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WEEKEND ESCAPE: NEWPORT BEACH

Kid's-Eye View of Balboa

A family finds summer fun at a carnival on the coast, where a Ferris wheel and other flights of fancy keep a 4-year-old daughter smiling all day long

June 25, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER, Susan Freudenheim is an arts writer for The Times

NEWPORT BEACH — Like many Angelenos, my family loves the ocean, yet we rarely take advantage of the region's beaches. So we were happy when out-of-town friends invited us recently to visit the oceanfront house they had rented on Newport's Balboa Peninsula.

We'd been to Newport often to visit the art museum but had never been on the peninsula, so while we were there for the day, we checked out the boardwalk.

What we saw intrigued us enough to plan a weekend trip. My husband, Richard, and I have a 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, and the heart of Balboa Peninsula offers more than the usual assortment of summer-style diversions in a few blocks for families with small kids.

The beaches are wide, clean and well attended by lifeguards; you'll find a pier for fishing and a boardwalk for cycling, skating, jogging and walking; the harbor offers boat tours that extend out into the ocean; and there are plenty of the requisite souvenir shops. But the most important draw is the Fun Zone, a small but well-managed amusement area dominated by a Ferris wheel, built in 1936 on the harbor side of the peninsula. Rachel immediately dubbed the area "the carnival."

We chose the Balboa Inn, a Spanish-style structure built in 1930, primarily because of its location: It faces the beach and is just two blocks from the Fun Zone. We also were attracted by the aquatic facilities, which include a beautiful L-shaped pool and a large hot tub.

The two-mile-long Balboa Peninsula is just south of the end of California Highway 55, about an hour's drive from our Hollywood home. We arrived about 8 p.m. on a Friday, parked as directed in the nearby public beach lot ($7 for 24 hours) and checked in. Then we went immediately to the Fun Zone, a five-minute walk, to look for food and a quick ride.

We found lots of burger-and-ice cream stands still open. One of the local specialties is the Balboa Bar: a block of ice cream dipped before your eyes in hot fudge, then rolled in rainbow sprinkles or chopped peanuts. We had to try one (ah, research!). Also on the menu were frozen bananas (same treatment as the Balboa Bar) and, for Rachel, a snow cone. Too tired for rides, we headed back to the hotel.

As it turns out, the Balboa Inn is fairly pricey for the accommodations it provides. Rooms range from $169 for a small double to $349 for an oceanfront suite, but the property is somewhat rundown; our room could have used new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint. And we found the desk people a bit surly.

It's a place that could be really nice but that doesn't quite live up to its lovely exterior. Although its great location makes up for a lot, a downstairs bar stays open until 10 p.m. and blasts loud music throughout the courtyard, keeping everyone awake--not a plus for the many guests with small kids.

It also doesn't have air-conditioning, which shouldn't be a problem with the beach so near. But with windows open, noise is unavoidable. Our room, which had a king-size bed and room enough for a rollaway for Rachel, overlooked the courtyard and was probably one of the noisiest.

Continental breakfast is served on the terrace overlooking the ocean from 7 to 10 a.m., and we were up early Saturday to eat.

Rachel insisted on going straight into the pool. She was in heaven. By 10 we were at the beach and by 1 p.m. at the Fun Zone. For a 4-year-old with a huge appetite for adventure but a short attention span, the activities are great.

We ate lunch at Ruby's at the end of Balboa Pier, right outside our hotel. The soda-shop chain offers good salads and Mexican food along with milkshakes and cheeseburgers, and a good kids' menu.

After lunch we were immediately on the bumper cars, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and spinning cups, and it's a wonder we survived. Rachel was deterred from the constant spinning only by a side trip into the arcade, with its quarter games that made tons of noise and spit out redemption tickets. (You had to win 35, for example, to get a plastic finger puppet of a lion--I know, because that's what we got.)

Rides are $1 to $2 each and kiddie-sized, but adults will appreciate the view from the Ferris wheel. Sitting at the top while someone boarded below, we couldn't help but pinch ourselves--an hour away and a world of difference from our urban home.

After exhausting all that the Fun Zone offers, we headed back to the pool for a late-afternoon swim. It was empty, perfectly heated by the sun, just right for a leisurely playtime for Rachel. She's just learning to swim, and the combination of moving from shallow, cool water to the warm safety of the hot tub helped to build her confidence.

Rachel fell asleep in the room at 6, so we had to bring in dinner. We opted for good Mexican food, which I got from nearby Chi Chi's Pollo, an unpretentious place with seating and takeout. I had the half chicken with garlic sauce, which came with salad as well as rice and beans, and Richard had a carne asada burrito. Rachel slept through.

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