Last Updated on September 25, 2023
Turning off from California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway, we were greeted with a cool sea breeze and stunning views of Newport Bay dotted with boats. Even through our motorcycle gear, my husband and I immediately experienced the Balboa Island’s coastal welcome.
The PCH is brimming with beautiful towns and cities not far from the road: Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Big Sur. I’ve often wondered why Balboa Island wasn’t included in more suggested Pacific Coast Highway road trip itineraries. It stacks up with the rest.
I first visited this little man-made island over 20 years ago, and then a few times since after moving to Southern California. My husband and I had never been there together, so on a lovely Sunday afternoon, we decided to head down to Balboa Island, eight miles south of Huntington Beach. Within minutes of turning off the PCH, we took the road leading us across a small bridge and onto Marine Avenue, the center of the Island.
Though now a popular community and tourist destination, we found the area steeped in history with its own set of growing pains. Still, quaint and lovely.
History of the Island
In its heyday, Newport Bay was a busy fishing area and an ideal export location. Balboa Peninsula was humming along with its successful wharf and citywide growth developed around the industry.
The muddy swamplands and sandbar in the bay north of the peninsula were owned by James McFadden, who hoped the area would grow into a successful seaport. However, the swamplands made it difficult for shipping to be truly fruitful as the ships had problems navigating the waters.
The frustrated McFadden considered having the giant sandbar removed, but ultimately sold the land instead to William S. Collins. It’s hard to imagine that if shipping had actually proved successful in the area, charming Balboa Island wouldn’t even exist today.
A Dream and a Dredge
One man’s swampland is another man’s dream.
William S. Collins bought the land after the shipping industry moved to San Pedro. He had the idea to develop the swampland and mudflats originally known as “Snipe Island.” Where others saw only mud, Collins envisioned a resort area within Newport Bay. He marketed the idea to residents in Pasadena, enticing them to be among the first to own prime real estate in a new resort area.
With his dredger, Collins carved out sand and silt until the island he envisioned became a reality. The dredger was also used to create Balboa Island’s Grand Canal, complete with an illuminated water parade.
Dredging the area and creating a livable environment proved to be a challenge. The infrastructure didn’t hold up initially and new homeowners started having buyer’s remorse.
Despite his many efforts, bankruptcies and hardship ensued, interrupting the completion of a solid Balboa Island. Inevitably, Collins departed, and Balboa Island eventually became a part of the city of Newport Beach.
By 1920, the Orange County Harbor Commission took over and got the infrastructure back on the right track.
Over a century later, Balboa Island is now a scenic coastal community visited daily by locals, out-of-town visitors, beachgoers, water lovers, and anyone who loves finding these great stops on a road trip.
With a variety of restaurants, boutique shopping, and an endless amount of water activities, it makes for a fantastic day trip or weekend getaway. The picturesque view from the bridge leading into the island is reason enough to get off the highway and enjoy the scenery.
What to do on Balboa Island
What I so enjoy about going through the shops and boutiques on Balboa Island is the local feel. Small business owners’ boutiques are complete with home furnishings, jewelry, local foods, and clothing.
Buying souvenirs during your travels is fun, but even more rewarding when you are supporting small businesses.
Balboa Historical Museum
Open since 2018, the Balboa Historical Museum is an educational, inviting, and fun place to hang out. Each time I’ve visited, guests are seated at a table in the middle of the museum working on puzzles. The museum invites organizations like the Girl Scouts and school groups to immerse themselves in learning about what life was like on the island during its early years.
The museum is also a great place to shop. Along with keepsakes, books, and gift items, it sells art pieces created by local photographers and custom-made artwork.
Balboa Village-Balboa Peninsula
If you’re traveling to Balboa Island from the peninsula, plan to spend time in Balboa Village. The Village is its own destination and a great warm-up to a day on the island.
The Fun Zone, an 80-year-old landmark, and the Balboa Inn on the Sand, are town staples and just steps from the beach. This is also where you would catch the ferry to Balboa Island.
For an incredible view of the ocean and gorgeous Newport Beach, definitely head to the Balboa Pier. I’ve enjoyed watching fishermen of all ages and skill levels, and all the regular beach activity from the pier.
One of the last Ruby’s Diners is at the very end of the pier, making it convenient to have lunch while enjoying the stunning view. On a hot day, I highly suggest getting a tasty soft serve from Ruby’s to cool you down.
The ferry service traveling about 900 feet between Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula created in 1919 still runs today. The ferry takes motorcycles, passengers, bicycles, and up to three vehicles, and is wheelchair accessible.
Lines can get long on the weekends, but with a 5-minute ferry ride, you won’t wait long. Plus, you get picturesque views of Newport Bay on the crossing. On a return visit, we took our car from the Balboa Peninsula onto the ferry, enjoying the view around the bay when we got to the other side. Our only complaint was that it was far too short!
Watercraft Rentals, Whale Watching, and deep-sea Fishing
The Duffy boat is very popular in this area. These electric boats are especially enjoyed by those of us who like to cruise around the bay at a slower pace. On any given day, you’ll see small groups in a Duffy boat in the bay having a fun time together.
If whale watching or deep-sea fishing is more your speed, these activities can be enjoyed almost year-round. These options and Duffy boat rentals can be booked by the popular tour operator, Davey’s Locker.
If you’d like a motor craft vehicle that runs a bit faster, get a two-person sea doo. For rentals, check out Balboa Water Sports.
Go For a Stroll
Don’t knock a simple walk. Balboa Island is the perfect place to stroll and simply take in its picturesque surroundings.
Ducking in and out of the local stores is fun but a walk on the promenade around the island is really pleasant. The views are lovely and you can’t help but feel your worries slipping away.
During our motorcycle ride around the island, my husband and I looked for a quick bite before heading back on the PCH. We stumbled upon a corner restaurant called Todos Santos.
It describes its cuisine as coastal Baja with a modern presentation. We sat outdoors and enjoyed our ceviche served in a coconut half-shell. It was a great way to fuel up before getting back on the road.
Get a frozen banana!
Since the 1940s, the chocolate-covered frozen banana has been enjoyed by dessert lovers coming to the island. On a mid-week visit, we saw school kids lined up along the street to get their frozen banana with customized toppings. It seems like such a simple dessert but sometimes it’s the simple things that make us happy.
Look for the Sugar ‘n Spice Original frozen banana stand that’s been making locals and visitors delighted since 1945.
Where to stay in Newport, CA
The Balboa Bay Resort on the Balboa Peninsula is a luxury resort in Newport at its finest. Simple and elegant is the best way to describe this venue.
VEA Newport Beach, A Marriott Resort & Spa is another stunner of a hotel offering incredible Pacific Ocean views.
Balboa Inn, On the Beach is a historic hotel built in 1929 and just steps from the beach and pier. It’s centrally located to everything in Balboa Village including the ferry, restaurants, and promenade to stroll and watch the sunset.
When planning your road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s easy to look at the picturesque towns and cities along the way and think of them as “just another cute coastal town.” Though many of these towns are enjoyed today as vacation spots and weekend getaways, the histories of these towns are also rich and varied.
Understanding what it took to build these communities can provide a new perspective on Southern California. With tenacity and a collective vision of what could be, Balboa Island is thriving today and so worthy of a stop or stay on your next road trip.