The boardwalk on Balboa Peninsula.
©David Zanzinger / Alamy
I survey the scene.The harbor is as quiet as it gets. Every winter it gets exciting for the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. The watercraft pageant began 102 years ago by a Venetian gondolier, and now some locals will spend thousands to festoon their boats with lights to cruise past similarly festive homes — with their temporary holiday lights and permanent weather vanes shaped like mermaids.But for now, no parade: The conditions for stand-up paddleboarding are pretty perfect. The sun is out, the bay is flat, and I’ve never seen so few boats on the water. I learned to paddleboard on Hawaii’s Big Island, and also did stand-up time in the oceans off Turks and Caicos and Zihuatanejo, Mexico. But I surmise that this time, the experience will be more akin to paddleboarding at Ala Moana Beach Park on Oahu, a semiartificial beach protected by a rock jetty — placid and utterly safe.
Balboa Peninsula Beach
Jason Dewey, Getty Images
I mount the 11-footer, moving from a kneeling to a standing position, and as soon as I get my bearings, I start paddling to the left, away from the car ferries and their wakes. The plan is to round Balboa Island, then hug the mainland’s shore, making my way to Pirate’s Cove, a patch of beach backed by a cliff. Even from here, I can see there’s no one on the sand, maybe just a rock climber in the shadow of a lone cave carved into the cliff — a cave that made its own appearance in the “tropical” scenes of Gilligan’s Island.
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.