The island of Santa Catalina has taunted me from 22 miles off the coast of California since I first visited Laguna Beach in 2009. Sometimes completely shrouded by the marine layer, often appearing only as a silhouette on the horizon at sunset, and occasionally giving us glimpses of glowing rocks on the east end when the morning sun reflects back through a clear sky, Catalina is an intriguing presence when you live along the coast of Southern California. My family, in celebration of our wedding anniversary and my husband’s birthday on the same weekend, finally visited for a short one-night stay to get a taste of what the island has to offer.
Inhabited for at least 8000 years, the island is thought to have once been called Pimu by the natives, who greeted its first European visitors in 1542. On the eve of St. Catherine’s Day in 1602, a Spanish explorer renamed the island Santa Catalina. In years following, the island hosted hunters, smugglers, ranching, mining, and military operations, was awarded in 1846 as a Mexican land grant, and purchased in 1894 by The Banning Brothers who developed roads and attractions until a fire destroyed the city of Avalon in 1915. William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, that Wrigley) bought the island in 1919 and developed Avalon as a resort destination, bringing his Chicago Cubs baseball team to the Island for spring training in the 1930-1950’s. In 1972 Wrigley deeded 88% of the island to the non-profit Catalina Island Conservancy to protect and restore the land and its wildlife, keeping it undeveloped and wild. The island holds a unique place in the history of motion picture production as Hollywood’s exotic back lot, beginning as early as 1911. Production crews and sets could be sent to the Island by barge and the vast mountains and beaches could be transformed into almost any place in the world, from the coast of North Africa, Tahiti, the American frontier, the lost continent of Atlantis and the home of Jaws. Although closed to tourism and filming during World War II, it picked up again afterwards and was once again an exotic yet convenient location for Hollywood in the 1950’s, and continues to be so today.
Friends with their own boats go back and forth as their lucky hearts’ desire, but for most us the options are the frequent
departures from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, Newport Beach, and San Diego on vessels operated by Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer. These modern boats offer comfortable airline-style seating for the hour-long trips to and from the island. For a special experience, however, nothing beats arriving by air. Given the special occasions for our visit, we chose to spend a little more and travel via Island Express helicopter, a thrilling 15-minute ride departing from Long Beach and soaring over the ocean before landing in Avalon. Our pilot entertained us during the brief journey with facts about the water depth and whale watching, and pointed out our hotel as we hovered over the town before landing. It was a truly wonderful way to get our bearings before we started exploring!
A short cab ride through the town of 3500 permanent inhabitants brought us to Hotel Catalina’s Courtyard Garden Suites, our home base for the short visit. Booked last minute with requirements including a bed for the munchkin in our room and a jacuzzi on the property, it was a charming choice in the center of town. After quickly checking in we walked around the quiet and glistening streets, enjoying the off-season coolness and bright beautiful colors all around us. We lunched at El Galleon with views of the beach and harbor from our table, and then walked along the water until the drizzle started falling again. We ducked into Three Palms Avalon Arcade for mini bowling, air hockey and arcade games that resulted in handfuls of prize tickets for our daughter. As the sky cleared we walked to the 40-year-old Catalina Island’s Golf Gardens, known as one of the world’s most beautiful and challenging mini-golf courses. Given the off-season rainy weekend, we had most of the course to ourselves, surrounded by gardens and educational signs explaining the story behind each of the holes’ themes. After another leisurely walk along the waterfront, we returned to our hotel for some jacuzzi time before dinner. I had booked a table at The Avalon Grille, an upscale yet island-casual restaurant along the waterfront that I knew would be perfect for my husband’s birthday dinner on Saturday night. The staff could not have been nicer to us, and the 6-year-old was as impressed as we were with the food, ambiance and service. Back at the hotel we returned to the jacuzzi, and then sat by the courtyard fire pit playing cards until the chill chased us back into our room.
Sunday morning we had time for breakfast, a short tour and lunch before boarding our boat back to the coast. My husband had hoped to start his birthday with a stand up paddle along the coastline but the choppy sea was not ideal, and island tour times wouldn’t work with our early afternoon transportation reservations. So after breakfast at The Pancake Cottage we walked around The Catalina Casino to Descano Beach to inquire about kayak and paddle board rentals and campground facilities for future visits, chatted with a group of scuba divers, took a self-guided tour of the Catalina Island Museum, and took a cab up to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden. The garden, originally supervised by the late Ada Wrigley, places a special emphasis on plants that grow naturally on one or more of the California islands, but nowhere else in the world. After $2 trolley ride back to town we stopped for lobster rolls at the Bluewater Grill on the waterfront before it was time to leave.
Although the intention of our short visit was to relax and get acquainted with the island, my one regret is not getting a chance to see the buffalo. A herd of North American Bison has been roaming the hills of Catalina since 1924, when 14 were transferred over for the filming of The Vanishing American. By the 1980’s, the herd had grown to as many as 500, far more than the island could support. Since then the conservancy has taken control of the population, for the good of the animals and the island’s vegetation, shipping some to land reservations in South Dakota. Bus and jeep eco-tours of Catalina that give guests the opportunity to see the roaming animals will be at the top of my to-do list when we return.
Getting back to Long Beach was a comfortable and easy hour-long ocean journey on the Catalina Express as we had upgraded to the Commodore Lounge for priority boarding, wide reclining leather trimmed seats, and a complimentary beverage in a lounge environment with great ocean views. Although they neglected to tell us to arrive early so that we could sit together (seats in the lounge are first come – first serve), we moved about and were able to enjoy the view of our new California home as never before: from the sea.
Plan to visit on your birthday and get lots of special discounts! With proof of your birth date you travel free on the Catalina Express boat, get 20% off a helicopter ride, get a complimentary ice cream cone at the candy shop Lloyd’s of Avalon, discounts on hotel rooms, tours, massages, and more! We even got a discount for our anniversary. For more about the promotions, visit http://www.catalinachamber.com/specials/birthdaycatexp.
Catalina is in a constant state of drought, and unlike other parts of California, they can’t simply pipe water in. At restaurants you will have to ask for a bottle of water, and hotels will request that you not have your linens washed every night. To do our part, we bathed at home before leaving the coast on Saturday morning and carried bottles of water with us on our trip. We suggest that you do the same.