seaside escape in the heart of the bustling Orange County. Rows and rows of eye-catching cottages line the sides of this beautiful peninsula which juts out from Newport Beach, California. Both locals and travelers alike adore its quaint shops, making sand castles on its surrounding beaches, or enjoying a sweet from its many candy stores. Balboa Island’s commercial history can be traced back to the late 1800’s when W.S. Collins purchased the original land. However, most of what makes up the island today is actually man made. In 1906 dredging began to create a channel and sands from the process were used to make the isle which the present day Balboa sits upon. Today, Balboa represents a community based in rich history and perseverance. Its population has grown to be one of the densest in Orange County; however, you would never be able to tell from its laidback atmosphere.

Photographer: Travels with Harvy

Main Attractions

One of Balboa Island’s main attractions isn’t just an attraction, it’s also one of the main modes of transportation! Started in 1919 by a college student, the Balboa Island Ferry is one of the most charming and exciting parts of the island. Originally consisting of only one ferry which only cost a nickel, the ferry service now has multiple ferries and continuous service! As someone who has personally rode on this ferry, I would say that it is a must do. From it you get to see all the beautiful seaside houses, the carnival rides of the Fun Zone, and a gorgeous view of the ocean. I would recommend going close to sunset so that you can ride either the ferry or the ferris wheel as the sun sets below the cerulean waters of the Pacific.

Photographer: D Ramey Logan

When asked what the heart of Balboa Island is many would answer that it is the Fun Zone. An vintage style carnival area, the Fun Zone was created in 1939 and was merely made up of the pier and the ferris wheel. Now, in addition to these two classics, the Fun Zone includes everything from bumpers cars to a carousel. For families with young children or those who are just children at heart, this is the perfect atmosphere! This area also contains the Fun Zone Boat Tours which offers historical and scenic views of Newport Bay. You can see everything from celebrity properties around the bay to native sea mammals. Tours begin at 11am everyday. This would be the perfect activity for a family trip or a first date!

For those history buffs out there, don’t worry there are plenty of sites to see for you too. While most parts of Balboa Island contain a rich historic past and sport a vintage feel, there is one main spot that is must do. If you follow one of the island’s main streets called Marine Avenue, which is the street that contains the bridge leading into the island, one of the first buildings you will see on your right will be the Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society. Step inside the history of Balboa Island and learn about both the island and the surrounding areas. It even contains information and stories about the countless celebrities that have chosen to make Balboa Island their home. Right now, the museum is hosting an exhibition on John Wayne, who was a resident of Bay Shores in Newport. The gallery includes many pictures of Wayne enjoying Southern California life and sailing the high seas in his boat, the Wild Goose.

Restaurants, Sweets, and Bars: Oh My!

Photographer: Sugar ‘n Spice

Along Balboa’s main drag of Marine Avenue, two standout restaurants rest three shopfronts apart. If you’re in the mood for excellent Italian food look no further than Ciao. Serving food originating from Southern Italy with a New York twist, Ciao has been a Balboa Island classic for many years. Local favorites include the warm, doughy Focaccia bread and the pescadero linguine which is chock full of mussels, clams, salmon, shrimp, and scallops. Several doors down lies the Swiss French restaurant for Basilic. Currently celebrating its 20th Anniversary, the restaurant was opened by Bernard Althaus who grew up cooking in Alps as his family owned a restaurant by in Switzerland. Basilic is perfect if you are looking something a little more luxurious and romantic. The building itself features beautiful wooden panels and soft warm light which give the diner the impression that they are eating in the hull of a boat. Among some the self-proclaimed favorites are the Swiss Onion Soup, the John Dory Filet, and the creme brulee. For the more casual restaurant goers, Picante Martin’s and the Harborside Restaurant are two excellent choices. Picante Martin’s, which is also situated on Marine Ave, offers a large authentic Mexican menu and plenty of seating great for large groups. This local favorite serves lunch, dinner, and breakfast (until 12pm.) Step up to the counter and order from their extensive menu. If you get one of their amazing burritos, the Chorizo Breakfast Burrito is customer favorite, I would suggest taking it to go and walking around the gorgeous harbor while you eat! Speaking of the harbor, if you’re looking for a restaurant with a beautiful view then the Harborside Restaurant is the spot for you. This restaurant boasts “relaxed waterfront dining” and the “longest happy hour in town” taking place from 11am-7pm. It is located within the historic Balboa Pavilion building which was built in 1906 and was among one of the first attractions on the island. Enjoy casual eating and scenic views from the many booths and tables looking out over the docks. Amongst their award winning seafood is the Alaskan king crab, Canadian lobsters, and prime steaks.

After dinner or even before (no judgement), you’re going to want to satisfy that sweet tooth and visit one of Balboa’s many candy and dessert shops. Strung along Marine Avenue are Dad’s Donuts, Sugar ‘n Spice, and Balboa Candy. Dad’s Donuts and Balboa Bar is famously is the home of the frozen banana. With its adorable vintage signs, beautifully glazed donuts, and delicious frozen bananas ranging from small to extra-large, Dad’s is Balboa Island classic and most do spot. I personally got a donut from here every morning while I was visiting in Newport. From this spot, if you walk down the block you may be a little confused as yet another shop, Sugar ‘n Spice displays another sign saying “The Original Frozen Banana.” So which one is the real original? Nobody knows, but what we do know is locals and travelers alike love both of these dessert stores. Sugar ‘n Spice is the store famously spoofed by the TV show Arrested Development, which even copied the style of its blue and yellow logo. Sugar ‘n Spice specialities include a variety of desserts on a stick such as the frozen banana, cheesecake-on-a-stick, tiramisu-on-a-stick, and banana split ice cream pie-on-a-stick. Further down the street away from this delicious rivalry, stands Balboa Candy. Designed in the classic candy store style, Balboa Candy has everything including bulk candy, mints, salt water taffy, gumballs, and novelty candy. And don’t worry if you don’t find yourself on Marine Ave, they also have a location in the Fun Zone with the same sweet variety. YUM!

For those travelers looking for boozy good time, despite the small size of the island, Balboa offers a surprising amount of bars. Most of them are of the dive bars variety, but hey if you’re looking for a good time, you can certainly find it at one of Balboa’s bars. Located in the Fun Zone, the Balboa Saloon has the classic bar feel complete with darts, fish wall hangings, neon lights, and pool. It is quite popular do to its medium size, with about 20 seats, and reasonable prices. Close by is the local favorite: Class of ‘47. Proudly boasting that John Wayne himself used to frequent this old haunt, the decor of Class ‘47 sports many pictures of him along with an old jukebox and a ceiling decorated with dollar bills signed by patrons. A short distance from the beach and the Fun Zone, this bar offers laidback bartenders and lots of local characters who come in on a regular basis. Looking for bottomless mimosas and all you can eat tacos? Then the Cabo Cantina is the bar for you. Located close the Balboa Pier, I can personally attest that this is one of the more rowdy parts of Balboa. Decorated to the nines with festive Mexican decorations and twinkling string lights, the Cabo Cantina combines good food with an all around good time.

Good luck exploring Balboa Island and happy traveling!!

History

  • Man-made
  • Island kitties
  • 1899 WS Collins bought the land
  • Original focal points Balboa Pavilion and Pier
  • 1919 ferry service began
  • 1936 Fun Zone created

 

Things to do

  • Ferris Wheel
  • Fun zone
  • Fun Zone Boat Tours
  • St. John Vianney Chapel
  • Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society

 

Restaurants and Bars

  • Sweets
    • Balboa Candy
    • Sugar n Spice
    • Dads Donuts
  • Restaurants
    • Wilma’s Patio Restaurant: $$ American
    • Basilic: $$$ French
    • Ciao: $$ Italian
    • Picante Martin’s: $ Mexican
    • Harborside Restaurant: $$ Seafood
  • Bars:
    • Balboa Saloon
    • Class of 47
    • Cabo Cantina
    • Blackie’s By the Sea
  • Shops:
    • Modeology: http://www.visitnewportbeach.com/vacations/balboa-island/
    • Crush Clothing
    • A’maree’s Sale Away
    • Art For the Sale
    • Balboa Beach Company
    • Our Gang’s General Store
    • Olive Oil & Beyond: http://www.visitnewportbeach.com/shopping-and-malls/olive-oil-beyond/