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Balboa Island Shops Ride Fashion Wave, but There’s More Than T-Shirts, Bikinis

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Once you get beyond the bikini shops and frozen bananas, you will find that Balboa Island’s Marine Avenue commercial district has a lot of charm. Sandwiched between the sea and Bayside Drive, the scenic two-block stretch of Newport Beach is home to about 40 shops and cafes--the kind of gift boutiques and T-shirt emporiums that cousin Sara wants to see while visiting from Altoona, Pa.

But Marine Avenue is also a homey lane of towering Eucalyptus trees, wooden benches and such longstanding enterprises as 25-year-old Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery (“home of the world’s best frozen bananas”) and Hershey’s Market (established in 1929 by an immigrant from Switzerland named Anton Hershey).

Don’t wait until summer arrives to visit. The hot months bring an estimated 20,000 visitors daily to Balboa Island, which is actually three islands connected by bridges. Even off-season, parking is a challenge as metered spaces are grabbed early and drivers are forced to cruise the side streets.

The majority of the shops cater to vacationers and members of the surfer set, who can never get too many beach togs. Typical of Balboa Island shops is Local Color, where Esprit leather sandals are on sale this week for $29.95 (from $49.95) and colorful Newport Beach T-shirts are $9.95.

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Plenty of good buys are also at Marc’s “Nothing Over $10 Store” and Marc’s Discount Ladies Apparel; both of these neighboring stores carry the ubiquitous T-shirts, shorts and sun dresses.

A good bet for gifts is Our Gang’s General Store, which sells brilliant silk-screened T-shirts for $13.50, children’s toys and funky cards, as well as assorted knickknacks.

A selection of cyclist shorts and Surf Fetish (a line of clothes whose motto is “no nerds, not anywhere”) shorts and tops are available at Naz Surf ‘n’ Sunwear. M. Guinn has a large number of eye-catching costume earrings (two for $3), along with straw hats and sunglasses. And men’s shirts with geometric Southwestern-style patterns are selling at Sundance for $40.

But the best shop on the strip sells no string bikinis or T-shirts. Recently opened by Beverly Mirecki, Seven Seas at 224 Marine Ave. features an eye-popping array of antiques, collectibles and “anything I feel like putting in the shop,” says the owner.

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Among the more off-beat items on the cluttered-but-spotless shelves are the “trench art” pieces that Mirecki says proliferated during and after World War II. Created with pieces of dead ammunition or other war-related materials, trench art objects are collectibles whose value will continue to increase, according to Mirecki, who is selling a picture frame and two lamps made of spent bullets, circa early-1940s. The frame now holds a picture of Marilyn Monroe, flanked by two large shells, which seems perfectly appropriate. It cost $40.

In addition to the old dolls, Art Deco lamps, birdhouses, masks, old prints and assorted trinkets, Mirecki sells folk art boxes made from wooden matches and a hanging airplane made of “limited edition” cola cans. It is a collector’s wonderland.

Another worthwhile stop is Le Collage (closed Mondays) which sells hundreds of objects made out of shells: jewelry, ashtrays, tables, and just plain shells. The store also sells wind chimes made of shells (for $1.50 up) and a giant hanging blowfish (put a light inside and brighten a dull corner), along with rocks and crystals.

Although it may seem that every other eatery on Marine Avenue sells frozen bananas, the restaurants and cafes offer other good things to eat. Try the French onion soup at Dippy’s Island Cafe; homemade doughnuts or the legendary Balboa Bars (slabs of ice cream rolled in topping for $1.25) at Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery; or a yogurt, coconut and strawberry smoothie for $2.65 at Cherie’s.

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And then finish your shopping, sip a smoothie and get out of town. The tourists are due any day now.

MARINE AVENUE COMMERCIAL DISTRICT AT A GLANCE

Location: Balboa Island. Take Jamboree Road south, crossing West Coast Highway and Bayside Drive, where Jamboree runs into Marine. Or take Costa Mesa eeway and Newport Boulevard south to West Coast Highway (California 1) and head east, then take a right on Jamboree, which runs into Marine Avenue.

Number of stores, restaurants: about 40.

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Most unusual store: Seven Seas is a consignment shop of antiques and collectibles. In her spotless shop, owner Beverly Mirecki sells folk art, “trench art,” a few pieces from the Arts and Crafts period and an assortment of old lamps, dolls, prints, trays, boxes, baskets and doll paraphernalia.

Best place to browse: Le Collage (closed Monday) has more shells than most beaches. A little shop with a large inventory, Le Collage sells shells in the form of jewelry, wind chimes and decorations. It also has blowfish, sand dollar clocks, agate clocks and corals, as well as rocks and crystals.

Quick bites: Try a homemade blueberry doughnut (40 cents) or the popular Balboa Bar (ice cream rolled in topping for $1.25) from Dad’s Donuts & Bakery Shop; or a yogurt, coconut and strawberry smoothie for $2.65 at Cherie’s.


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