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A Day by the Bay : A Three-Hour Walking Tour of Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island in Historic Newport Beach

August 22, 1987|ROBERT JOHN PIERSON

For many beachgoers, a day at the shore means sun, sand and surf. For others, it's a trip back in time to fishing piers, boat rides, harborside villages, Ferris wheels, corn dogs and ice cream. Perhaps no other seaside community in Southern California offers such a nostalgic setting for walking as the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island in Newport Bay.

Protected by the sandy Balboa Peninsula, the bay's tranquil waters provide shelter for both a fleet of pleasure craft and an ecological preserve, as well as eight islands.

What follows is a three-hour walking tour exploring the heart of Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island. With the summer crowds, it's best to begin by 9 a.m. when parking is easiest. Wear comfortable shoes, dress casually and take sunglasses. A few cafes popular with the locals are suggested for breakfast. You may even want to bring your beach gear.

Directions to Start of Walk

To get to the start of the walk from the San Diego Freeway, exit south on the Corona del Mar Freeway to the southbound Costa Mesa Freeway, which feeds into Newport Boulevard. Continue south as the road reaches the Balboa Peninsula and becomes Balboa Boulevard. Turn right on Palm Street to the municipal parking area around the foot of the Balboa Pier. The meters range from 25 cents to $1 per hour.

Begin at Main Street and Ocean Front. Stroll south along Peninsula Park toward Balboa Pier. Nearby a stone marker with a flagpole and bronze plaque commemorates Glenn L. Martin who made aviation history in 1912 when he flew a hydroplane from Newport Beach to Catalina Island--the longest and fastest over-water flight to date.

Stroll to the end of the pier, built in 1940 and often lined with anglers.

Since its earliest days, piers have played an important role in the history of Newport Beach. In 1868 a New Yorker named James McFadden bought 5,000 acres surrounding Newport Bay. The land was considered unsafe and unsuitable as a harbor because of the narrow entrance.

In 1870, however, a daring sea captain steered a stern-wheeler from San Francisco into the bay. Agreeing that the steamer proved that the bay was really a "new port," James and his enterprising brother, Robert, built a dock and warehouse in the inner bay in 1872, christening their new community Newport Landing.

Unable to obtain federal funds to improve their harbor, however, the McFadden brothers decided in 1887 to move their shipping business from the inner bay to the ocean front, near the present Newport Pier. A year later, they began construction of a railroad wharf there. Many of the wooden buildings from Newport Landing were then moved onto barrels, floated across the bay, and propped on the sand to become the first buildings of Newport Beach.

With the success of their new ocean pier, the McFaddens began the Santa Ana & Newport Railroad Co., completing the 11-mile line from Santa Ana in 1891. The ride took only 40 minutes between the two towns, stopping only once to load water from an artesian well.

In a prescient stroke, the McFadden brothers had also purchased about 1,000 acres of marshland (including what today are known as Lido and Balboa Islands) and the sand pit (now the Balboa Peninsula) from the state for $1 an acre. In 1892 the site of Newport Beach was platted. It was a company town with the lots being leased rather than sold.

Tourists flocked to the seaport resort the following summer. Many complained, however, that some beach cottage rentals were too expensive at $8 a month.

As you walk to the end of the Balboa Pier today, you gain a panoramic perspective of the surrounding region. To the east are the gently rolling San Joaquin Hills encircling Laguna Beach. Looking north you can see the high-rises of Newport Center surrounding Fashion Island Mall. Behind the towers rises Saddleback Peak. On clear days you can even see the distant San Gabriel mountains. Often Catalina Island etches the southern horizon.

Dory Fishing Fleet

The Newport Pier, which was built in the 1940s to replace McFadden's Pier, can be seen about 1 1/2 miles to the west. The early days of Newport Beach are recalled by the dory fishing fleet. Each morning since 1891, the wooden fishing boats have left Newport Harbor before dawn. The last on the West Coast, the dory fleet sells its catch every day from 9:30 a.m. to noon on the beach next to the Newport Pier.

At the end of the Balboa Pier stands Ruby's, an ever-popular '40s-style diner in a Streamline Moderne structure complete with Leatherette booths and Formica-topped counter. Specializing in omelets, burgers, salads, and desserts, Ruby's is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Walk back to Main Street and Ocean Front where the Balboa Inn stands at 105 Main St. Built in 1929, this three-story Spanish Colonial Revival hotel with street-level shops and cafes is a local landmark. Detailed with balconies, red-tiled roofs, corner towers, and a front arcade with squat columns, the Balboa Inn was renovated in 1985.

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