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On the water

Touring Balboa Island waterfront by Duffy boat

By CARY ORDWAY

A bay front lot on Southern California's Balboa Island that sold for $25 just after the turn of the century was bringing a much as $3 million just prior to the recent housing downturn. And that's just the lot, mind you. Constructing that dream home on Balboa Island will cost extra.

Fortunately, one doesn't have to actually live on Balboa Island to enjoy its unique atmosphere. Today the island is a fascinating day trip for those who are living or vacationing in and around Los Angeles. The island is located in Newport Beach where accommodations, restaurants and shopping are all top-drawer.

The island itself has a tiny, but busy Main Street — actually it's called Marine Avenue — which is just a few short blocks with about 70 shops and restaurants to explore. This little example of Small Town Americana offers a wide selection of shops in all price ranges as well as several boutiques and galleries. The visitors who browse this street are a combination of couples and families with an unusually high percentage of style mavens — which is what you expect in Newport Beach and other nearby beach communities where expensive clothes and fancy cars are just part of the lifestyle.

The downtown shopping area is just part of the attraction on Balboa Island, an island small enough that you can walk entirely around its perimeter in less than two miles. It's fun to observe life on an island that remains exclusive because it is so expensive. There is no denying that the ever-present sunshine and the harbor views create a quiet respite from bustling city life and clogged freeways. The colorful villas and vacation-style homes on the island are opulent for their size — with these prices, no one's going to skimp on their home maintenance. It's a patriotic little place, too — American flags are posted on several homes and along Marina Avenue.

But given the real estate prices, it's also interesting to observe that people will pay so much money for so little space. The island at times seems a little congested with homes built so close to each other that a good-size Balboa yard really is just slightly larger than a shuffleboard court. Most residents have to park one or more cars on the street and it's common to see the locals abandon cars altogether by using golf carts to take their trips to the downtown market.

Nevertheless, the island is a great escape for a morning or afternoon, and will flood the senses with spectacular harbor views, incredible sunsets and a feeling like you're visiting the California version of Martha's Vineyard. Adding to the flavor is the little ferry that hauls just a few cars at a time from the island over to the Balboa Fun Zone area of the Balboa peninsula. Balboa is connected to the mainland by bridge on the west, but the tiny ferry gets you out on the water for just pocket change.

Of course another way to get out on the water — and get a different look at Balboa Island water — is to rent a Duffy boat for a couple of hours. If you're not familiar with them, Duffy boats are made locally and are specifically designed to take a group of people out on the water in total comfort and luxury for simple harbor cruising. The 21-foot boat we rented could accommodate 10 adults with plush bench seats on each side of the boat with table tops available in the middle for drinks or snacks. The boat was entirely shaded — which came in handy on this hot summer day — but had plenty of open areas on the sides to enjoy the view. It came equipped with a Sirius satellite radio which we left tuned to the classical music channel that seemed so appropriate for our gentle cruise in and around Newport Beach harbor.

Visitors with little or no boating experience needn't worry — like our Duffy attendant told us at the dock: "This will be like driving a golf cart." The convenient forward/reverse throttle made it easy to go just the right speed for docking or any other maneuvers that might be necessary out on the calm waters of the harbor. The electric engine is quiet, smooth and gives you just enough power to cruise through the harbor at the maximum legal speed. Since the boats don't leave the harbor, the electric motor is more than adequate.

When we pushed away from the dock, our Duffy opened up a whole new panorama that offered picture-postcard harbor views in every direction. As we made our way down the channel we observed the "best of the best" Balboa homes — the ones that were out on the water, often with 60 or 80-foot luxury yachts moored at their own private docks. It was like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Which moguls or movie stars owned these spectacular villas? Which big-time CEO's were lounging on their decks watching us put-put by in our Duffy?

Then up the channel a little further we came across a man settled into a floating lounge chair that had drifted far out into the channel where he was intently staring at the fishing line he had dangling in the blue harbor waters. Next it was a regatta of sorts — a few tiny sailboats with a couple of kids in each boat, apparently learning how to sail. Then came the parade of pleasure craft, five or six boats each headed out to sea and none of them less than 60 feet long.

Those heads in the water up ahead turned out to be a family of sea lions, playfully cruising through the harbor with no regard to the speed limit. And then we were dodging the island ferry — although both we and the ferry were going so slow that there was plenty of time to contemplate our next move. We just throttled back, let the ferry finish crossing and then powered on up to head further along the channel.

After a couple of hours it was time to return our boat to the dock where the attendant was on hand to grab our boat as we glided effortlessly into the reception area. The experience had given us a new look at Balboa Island, and a fun afternoon on the water.

Balboa Island is part of Newport Beach, and this affluent beach community includes a long list of natural and man-made visitor attractions. The beach is a big draw, of course, and once you're out on the Balboa Peninsula there are miles of wide beaches as well as visitor attractions such as the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park. Nearby Crystal Cove Beach offers great tide pools and is excellent for beach walking, hiking and biking.

The Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve is Southern California's largest estuary — nearly three-and-a-half miles long and a half-mile wide. With 752 acres altogether, there are thousands of birds — including many rare species -- that are found in these habitats.

If you are serious about shopping, Fashion Island is one of two shopping icons in Orange County — the other being South Coast Plaza, just a short drive from Newport Beach. You can window shop on Via Oporto, a tree-lined cobblestone street in Lido Marina Village. And there are galleries, unique shops and waterfront cafes in Cannery Village.

There are also some interesting museums in Newport Beach. The Orange County Museum of Art has a changing schedule of exhibitions that feature California's rich artistic heritage and contemporary art. And, while you're out in your Duffy boat, you'll notice a paddlewheel riverboat docked at the edge of the harbor — that's the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, which tells the nautical history of this seaside community.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Balboa Island is part of Newport Beach, located in Orange County just south of Los Angeles.

WHAT: With its colorful architecture — both contemporary and Cape Cod — Balboa Island feels like the "Martha's Vineyard" of California, albeit on a much smaller scale. It's the perfect place to enjoy nautical scenery, sunshine and see "how the other half lives."

WHEN: Any time of year.

WHY: Balboa Island is charming, easy to reach and is bordered by many other visitor attractions. Several major hotels are in the area, and some island villas are available for rent by contacting local real estate firms.

HOW: For more information on Balboa Island, visit www.balboa-island.com. For more information on renting a Duffy boat, call (949) 645-6812 or visit www.duffyboats.com. All rentals are 21-foot boats and hold up to 10 adults comfortably.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Balboa Bay Club is your idea of a California vacation, check out other California Weekend articles on Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County and Paso Robles Wineries.

Planning on traveling to Georgia? VisitGeorgiaOnline.com focuses on Georgia travel and vacation information including hotels, restaurants, attractions and events to help plan your trip to Georgia.

Getaway Media Corp publishes websites focused on getaway travel, including www.californiaweekend.com and www.northwesttraveladvisor.com. If you enjoyed reading about the Balboa Island, be sure to visit our sites and read the hundreds of feature articles on the many getaway travel destinations in our coverage areas. Like the Balboa Island, these other attractions are worth including in a your upcoming vacation or getaway. If you think about it, we're fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy destinations such as the Balboa Island without traveling thousands of miles. This is why Getaway Media Corp sites are so popular with the traveling public -- they showcase attractions that are close by and easy to visit on your next vacation or getaway.

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