Balboa Island

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This cheerful, mellow island offers residents and visitors alike a load of amusing  activities and delectable food, all with a small-town feel.

By Suzette Lipscomb

few of the things Balboa Island has a lot of—besides oceanfront lots—is porches, benches and flags. The porches come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of sitting areas, Dutch doors, traditional yachting colors or wacky color combinations and giant or small umbrellas. But what they all have in common is the invitation to relax, catch a breath or a sunset and connect. Flags fly American colors, bless you, proclaim favorite sports teams or college alma maters, warn of pirates and even shower you with rainbows.

This is the charm of Balboa Island, purchased in 1899 by W.S. Collins and C.A. Hanson, who got the 1,000 acres of land around Newport Bay for approximately $50,000 and later dredged the harbor to form it. They partnered with Henry E. Huntington, of the Pacific Electric Railroad and the namesake of the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, to connect the island to Los Angeles, and the value of their property rose dramatically as the surrounding areas became accessible.

Collins originally advertised lots for  around $600, but ended up selling several for $25 each. Today, for a short stay, there are approximately 65 vacation rentals available on HomeAway.com that range from a small cottage costing $250 a night up to a $1,000-a-night bayfront home that sleeps 11. At press time, there were 16 homes for sale between $2 million and $8 million on the island.

Sweet Treats legend has it the  balboa bar was thought to be  invented in 1950. millions have been  sold to locals and visitors alike . . .

Where to Shop, Snack and Eat

It appears the residents of Balboa are patriotic, anti-expansion and seem to pretty much like things the way they are. While life on the island can get hectic in summer with tourists flocking onto this 0.2-square-mile pod, locals know the best spots to grab a meal or a treat, buy a wedding gift, pick up a summer bathing suit or replace your address sign with a ceramic plate adorned with flags or a yacht from Cottage Plates, originally established in 1975 and located in a historical cottage at 108 Agate.

If you’re ready to rest your weary feet, there are many places to stop and relax. A few Italian restaurants dot the island’s main street, Marine Avenue. Barolo by the Sea offers a variety of salads, pasta dishes with creative sauces, and a couple of daily specials. If you are craving Chinese, you might try Shanghai Pine Gardens Restaurant, where they also offer free delivery for orders over $25.

Better yet, skip the meal and move straight to dessert. Stop at either Dad’s or Sugar and Spice along Marine Avenue to try a Balboa bar and see if you can figure out who the true “original” is. Sweet treats legend has it the Balboa bar (typically vanilla ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate with either sprinkles or nuts) was thought to be invented in 1950. Millions have been sold to locals and visitors alike, and Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery on Marine Avenue is still serving them up like it did when they opened, along with coffee and doughnuts. Sugar and Spice, which is just a couple doors down, is also touting itself as the original home of the Balboa bar. Apparently, neither owner seems to mind as people often try both just to compare the treats.

Moving Around

As on most small islands, the preferred method of transport is by foot, bike or golf cart, with many vacation rentals including the use of one or more. But one of the joyous treats for visitors is the family-run Balboa Island Ferry, especially during the holidays. Originally started in 1919 by Joe Beek, who was still a college student at the time, the ferry cost 5 cents to carry passengers back and forth the approximately 800-foot-crossing. Currently, it only costs $1 per adult, or $2 if you are in a vehicle, to take the scenic shortcut to the other side.

The ferry lands at the Balboa Fun Zone, which is the heart of the Balboa Peninsula. Originally constructed in 1936, then completely rebuilt in 1986, the Fun Zone is a destination for families, date nights and tourists. With weather that feels as if it’s cued from a Hollywood set, the zone is a fun destination where you can sit atop a Ferris wheel with breathtaking views, play arcade games or catch a view of the famed Balboa Pavilion, an architecturally significant landmark constructed in 1906. With its long sloping roof and ornate Victorian cupola, it’s currently used as a marine recreation facility, and houses Harborside Restaurant and Grand Ballroom, the site of many local high school proms, as well as serving as a launching point for the Catalina Flyer, which departs once a day and brings passengers to Avalon in just a little more than an hour.

So bring your phone or camera with you, walk along the bayfront, and start your own photography collection of all of Balboa’s charming doors, mailboxes or porches. Perhaps what you find will inspire a painting, or even a return visit. (balboaisland.com) (thebalboafunzone.com)

-PCM