Newport Beach, Calif., was where the crew of the S.S. Minnow set out for a three-hour tour that lasted 98 episodes. Today, the best way to experience your own three-hour tour — and return safely — is by boat (for leisure) and board (for sport).The first thingI “get” about Newport Harbor is that I’ll be hearing the word Balboa a lot. The famed 16th-century Spanish conquistador, explorer and (briefly) stowaway Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first New World discoverer to ply the Pacific Ocean. Balboa searched for and collected plenty of gold in his 43 years, so it makes sense that he is commemorated everywhere in this glittering coastal section of Newport Beach, Calif., — the city that is, according to some surveys, the wealthiest municipality in America.
Once at the end of Balboa Peninsula, past the Skee-Ball games and pizza parlors, there is no bridge back to the mainland, a configuration that lends the skinny landmass a special, end-of-the-world quality. That’s surely what the creators of Gilligan’s Island must have thought when they launched the S.S. Minnow out to sea past the rock jetty that extends out from the Wedge. Here, the beach is long and broad, with the Pacific Ocean slapping the shore in rolling aquamarine waves.
As a seaman, you’d really have to know the ropes and knots to cruise the Pacific. Better to stick inside the harbor, which is pleasantly twisty and surprising but utterly calm, where a first-time skipper can commandeer an electric Duffy boat or where a novice waterman can practice a steady stroke on a stand-up paddleboard.
Because I’m coming from my home in Laguna Beach, which is just south of Newport Beach, I decide to access Balboa Peninsula via Balboa Island. The bridge from the mainland to Balboa Island spits me out right on Marine Avenue — that’s the island’s main drag, a charming and pedestrian-friendly destination dotted with establishments intended to fund dentists’ swimming pools: caramel apples at Too Sweet, saltwater taffy at Balboa Candy, and rival storefronts Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop and Sugar ’n’ Spice claiming to sell the world’s best Balboa Bars, thick slabs of chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream on a stick. Marine Avenue even has a dog boutique and bakery, Barney’s Barkery.
I pull over only to grab a chocolate-dipped cheesecake bar for fortification, find a prime parking space on Agate Avenue, then hop the Balboa Ferry, that tiny, local treasure and as pure a slice of Americana as one can find in Southern California. The whitewashed boat, with its slightly bubbling paint job, has room for only three cars and about two dozen pedestrians, and it lists a bit. The trip to Balboa Peninsula takes only a few minutes and costs a buck, but it delivers me right beside Balboa Boat Rentals, where a Duffy costs $75 to $90 an hour and a stand-up paddleboard runs $25 an hour.
It takes about 10 minutes for me to cross over to Balboa Island’s docks (I just saved a buck!), then I admire a peach-colored Italianate villa and the home fashioned like a lighthouse, complete with copper trim. It’s all meticulously well manicured, and I love that a walking path surrounds the island; I try to keep pace with the joggers as I pass the streets that run perpendicular to the shore: Pearl, Opal, Ruby, Diamond, Sapphire, even Amethyst. Sorry Vasco, no Gold.
I enter that Zen nirvana that paddleboarding inspires: a stroke or two on the left, a few strokes on the right, eyes on the horizon (not downward) and breathe. Concentrate on your core. Excitement comes in the form of a bridge. I maneuver between the pilings, beneath a sign that says “5 MPH NO WAKE.” At my pace, no chance of getting a speeding ticket or producing much more than a ripple.
There’s a cut in Balboa Island near the east end — the Grand Canal — and with that name, I can’t resist. Rowboats and Duffys moored in front of the cottages — so charming. I navigate this shallower water, pass under another bridge and then I’m back on the (comparatively) open water. Sometimes I think I hear boats behind me, but you don’t turn your head on a paddleboard; I get the idea to patent a baseball cap with a rearview mirror.