Newport Beach is full of scenic places to explore. One can walk the beach, fish off the piers or stroll along the quaint streets of tourist-friendly Balboa Island.
The only locality one can't visit — except for invited guests or those who have the good fortune to own homes there — is Bay Island, a 5.5-acre slice of paradise just off the Balboa Peninsula.
This exclusive enclave of 23 homes in Newport Harbor has been privately owned for more than a century. Residents share ownership of the island, which includes a sandy beach, an interior park, a cutting garden and a tennis court. Each share of stock in what's known as the Bay Island Club includes a boat slip, parking in an off-site garage and the services of a resident caretaker.
Cars are banned. Homeowners pack in groceries and other supplies via golf carts that are driven over a narrow bridge that connects the island to the peninsula and to civilization.
Living in such secluded splendor doesn't come cheap, of course. Bay Island boasts some of the priciest real estate not only in Newport Beach but "in the country and the world," said Coldwell Banker Realtor Steve High. One home on the island is selling for more than $6.5 million.
And make that payable in cash please. Because of the group ownership of the island, it's difficult for buyers to obtain loans, High said.
Bay Island wasn't always so swanky. In the late 1800s it was just a sandy mound of earth known as Sand Island. At the time, it was the only island in the harbor (now there are seven), and hunters crossed over on planks to shoot ducks from its northern tip, according to Joan T. Seaver Kurze, author of "Insular Connections on Bay Island."
In the early 1890s, one of Newport Beach's earliest settlers, Edward J. Abbott, purchased the Balboa Peninsula from what is now 9th through L streets, including Sand Island. In 1903, Rufus Sanborn, a local banker and rancher, purchased the island for around $350.
Sanborn then gathered four of his buddies — most of them duck hunters — and formed the Bay Island Club Inc., according to Kurze. Almost immediately they began to build houses on the island. Sanborn's own home was at No. 4 Bay Island. By the end of the year, the number of shareholders had grown to 18.
The first homes on the island were simple bungalows. A 1904 newspaper article described them as "pretty cottages built in a circle each with its flagstaff and Old Glory fluttering in the breeze." Pretty though they might be, the houses lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. The sewage drained directly into the bay, and swimmers had to keep a sharp eye out for any "foreign objects" that floated by.
Although Sanborn bought the island with the idea of making it a private duck hunting club and a personal vacation spot, the purchase proved to be a smart investment. In 1905, the Pacific Electric Railroad reached Newport Beach, connecting the city with Los Angeles. In 1906, the railway line extended to Balboa, making what previously had been a lonely sand spit accessible to tourists and potential homeowners.
Improvements to the island outpost came rapidly. In 1909 residents enlarged the beach on the east side of the island with sand dredged from the bay. In 1910, they replaced a primitive plank bridge with "a little white" bridge leading to the mainland. In later years, they built a club house (which was razed in the early 1930s), a caretaker's cottage and a sea wall to fortify the island from erosion.
The island's early residents were some of the biggest movers and shakers of their time. They included Sam Tustin, the son of the founder of the city of Tustin, and Charles C. Chapman, for whom Chapman University in Orange is named.
Perhaps the most famous resident was Helena Modjeska, regarded by some as the greatest Polish actress of all time. In 1908, she bought No. 3 Bay Island from Sam Tustin for $2,400 and settled in "near the pure sea air" to write her memoirs, according to Kurze. Her stay on the island wasn't long, however; she died a year later at age 69. Despite her brief time on the island, her influence there was profound; residents considered renaming the community Modjeska Island, according to Kurze.
Once on the island, families tended to stay, passing their homes from generation to generation. Several traditions have been handed down as well, such as the annual fall visit of the Tournament of Roses princesses, who spend a day playing volleyball, taking a bay cruise and distributing roses to residents.
Once in a long while, however, the outside world does intrude on the island's bliss. That happened during the Great Depression, when the islanders ran into trouble paying off a bank loan whose collateral was a deed to the island, according to Kurze. Crisis was averted only when family members from No. 12 stepped up to pay the loan. For a short while, before the shareholders paid them back, residents of Bay Island No. 12 owned the entire island.
Today, change may come through the California Coastal Commission. The Island Avenue Bridge, which connects Bay Island to the peninsula, needs to be replaced, and the agency wants to make the new one open to the public.