Life in the Past Lane


ow did a muddy tideland, once offered at a dollar an acre, turn into a charming bayside community with a median home listing price of $3.8 million? In 1906, a year after the Pacific Electric Railway extended its tracks to the area, W.S. Collins—salesman, visionary and, some say, con artist—began to dredge the north side of what is today Newport Harbor, literally creating the island scoop by massive scoop. The brochures that Collins later distributed nationwide to sell residential lots featured an elegant hotel…that didn’t exist. As for the promised electricity, sewer lines, running water, paved roads and streetlights: smoke and mirrors.

One could argue that Balboa Island, though created at sea level of sand and silt, was built on a “bluff,” but the truth is, it actually worked. Today, the island delights visitors with its colorful, funky shopping thoroughfare mere steps from a quaint community of cottages and waterfront homes.

“This is Newport Beach’s most charming ‘walkable’ neighborhood,” Dr. Bill Hoffman said. “You have great views of the water and all the boats.” With more than 35 years experience as a local tour guide, Hoffman provides insight on this coastal gem in Newport Beach.

Those boats—some that could be traded for 10 homes in, say, Topeka, Kansas—can be appreciated while strolling the island’s two-mile perimeter. But most visits start with what Hoffman calls the best retail street in Orange County: Marine Avenue, where clothing and gift shops rub elbows with ice cream parlors, restaurants and art galleries.

Balboa Island’s eclectic charm is most evident in its residential architecture. One five-home stretch on Amethyst Avenue showcases Greek Revival, French Mansard, Cape Cod, Colonial Revival and Folk Victorian. Up the street, a single home manages to incorporate three different styles.

Visitors should try to catch the Newport Harbor 4th of July Boat Parade. Hop aboard one of Newport Bay’s iconic ferries and take in the Pavilion, a national historic landmark built in 1906, as well as all manner of water sports, bicycling, penny arcades and the Ferris Wheel at the Fun Zone. Last but not least, don’t forget to try out the famous chocolate-covered frozen bananas; no visit to the island would be complete without one.

For tours, visit, or The Balboa Island Museum, located at 331 Marine Ave., which offers free docent-led tours Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For general information, visit

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