It’s not often that we stumble upon a place that we have never heard of, but that was the case a few weeks ago when we met up with our son in Orange County California.
When seeking something to while away an afternoon we spotted a dot on the map in the middle of Newport Bay and, on closer inspection, we discovered the little landmass had a name, Balboa Island.
With our curiosity piqued, we headed over and began with an introduction at the Museum and Historical Society where we got the full scoop on the island’s origins and a peek at the inside of one of its famous cottages.
Balboa sprung forth from the minds of a pair of brothers, James and Bob McFadden, and a good bit of dredging. Back in the late 1860s the boys began to dig out the bay to facilitate shipping that they hoped would lead to a fortune. In the process, they piled all of the dredged up silt into a new parcel of terra firma.
In 1902 McFadden sold the Newport property to William S. Collins and C. A. Hanson and, not being ones to miss an opportunity, they immediately began to partition and sell lots. Little did they know that one day those parcels would be as valuable as almost anywhere in the world.
In fact, Balboa Island is now considered the most expensive real estate in America outside of Manhattan, with a modest two-bedroom house often going for around three million dollars. Yikes! Yes it’s all about the houses on the island.
That quickly became apparent as we walked around the quaint neighborhoods, but there is one other claim to fame here, the Balboa Bar.
While the origin is shrouded in mystery, there is no doubt that these ice cream squares coated with chocolate and dipped in sprinkles or crushed candy are the signature sweet of the island…
…unless they’re not, in which case a banana treated to the same process would be.
Either way, the treats are best procured at Dad’s Donuts or Sugar N Spice, where a long standing rivalry has raged as to who has the original and the best.
We tried both, and our opinion, not that it is expert in any way, shape, or form, is that it’s a toss-up. We found both to be A-OK.
Having had our dessert (and eaten it too) we decided to pop into Crocker’s “The Well Dressed Frank” for a main course. Backwards yes, but it felt right in keeping with our afternoon island escape. The Crocker name goes back quite a ways on the island, all the way to 1927 when grandpa was the first paid fire chief.
We must say, these were no ordinary dogs. Our Chicago Frank and Balboa Bratwurst sausages had it going on. Plump, snappy to the teeth, and deliciously piled high with toppings, we were glad we didn’t try to take them walking with us.
At the end of Marine Avenue, which serves as the main drag, we hit the bay, hung a right, and found the real top end real estate. These waterfront properties are the crème de la crème and along this stretch we found two of Balboa’s best known residences.
The first caught our attention not so much for the structure, but for the fact that a life sized likenesses of President Ronald Reagan was out front saying howdy. We soon noticed that the bronze Gipper wasn’t the only figure gazing out over the bay from the porch.
The President was flanked across the patio by an African woman sitting cross-legged in the shrubbery. We didn’t see any resemblance to the Eastern mystic, but for some reason she has become known as the Balboa Buddha.
Both are the work of the home’s resident, Miriam Baker, who has also portrayed Abraham Lincoln, Mozart, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cecile B. DeMille with stunning realism and to some acclaim. Her works are shown in the Smithsonian, several universities, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood.
Just a few steps away we were intrigued again, this time by a house that itself is a work of art. Designed by renowned architect John Edward Lautner, this is one eye catching casa. The islanders call it the Jaws house, for the jaw-like appearance of the balcony.
Lautner’s fame as an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright helped to earn the home a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and Newport Beach’s list of historical landmarks, as well as upping the ante on the price into the 4 to 5 million range. Ouch!
High as that price tag is, there is one thing on the island that remains a real bargain, the ferry. To get the full island feel we took a little trip across the sea, well, maybe a half a mile or so, for only a buck.
The little boat can carry three cars and a dozen or so people to the mainland on Balboa Peninsula, where we were greeted by a small, and somewhat cheesy, amusement park.
But judging by the signs, what the rides lacked in size they made up for in length, as the Ferris Wheel claimed to be the world’s longest.
We didn’t stick around to find out. After all, we only had the afternoon.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com