Orange County needs no commendation when it comes to potential vacation destinations. The waving palms lining the avenues, the sunny skies, the gardens around every corner… who wouldn’t want to spend a week or two (or more) there, enjoying the glow of California on their skin?
And Balboa Island? That’s like Orange County on steroids. It has all the same palm trees, sun, and gardens – plus adorable rental houses, charming promenades, wonderful restaurants, and quaint harbors.
Built in the 1900s, Balboa Island is today both a testament to human ingenuity and one of the best spots for letting off some steam in the United States.
With beautiful beaches, tons of outdoor activities, and gems around every corner, you’ll love your trip here. But where did it come from? What should you do there? How do you get there and where can you stay?
Don’t worry — we’ll answer these questions and more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be a Balboa Island expert, ready to plan your next trip with confidence. Read on!
Where Is Balboa Island?
Balboa Island is a tiny community about an hour south from Los Angeles, in Newport Beach. It sits just offshore, between mainland California and the Balboa Peninsula, which wraps all the way around the other side of it.
In the same bay where Balboa Island lives, you will also find other small isles, including Harbor Island, Linda Island, and Lido Isle.
Each of these is connected to the mainland by a small bridge. The islands are interesting to view on a map due to their unusually regular shapes. Turns out… there’s a reason for that.
How Was Balboa Island Made?
When you hear the words “manmade island,” you doubtless get a little curious. That sounds, like, hard. And turns out, it was A Whole Thing.
In the 1800s, Newport Beach township founder James McFadden fought to have the sandbar that would become Balboa Island removed. He wanted it out of the way so ships could more easily access the commercial port he planned for the area.
That didn’t happen, luckily, and he sold the land in frustration to William S. Collins.
“Collins’ vision to ‘turn sand into money’ began with a dredger and a good deal of imagination,” explains the Balboa Island Museum.
“From 1905 to 1913 he dredged around the island, piling silt and sand onto the lowest areas until the entire island could be dry at low tide. (Later, wooden, then cement bulkheads would be constructed to keep out the high tide).”
It’s amazing what the entrepreneur did with so little technology, too: “Horses pulling heavy rakes smoothed and leveled the sand from the dredger. Three sections were created, the main island, Little Island, and Collins Island (where Collins built his own famous castle).”
Today, the names are changed, the each stands as testament to a dream. On Balboa Island, the difficulty of getting Collins’ initial investment off the ground (people almost gave up on the whole project by 1916) has disappeared.
The island is transformed into a bustling colony, with a vibrant vacation vibe and a happy year-round community of locals, retirees, and schoolchildren. Now let’s turn our attention to exactly what you should do when visiting Balboa Island.
The 10 Best Activities on Balboa Island
All right, let’s talk turkey. Everyone considering a vacation wants to know one thing… what is there to do?
1. Visit the Balboa Island Museum
The Balboa Island Museum is a perfect place for history geeks. It mixes history of the area with semi-regular events, as well as offering visitor resources.
2. Play in the Balboa Fun Zone
Anyone who loves an amusement park will love the Balboa Fun Zone’s Ferris Wheel, offering visitors views of the ocean and islands from a 45-foot vantage point. You can also book lots of activities there.
3. Rent a Boat
Don’t have your own boat? No problem. You can rent one at numerous places near Balboa Island, including Voyagers Rentals, Duffy Newport Beach Boat Rentals, or Boat Rentals of America.
4. Stroll Down Marine Avenue
Marine Avenue is one of the highlights of Balboa Island. The coastal boulevard boasts cute shops with nautical themes, clothing boutiques, jewelry stores, and delicious restaurant fare. You can find French, Mexican, seafood, and more, so you’ll have no shortage of culinary options.
5. Take the Catalina Flyer
The Catalina Flyer is one of the most popular options for daytime activity. You can take it over to Catalina Island, a beautiful option for eco-tours, diving, ziplining adventures, and hiking.
Note that the Catalina Flyer actually leaves from Newport Beach, not directly from Balboa Island. So you’ll need to catch the ferry to the mainland before departing.
6. Try the Island’s Signature Desserts
There are two desserts for which Balboa Island is known: the Balboa Bar and the Frozen Banana. If your reaction to the latter is “Hold on, didn’t I see that in Arrested Development?” then you’re not alone. (“There’s always money in the banana stand!”)
The answer is yes, the Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand is based on a Balboa Island classic, a frozen banana dipped in chocolate and covered with your choice of nuts and other goodies.
Much like the frozen banana, a Balboa Bar is ice cream on a stick, dipped in chocolate and your choice of toppings.
7. Try a Whale Watching Excursion
There are always whales and dolphins on view near Balboa Island! Try a whale-watching tour at any time of year.
8. Ride a Bike
While Balboa Island itself is rather small – you’ll exhaust your bike potential in an hour, maybe two – the other islands and Newport Beach are all very accessible. Plenty of shops offer bike rentals, so it’s an easy activity to do day-of.
9. Rent a Paddleboard
Paddleboarding at the beach is always a good time. You can rent both kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in Newport Harbor. The Newport Aquatic Center offers rentals by the hour.
10. Get Your Holiday Shopping Done
Yep, it’s a great place for holiday shopping! Or, you know, just any shopping – because Balboa Island has it all.
How Do You Get to Balboa Island?
Balboa Island is easy to get to. You have several options:
- Drive: You can simply drive from the mainland onto the island along Marine Avenue. Beware, however, that there is not a lot of parking on the island. In the summer when tourist rates are high, you’re likely to circle looking for a spot for a long while.
- Take the ferry: You can also hop aboard the ferry for $1.50 per adult passenger, $.50 per child. Cars are allowed for $2.50 (including the cost of the driver but not passengers), although you’ll have the same problem as above when it comes to finding a spot. If you’re staying on the island and need to take your car to park it at your rental, though, this is a good way to get there. (Complete list of fares here.)
- Bike there: Balboa Island is fairly bike-friendly. You can ride across Marine Drive or, again, take the ferry with your bike. An adult with a bicycle is $1.75 and a child with a bike is $.75.
- Dock on the island: Have your own boat? You’ll find slips for rent on the island, so feel free to motor or sail on over and stay a while.
If you take the ferry, make sure to hop out of your car and snap a few quick shots of the harbor and the Ferris Wheel on the peninsula in the background. Both make for great mementos. Just hurry – the ride is only 3 to 5 minutes long!
The Best Balboa Island Restaurants
It wouldn’t be a complete vacation guide without a list of go-to restaurants, would it? Here are a few of our favorites with which to start. The Royal Hen serves up pub fare and cocktails in a classy restaurant that pairs perfectly with sundresses and boat shoes.
Try Basilic for romance, a French-Swiss restaurant with a menu to die for. Ciao Balboa is Italian food at its best; though pricey, you’ve never tasted better pizza, pasta, or seafood.
If you’re willing to go a little farther afield, you’ll find amazing restaurants on the peninsula as well.
For instance, if you like Japanese and Asian fusion food, try Fuji Yama and Poké OC. Live music and entertainment happen weekly at the Peninsula Lounge, a “dock and dine” option for those who bring their own boats.
Staying on Balboa Island
There are any number of places to stay near Balboa Island. From hotels to home rentals, B&Bs to resorts, there are plenty of options, with one caveat: most of them are pretty expensive.
Plan to spend about $200 a night for a hotel in Newport Beach that’s not far from Balboa Island. For an Airbnb, you’ll spend an average of $350 to $500 a night for a house, including the taxes – though single rooms in someone else’s house and studios are cheaper.
There’s another caveat: there’s almost no lodging on Balboa Island itself. Plan to stay in the surrounding areas, with most of the options in Newport Beach and a few options on the peninsula.
Balboa Island FAQs
Here are a few of the most common questions potential visitors have:
Is Balboa Island expensive?
Yes, it’s pricey on Balboa Island. To save money, your best bet is to stay on the mainland and come here as a day trip. You can leave the car on the mainland (if you have one), take the ferry for cheap, then spend the day walking around.
Save your money for food and activities, not lodging, and stay out of fancy restaurants. There are plenty of cheaper eateries on the island if you look for them.
How much does a hotel cost on Balboa Island?
Hotels on Balboa Island tend to be expensive, somewhere in the $200 range on average. You can find better deals, so if you’re determined to stay on the island, commit to price-hunting months ahead of time.
Are the beaches on Balboa Island private?
No, all the beaches on Balboa Island are public. You can visit them at any time, with anyone in your family.
Is there an entrance fee to Balboa Island?
There is no entrance fee or admission to get on the island, as it is a residential area with public beaches, harbors, parks, and the like.
However, if you choose to take the ferry to the island, you’ll have to pay $1.50 for the privilege, but it is well worth the ride! If you’re trying to decide whether or not to rent a car, we say skip it. There are plenty of other ways to get around, so take the ferry.
Plan Your Balboa Island Visit Today!
Ready to make some SoCal memories? Balboa Island is here to help, so take what you’ve learned in this guide and start planning today!