Balboa: Where an Island Is Not Really an Island

By Dean & Nancy Hoch

Ever dreamed of spending some time on a beautiful, little “island” that’s utterly charming, relaxing, and a great place to while away a day, a week, a month or more—complete,  of course, with sea breezes and swaying palm trees?  Look no further than Balboa, one of the quaint and lovely seaside gems of Southern California.  Some say it’s one of the loveliest places on the entire West Coast, and we would be prone to agree, even though it does have lots of competition.

We certainly found our short visit there a unique and delightful experience.

Balboa IslandBalboa is situated not far from Orange County’s modern, bustling city of Irvine, as well as lovely, neighboring Newport Beach, with its upscale Balboa Yacht Club. Though it is often referred to as Balboa Island, it really isn’t an island but more accurately a coastal peninsula connected by several bridges or, more popularly, by ferry.

The “island” is basically comprised of three artificial islands.  Originally a mud flat surrounded by swamp land, Balboa was seen in the early 1900’s as a possible resort area, and entrepreneurs started selling 35 x 85-foot waterfront lots at just $650. Today the lots are not all that much bigger, and they go for about $2 million, making Balboa one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America. For example, a two-bedroom house with a waterfront, living room view can cost in the missions.  For example, the average cost of a home in the spring of 2013 was $4,495,000. We thought we might buy a couple at that price….just kidding.

Vacation rentals, meanwhile, are popular and available at a wide range of monthly rates.

Not having been to Balboa previously, we were envisioning a ferry ride such as we had taken to Catalina Island or perhaps Seattle area’s Whidby Island, the latter with dozens of cars on board. You can imagine our surprise when, after lining up for 15-20 minutes in our Honda van for our turn, we boarded only a tiny, open-air, three-car ferry to take us there.Balboa Island


Several of these privately owned ferries ply from Newport to the little town of Balboa.    Continuous, daily service began in 1919, and crossings are a magnanimous 800 feet, with an elapsed time of just a few minutes.  Amazingly, prices are what there were in the 1960’s – car and driver only $2. Imagine that! Adults with bicycles, $1.25. Such a deal!

One of Balboa’s claims to fame, by the way, is that in 1953 the Boy Scouts of America held their National Scout Jamboree there, and 50,000 Scouts attended. Don’t ask us where they put ‘em all, but they did. Another claim to fame is that a swing dance was named “The Balboa” after the island– a lively combination of the Charleston, jig trot, and swing. Fun!

For all you celebrity buffs, famous stars of the past that made their home in Balboa, at least part of the year, were movie idols like John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Bette Davis, Dick Powell, Spencer Tracy, John Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Errol Flynn, who owned a sailboat named Sirocco and spent part of his time in Balboa, as well as James Cagney with his beloved schooner, Martha.

Shopping, surprisingly, is not overly expensive in Balboa, and there’s a wide selection of Cape Cod-style gift shops and art galleries.

Balboa IslandThe Balboa Inn, by the way, is located on Main Street, and is a beautiful, three-story, one-stop vacation destination. Many visitors like to use it as their base and branch out to everything the island has to offer, from a leisurely stroll through the town — to the beach where you’ll find boating, jet skiing, sport fishing, and parasailing, other seaside activities in the harbor.

Rates at the Inn are as incredibly low as $99 a night.

Home to the annual Newport Harbor Holiday Boat Parade, there’s delightful waterfront dining, and a much larger ferry, of course, to captivating Catalina Island.

Some people refer to Balboa as the “host of the coast.” With its popular Balboa Ice Cream Bars, its many restaurants, and its seaside park, Balboa is one of those charming little secrets — and most assuredly a not-to-be missed place to add to your bucket list.Balboa Island






Dean & Nancy Hoch are authors of TRAVELING WITH GRANDKIDS. Cedar Fort Publishing: Endorsed by Michael Spring, Publisher, FROMMER’S TRAVEL GUIDES

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