Getaway to Balboa Island


Kick off summer with a stroll (or a scooter) in the small coastal town of Balboa Island in Newport Beach. Ever since my family vacationed here when I was in high school, I’ve been in love with the little island full of personality. Here’s a look at what makes Balboa special – all 2.6 miles of it.


According to Balboa Island history, in 1899 W.S. Collins, who had made his fortune in Southern California land speculation and transportation, was convinced to purchase 1000 acres of the land (what is now Balboa Island) around the Newport Bay for development. At that time, Orange County was mostly orange groves and there were no rail lines leading into the area and H.E. Huntington wasn’t interested in building any. Collins bought that land for $50,000, dredged the harbor to create the man-made Balboa Island, connected it to Los Angeles via the Pacific Electric Railroad and within 15 years, property on Balboa Island was worth $5,000,000.


Balboa Island is now one of the most densely populated places in California. The population is around 4,500 in the winter and 10,000 in the summer, when thousands of day tourists enjoy the island. It’s the kind of place that welcomes visitors with open arms.


In my opinion, the waterfront boardwalk that wraps around the island is what makes Balboa such a fun place to visit. Usually my kids scooter and I walk, stopping along the way to check out houses (especially the famous teddy bear house), gaze out to the ocean, say hello to the friendly locals on their front porch or sometimes to just run along the little beach. It’s classic Americana where everyone decorates for just about any holiday from 4th of July to Christmas. Marine Avenue is “Main Street” and home to chic boutiques as well as cute affordable shops and a number of restaurants. Highlighting the town’s quaintness are the fresh fruit stand, the fire station, the post office and Hershey’s Market.


Lunch at Wilma’s Patio is a kid-friendly destination with an extensive menu that’s sure to please even the pickiest palates. My kids’ think having breakfast for lunch is the best, so they usually order silver dollar pancakes, bacon and eggs. After lunch, it’s a toss up for what to have for a treat – the island has two famous desserts, the Balboa Bar and frozen bananas*. As local legend has it, the famous Balboa Bar was first created and served on Balboa Island in the 1950’s. The Balboa Bar is a vanilla ice cream square dipped in chocolate, and sometimes nuts or sprinkles. It’s hard to choose one and even harder to decide whether to go to Sugar ‘N Spice or Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery instead. The competition is fierce but who says you can’t try both? 


We usually continue to scooter/walk around the boardwalk after lunch, but a family kayak ride in the calm marina is also a fun kid-friendly activity. Older kids might be interested in renting stand up paddleboards and exploring the island on their own. On our trip, we saw a few families out SUPing for the day.


If your family is looking for more adventure, hop the Balboa Island Ferry over to Balboa Peninsula. The ferry can take up to three cars as well as passengers and you’ll notice the vibe changes as you leave the small town and step off the ferry and enter The Balboa Fun Zone complete with an 80 year old Ferris Wheel and amusement park rides.


If you’d rather spend the day at the beach, you can walk or rent bikes to cruise the boardwalk and find your perfect beach spot. Feel like hanging ten? Walk down the beach to The Wedge to watch the body boarders and bodysurfers tackle the famed 30-foot waves. If you’re staying for dinner, stay on the Peninsula and hit locals’ favorites The Crab Cooker (serving up delicious seafood on paper plates) or Woody’s Wharf.


Whenever the day takes you, enjoy the taste of summer in Balboa Island or Peninsula.

*Although according to my son, a vanilla cone dipped in rainbow sprinkles is the only way to go.

Written by Heather Koopman