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It Feels a Lot Like Summer on Balboa

May 25, 1986|Zan Thompson

The Balboa Peninsula is as spruce and trim as a brand-new sloop sliding down the ways on a bright Memorial Day weekend. The peninsula always has been a place of sun and sand and fun since the first cottages were built almost 100 years ago. It has been a summertime place ever since, with families returning to the same places every year, like summer birds going back to the same stand of trees.

With the years, a lot of the beach houses snugged close to their neighbors on tiny lots were beginning to show their age, to show the wear of three or four generations of kids dragging in sand and shells, fish and seaweed. Some of them even listed a little, shouldering their neighbors companionably, and the sidings were scoured a silver gray by the winds from the Pacific or the blasts of a chubasco blowing out of Mexico.

A few years ago, people began to shore up the beloved houses, paint them, put on new siding and lattice in small front courtyards. It was not an organized program; there were no committees. People who had loved the Balboa Peninsula all their lives just decided one day the old girl needed a makeover.

For a short while, there was talk of tearing down the old Balboa Pavilion and boat house, until the beach people rose in rage against such sacrilege. It has been restored to a snowy white, its cupola looking out over the channel with the car ferries crisscrossing the passage.

The Balboa Fun Zone is brighter and more festive-looking than even the old-timers remember it. The Ferris wheel turns slowly, its seats and spokes painted in bright paint-box colors. The merry-go-round is handsome and properly rococo, circled with handsome animals. There are even very small animals for the smallest riders. Around the top are oval plaques of carved wood, filled with elaborate designs, alternating with oval mirrors. There is something reassuring about seeing a kid on a merry-go-round, astride a dapple-gray horse with a scarlet saddle, the kid grinning from ear to ear. It's good to know boys and girls still love the merry-go-round, with the calliope sending out its breathy summertime music.

I was on the peninsula last week, visiting my friends Earl and Barbara Maple, and Barbara took me on a tour to see the refurbishment. The Balboa Inn, a favorite of the movie stars when it was built in the 1920s, has been brought back to life by a group of investors that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The locals say that there is a room with an 8-foot bed for the basketball great. The hotel is the color of peaches and creme fraiche, with red-tile roofs and green awnings. A tall, tiered tower crowns it. The dining room has white tablecloths and fresh flowers on the tables.

Where a large restaurant and parking lot used to be on the channel, there is a shopping esplanade called Lido Village, done up in blue and white with brick streets winding through the shops and galleries.

Back on the ocean side of the peninsula, the old Newport Pier has been shined up. What used to be called McFadden's Landing now holds a hotel elegantly furnished in antiques. Breakfast is served and guests can arrange to be picked up by the hotel limousine. On the first floor is an oyster bar which Jim McFadden said serves as fine a plate of bluepoints as he has ever eaten. Jim's family has had a house on the Balboa Peninsula all of his life. He is retired and, with his wife, Agnes, lives next door to the Maples.

Jim is the unofficial historian of the peninsula and told of a number of houses now holding the third and fourth generations of the same families.

We had dinner Saturday night at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, at a window table. When one of the staff fired the sunset gun and another one lowered the flag, it felt as if summer were officially here. The boats sat quietly in their slips and the lights flicked on one by one across the harbor, with the boat-restaurant Reuben E. Lee standing out like a lighted mountain. The yacht club has the easy air of its kind, tradition, saltiness and ease mixed in about equal parts, a great place to watch the sky darken into night and knock back a few in fond remembrance of cruises past.

Just to reassure you that Balboa Peninsula has not turned fusty in its rush to fresh paint and tidiness, a silver-gray stretch limousine went down Balboa Boulevard, with the sunroof open and a man standing up using the telephone. No one even looked. Must have spoiled his day.

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