The Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round are turning again at Balboa. That coastal community's famous 50-year-old Fun Zone is back in action after a complete renovation.
With the annual invasion by beachgoers over until next summer, now is a relaxing time to become reacquainted with Balboa.
You'll enjoy one of the last of California's old-time recreational centers on the waterfront. Harbor cruises, new restaurants and a reborn 1930s hotel are among the attractions.
Balboa has been the destination of Southland pleasure seekers since 1905 when the Balboa Pavilion opened. Recognized by its Victorian cupola, that landmark helped create the seaside resort city of Newport Beach.
The pavilion was built near the end of the Balboa peninsula, a long sand spit that guards Newport Bay. A year later it became the southern terminus of the Pacific Electric Railway. Angelenos hopped aboard the Big Red streetcars and reached Newport Beach's grand bathing beach and natural harbor in an hour.
These days you get to Balboa by driving south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 to California 55, the Costa Mesa Freeway. Continue south as it becomes Newport Boulevard and crosses a bridge over Pacific Coast Highway and the bay to the peninsula.
As the street curves past the Newport Pier at 21st Street it joins Balboa Boulevard. Go 1 1/2 miles more and find street parking near Main Street, or turn right two blocks earlier on Palm Street to beachfront parking lots.
Everything is an easy stroll from Main Street. It's the short connection between Balboa Pier on the ocean and Balboa Pavilion overlooking the bay.
Walk out on the pier for a panorama of the Pacific and miles of sandy beach. While fishing folk hang over the railings in the hope of hooking supper, other visitors jam the pier's former bait shop. It's been turned into a popular 1940s-style diner, Ruby's, that also has a window for carry-out food and drink.
Some of Balboa's history is recalled at the foot of the pier where a plaque on the flagpole commemorates the first water-to-water flight in 1912. That's when Glenn Martin flew the seaplane he built in Santa Ana from Balboa to Catalina Island. He also set a record for the longest (33 miles) and fastest (37 minutes) flight over water.
Look nearby for the Balboa Gazebo, a small bandstand in grassy Peninsula Park with another historical plaque. It honors Stan Kenton and his orchestra for helping make famous Balboa's Rendezvous Ballroom, opened in 1928. Benny Goodman, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, the Dorseys and other Big Bands also played the Rendezvous until a fire destroyed it in the 1960s.
Restored to Glory
Just across the street you'll see the place to stay in those swinging days, the Spanish Colonial-style Balboa Inn, recently restored to its former glory that began in 1930. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other sports figures invested $5.4 million to bring the historic hostelry back to life.
All of the original 34 rooms have been redone, some with fireplaces and Jacuzzi baths. Rates begin at $95 (suites from $180), including continental breakfast in your room or on the ocean-view terrace. Reservations: (714) 675-3412.
Fronting the inn is Balboa's boardwalk, a wide concrete pathway paralleling the beach for several miles. Go exploring and get some exercise by renting roller skates or a bicycle from Oceanfront Wheelworks in the round concession building.
You can't dine at the Balboa Inn until its restaurant reopens in a month or two, but three places to imbibe or eat are just across the street. Check out the Studio Cafe, with jazz music on weekend afternoons, B.J.'s Chicago Pizzeria, and Dillman's. Close by are Bubbles Balboa Club, an Art Deco delight with meals and music, and Bangkok 3, featuring the cuisine of Thailand.
Tale of the Whale
Crossing Balboa Boulevard to the end of Main Street takes you to the venerable Tale of the Whale in the Balboa Pavilion. Ask for a bay-front table; service begins at 7 a.m., including brunch on weekends. The pavilion also is headquarters for Davey's Locker, where you can board boats for sportfishing.
From Balboa Pavilion another boardwalk leads to the departure piers for harbor excursions, more eateries, the rebuilt Fun Zone, and ferryboats that take you to Balboa Island.
Several islands occupy beautiful Newport Bay, now home to 10,000 pleasure boats. Buy a ticket on the 80-passenger Showboat or larger Pavilion Queen for a 45- or 90-minute narrated harbor cruise. You'll pay $4 ($6 for the longer excursion); kids 5 to 12 pay $1. Departures are hourly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To view the bay from a seat on the four-story Ferris wheel costs $1.25, or you can take a musical whirl on the merry-go-round for 75 cents. Those two rides have been part of the Balboa scene since the Fun Zone opened in 1936.