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3-HOUR TOUR

Bobbing (and Bopping) Around Balboa Peninsula

September 16, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

There is plenty to do on Newport's gaudy Balboa Peninsula, an amusement and shopping area worth at least half a dozen visits. But a self-guided harbor cruise and a visit to the Fun Zone--a collection of rides, arcades and junk shops--is probably the best way for a first-time visitor to experience the area. Weekdays, tourism ebbs, and it's quiet. Most of the noise emanates from arcades--electronic pops and whistles built into the video games.

Noon to 12:30: Before you venture over to the waterfront area, stop off for an Orange Julius, a frothy, sweet orange drink made with a secret powder that no one has been able to duplicate successfully.

You can have the icy cold drinks in other flavors made from fresh fruits such as strawberry, pineapple and banana. They are wonderfully refreshing.

12:30 to 1:30 p.m.: You haven't seen Newport Harbor until you've seen it from the water. The best way to do that is to pilot yourself around in a boat rented from a company called Electric Boat.

I didn't realize how huge this harbor is. I sailed around Lido and Balboa islands, past huge single-masted sailboats moored next to palatial homes and down the channel toward the open waters. (Renters are not not allowed to go beyond any of the jetties.)

The ride affords a close-up view of the harbor's yachts--from ultra-modest to ultra-luxe--and the chance to tool along at a brisk 6 knots (about 7 m.p.h.). We even saw a pelican swoop down on an unsuspecting fish and carry it off in its huge beak.

The weather is warm and sunny in the fall, and on weekdays, there are but a few pleasure-seekers on these waters.

That means you have the harbor virtually to yourself. Just remember that all sailboats have the right of way, and you're asked not to ground your craft on any of the small stretches of sand. It's all a magnificent diversion. Boats hold from one to six people. Rental rates start at $10 for non-motorboats, $29 for motorboats.

1:30 to 2:30 p.m.: The Fun Zone may be an endangered species.

When I was there last week, one of the vendors told me that the entire property is for sale. Nonetheless, this mass of video games, carnival rides, frozen-banana stands and schlock shops is an Orange County tradition, and it is a lot of fun.

The first thing to do is to ride the Ferris wheel, simply to case the area. From above, the view is primo. You are bound to spot a few pleasure craft moving languidly across the little sound between Balboa Island and the peninsula, or some in-line skaters in Ray-Bans, flitting back and forth between the buildings. Down below, in one of the arcades, try a video game like Gemini Wing or a pinball machine like Jokerz. The really little kids get a kick out of games like Whack A Mole, where, for 25 cents, plastic moles bob up out of little mole holes so they can be bopped on their heads with leather truncheons.

If you feel more hostile, try the bumper cars, where you can bash your loved ones in electric cars and worry about the recriminations later. Smaller kids may enjoy the Dark Scary Ride, a tame, one-minute ride in a little car through a haunted house, or the colorful merry-go-round, always a favorite.

And if you plan only to observe, there are cappuccinos, cookies and hot pretzels at stands next to these rides.

2:30 to 3 p.m.: Gina's may be the best of the many pizza places within two or three blocks of the Fun Zone, so expect a crowd.

The restaurant serves thick-crust pizza, whole or by the slice, plus a less trendy version of the calzone known as Stromboli. This is bready, cheesy pizza, with a zesty sauce punctuated by oregano.

Slices range from $1.75 to $2.50. The Stromboli, which is enough for two if they are not too hungry, is a stuffed pizza with a crisp crust, filled with mozzarella, pepperoni and sausage. The cheese drools out when you bite in, and it is only $3.75.

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