Newport Beach is well known for its miles of sandy beaches, surfing hotspots, upscale shopping, and endless gourmet dining. But what it isn’t as well known for is a tiny man-made island peppered with charming boutiques and restaurants completely surrounded by boats and yachts. Balboa Island was originally a sandbar that developer William S. Collins turned into an island between 1905 and 1913. Today it’s home to about 3,000 residents. But on weekends and holidays, the population swells as visitors from Southern California venture out to explore the island.
A day trip to Balboa Island can be as simple as strolling through the local shops and restaurants. But if you’re looking for something more active, then get out on the water with a rented boat, paddleboard, or kayak.
1. Take The Ferry
There are two ways to arrive on Balboa Island; by road or by ferry. While it may take longer, the ferry is definitely worth the experience. Or split the difference and arrive by ferry and depart on the road. Starting in 1910, the ferry has been shuttling guests between the island and Balboa Peninsula in various vessels. Today it accommodates three cars at a time alongside pedestrians and cyclists. For a mere $2.25 per vehicle, riders are treated to a lovely view of Newport Harbor. Since the ferry is small, lines can be long, so approach it with patience. Or come early to avoid lines altogether.
2. Learn The History
Balboa Island, like the surrounding city of Newport Beach, has long been a celebrity magnet. Childstar, Shirley Temple, and her family were regular summer visitors to the island. Later actor, Buddy Ebsen, moved into the same house. John Wayne’s famous yacht, Wild Goose, was regularly spotted in the surrounding waters. These and many more stories are told at the Balboa Island Museum. Visitors can learn all about the making of the island, its famous residents, and popular pastimes at the free museum, located on the island’s main street, Marine Ave.
3. Float Your Boat
Balboa Island is located in Newport Harbor, one of the largest recreational boat harbors in the United States. The best way to explore the harbor is on the water. In the absence of commercial watercraft, this is an easy place to rent a boat and float at your leisure. Locals often rent small electric Duffy Boats and ride around gawking at the impressive yachts and fabulous seaside mansions. No experience is needed to pilot a Duffy Boat, which can accommodate eight or 12 people. Voyagers Rentals is located on the island next to the ferry, making it easy to find. Grab some food from a nearby restaurant or pack a picnic to enjoy on the water. If you’re visiting in the evening with your loved one, add a bottle of wine or champagne for a really romantic experience.
If you’d prefer for someone else to pilot the boat, that’s just fine. Several companies offer narrated tours of Newport Harbor including The Fun Zone Boat Company. As you cruise the calm waters, the captain will share the history of the area and point out the homes of celebrities and industry tycoons.
There’s plenty of marine life in and around Newport Harbor, so consider booking a dolphin and whale watching cruise. The types of whales to be seen depend on the seasons, but you may see gray whales, blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas. Davey’s Locker has operated in Newport Beach for over 30 years and has a variety of whale watching cruises to choose from.
4. Be A Kid
Across the water from the island is the Balboa Fun Zone. This seaside amusement park offers rides, games, and plenty of junk food. It’s long been a popular spot for daytime family trips or evening dates for couples.
The Ferris wheel has been providing lovely views of the harbor and the Pacific Ocean since 1936, so definitely take the time for this ride. Or head into the arcade for a few rounds of old fashioned skeeball. And when it’s time to eat, you’ll find plenty of classic food, from hamburgers and corndogs to pizza to ice cream.
Before you leave, stroll to the end of the Fun Zone to see the historic Balboa Pavilion. This Victorian-style building was completed in 1906 and has long served as a navigation point for local boaters. Each night it’s lit up with 1,500 lights.
5. Go Paddling
The calm waters of the harbor are a great place to kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Whether you have experience in one of these paddle sports or not, it’s easy to get out on the water in Newport Harbor. In addition to Balboa Island, several other man-made islands result in endless sights and shores to explore. Newport Beach Boat Rentals, located in the Fun Zone, offers hourly rentals.
6. Shop Till You Drop
One of the highlights of Balboa Island is the selection of charming shops along Marine Ave. Unlike the nearby Fashion Island Shopping Center loaded with big-name department and designer stores, here there’s a selection of locally owned boutiques selling children’s clothing, home decor, and surf gear.
Magnolia Charlie specializes in clothing for children and babies. Even if you don’t have a young one in your life, this beautifully decorated shop is worth a visit. Balboa Surf and Style sells men’s and women’s swimwear, sunglasses, sandals, and many other necessities for visiting the beach. For Danish-inspired home goods and gifts, pop into hjom. Its owner, Rachel Morrison, wants everyone to experience the concept of hygge or coziness while browsing the shop. If you want to feel like a kid, make a visit to Balboa Candy and walk down memory lane with its selection of saltwater taffy, Pop Rocks, Tootsie Pops, and much more.
7. Eat Great Food
The island is home to several excellent restaurants, all with a cozy vibe. If you’re around for breakfast, head to Wilma’s Patio, a longtime local favorite, easily recognized by the pink tablecloths. If the large menu looks overwhelming, just ask your friendly server for a recommendation.
Nearby is a popular lunch spot, the Village Inn. Snag a table in the garden and order the baked brie salad. If you’re here on a weekend, arrive early since this place fills up fast.
For a romantic dinner, try Ciao Balboa, a part of the island dining scene for over 25 years. Their Southern Italian food includes pizza, pasta, and calzones.
Wherever you eat, save room for a Balboa bar at Sugar ‘n Spice. For 75 years, this spot has been serving the local ice cream creation; a vanilla ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in your choice of toppings. On summer evenings, you’ll see the sidewalks full of people enjoying this cold treat.
Parking is limited on Balboa Island, so if you’re coming for the day, arrive early to claim your spot. Another option is to rent a bike on Balboa Peninsula -- where more parking is available -- and cycle around the island. Weekends and summer can be very busy, so consider visiting on a weekday or during another season. Fortunately, the weather is nice year-round, so there’s never a bad time to visit the island.