Top Avalon Harbor promenade. Above Vintage Catalina tiles.
It hovers off the coast of Los Angeles on the western horizon—visible those clear days when the haze has burned off, when there’s no brown LA gunk in the atmosphere—an opalescent apparition of dreams that inspired generations. It’s a place which has reinvented itself multiple times over the years, today being no exception, a shimmering jewel across the water, mythological land of peaks and canyons, clean air and aquamarine bays. Catalina: rediscovered as a cool destination.
All eight Channel Islands show evidence of inhabitants for 13,000 years, home to important Paleolithic sites with traces of seafaring Indians who sailed these warm Pacific waters in plank canoes. They lived a rather pastoral life for the first twelve millennia, until 1542 when the Spanish adventurer Cabrillo arrived on the scene. Then followed a period of Spanish domination. By the 19th century all the Indians of the islands had been removed to settlements on the mainland. Ownership of 75-square-mile Catalina had passed from Spain to México to the United States, and in 1887 the island was purchased for development as a tourist resort.
A 1915 fire devastated the community of Avalon, and led to a sale to William Wrigley, Jr, the chewing gum magnate. He had a vision of making Catalina into an affordable destination for all people. Under his patronage, Catalina turned into a playground for the rich and famous, a haven for sport fishing, the summer home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and an oft-used movie location. During World War II the island became a restricted military installation and branch office of the OSS.
More recently, almost one million guests a year visit, many arriving for a day’s safari via bulging cruise ships. This favoured scuba-diving destination is renowned for pristine waters with a legendary kelp bed, and a haven for dolphin and whale-watching. But it also has suffered from a reputation as a type of honky-tonk similar to Key West, a place where even hard-boiled locals admit the greatest natural resource could be a drinking problem. All that is changing.
Eco-tourists have learned to love Catalina. The Catalina Island Conservancy—which since 1972 administrates 88 per cent of the island, and maintains 200 miles of roads—has embarked upon an ambitious strategy to accommodate them. These hearty revenue-producing souls generally add one luxury night at the end of their stay, especially during the high season, June to August. Guests come for the wildlife, the flora, the unspoiled rugged hills and comfortable campsites, the clear water harbours, and certainly the ease of getting there, a one-hour ferry ride across the 25 mile channel from Long Beach. They bring their backpacks, luxurious camping equipment, obscenely expensive mountain bikes, fluorescent-coloured kayaks, diving gear, binoculars and cameras.
And they come to explore the Trans-Catalina Trail. This well-marked and maintained 37·2-mile system of five interconnected legs transverses the island, taking in vantage points and perspectives from sea level to the tops of Catalina’s loftiest peaks. Along the route the traveller might catch sight of bald eagles (there are 25 reported on the island), endemic foxes (a dwarf species, current population 1,500), or the ubiquitous bison (14 were introduced in 1924, and their descendants now number 150), not to mention quail, deer, indigenous squirrels and lizards galore.
You will find the Conservancy’s Explore Store and the Nature Center at Avalon Canyon both informative and kid-friendly, and a shady rest stop on the way to the Wrigley Botanical Gardens up the road. You can do a good deed for Catalina by signing up for a membership in the Conservancy, which start at $35. At the top levels of $2,500 and above, you get benefits beyond the usual admissions, passes and discounts, like invitations to special events, trips to other islands in the archipelago, private dinners and access to Wrigley family homes on the island closed to the general public. The Conservancy sponsors the Wild Side Art Show in June, a chance to see the latest in California plein air painting, and to view the latest acquisitions to their collection.
The world’s fascination with zip lines continues, and Catalina has its own connected along five stretched cables, a wild 45 mph ride hundreds of feet above a rugged canyon. If your tastes run to the heart-stopping and daredevil, you can find packages which include ferry tickets from the mainland just above $100 per person, available online. This hair-raising thrill ride deposits you, wildly whooping, down on Descanso Beach, where European-style open-air tables front a Band-Aid-sized strip of white sand, and tanning sunbirds sip mojitos to a background of mellow California rock pumping out over the PA system. Trinket stands, swimwear booths and rental kiosks are close by for last-minute supply needs.
The Green Pleasure Pier has many small eating establishments—cash only!
Airport in the Sky—and breakfast on its terrace.
Relaxing at Descanso Beach.
Out at Rancho Escondido,17 miles east of Avalon, accessible only by a back-country dirt road, picturesque new vineyards and a winery have been established by Geoff Rusack and his wife Allison Wrigley Rusack. As of this writing, the project is still under development, though the first wines have been bottled under their Rusack label, which features a Catalina tile on the labelling. It’s possible to taste an island-grown chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel from the 2009 vintage at their Avalon Grill restaurant down in the harbour area. Expect a high price point as these are small batch, limited edition wines.
Island visitors arrive mostly to tool around in rented golf carts, shop the boutiques and play in the sun, but dig a bit deeper and real cultural possibilities appear. The most visible forum is the Catalina Island Museum, an active presence devoted to historic preservation, commemoration and celebration, and one of the most visited island destinations. The Museum draws from its collection of over 150,000 items categorized in archaeology, photographs, ephemera, newspapers, archives, postcards, three-dimensional historical collections, natural history, library, oral history, audiovisual and art. The Museum features a large and comprehensive collection of Catalina pottery and tile which was manufactured on the island from 1927 to 1937. While the galleries can currently be found on the ground level of the Catalina Island Casino, a new museum facility is under construction and the new space, opening late 2013, is designed to feature exhibitions of international interest.
Recently the British ’60s rocker Spencer Davis, who is an island resident, gave the museum access to his career archives for an installation entitled Gimme Some Lovin’, which displayed never-before-seen artefacts and images. The museum’s current offering examines William Wrigley’s vision for Catalina through historic photography and displays. Patronage is the highest form of flattery: membership or sponsorship of the Catalina Island Museum is a great entrée to the community and brings with it real benefits and true satisfaction.
Catalina Tile and Pottery can still be found on the island, though most original pieces have long gone to serious collectors. Any authentic items you may discover in local stores will be priced at a premium. The Museum sells a limited line of authorized reproductions, the best-selling items in their gift shop. But since Catalina pottery already enjoys a worldwide reputation as classic déco artifact, ceramic aficionados looking for a bargain may be disappointed. Your best chance at seeing this beautiful aspect of local culture is a visit in the month of September, when the entire Museum is filled with objects from its collection.
Another Catalina cultural treasure comes in the form of outsider artist Will Richards (right), whose eccentric compound is worth a drop-in. Using found objects of stone, wood, metal, vintage ceramic shards, paint and mixed media, Richards shapes unusual and naïve works of fantasy and imagination, which are displayed in a labyrinthine hillside warren. If you’re enchanted by a particular work, it is probably best to make a deal for cash on the spot and carry it home.
If you venture into the back country, you will inevitably need to pass by the Airport in the Sky, a déco-era treasure constructed 1939–41. Travellers arrive there via private or chartered small plane, landing on its single 3,250 ft-long runway or by shuttles from Avalon. There’s a great little restaurant, patio and gift shop up there, and beautiful views. Once a week in high season an outdoor barbecue serves up a tri-tip feast at $40 per person, though you may find that breakfast on the terrace is a convenient meal before setting off into Catalina’s wilds. To get there from Avalon, you catch the Wildlands Express shuttle or alternate vehicles from the downtown transit plaza, then head up the precipitous Stagecoach Road, originally constructed a century ago, which is lined with eucalyptus trees dating from its construction. Watch for bison, regularly sighted en route.
With so many dining options, where to feast on Catalina? Those seeking the St Barth’s ambience probably will find themselves quaffing California Chardonnay at the Avalon Grill, an upscale space owned by the Rusack–Wrigleys. It’s one of those palm-frond-and-ceiling fan-and-rattan kind of places with a huge bar, open to the street, presenting picturesque food, trendy art and full-bodied retail prices. Impress your date with any of the entrées. Lucire had a fun Italian-style dinner at Ristorante Villa Portofino, where we sampled grilled seafood and an antipasto your Uncle Vinny would have relished. Steve’s Steakhouse also served an interesting off-the-menu entrée of Sand Dabs, delicately breaded and spiced, perfect with a glass of prosecco, recommended. Avalon locals frequent the Lobster Trap, where the club sandwich is king, though you may wait an hour for a coveted table in high season. The Marlin Club, a few doors down, gets rowdy and raucous most nights. To the thumping beat of local rockers, people take their nourishment in liquid form, proudly sporting their branded T-shirts. On the waterfront, the Green Pleasure Pier has a number of fast-food stands at the low end of the price spectrum, the perfect place to indulge your taste for fried oyster sandwiches and cold beer. Many of the stands accept cash only, so don’t bother showing credit cards here.
Luruxious nights in Catalina? You could find a private home to rent from Catalina Island Vacation rentals, who rep properties of all levels. Hamilton Cove, a 160-condo development—about 10 per cent owner-occupied, if that tells you something—next to Avalon even has three-bedroom short-term flats for upwards of $3,000 per week.
Top The Inn on Mt Ada. Centre The Avalon Hotel. Above Room 301 at the Metropole.
But conventional hotels offer the full-service package the top of the market prefers. Perched 350 ft above the water on a hillside overlooking Avalon Harbor, the Inn on Mt Ada caters to the top end of the luxury spectrum. This six-room jewel of Georgian Colonial architecture, the former Wrigley mansion, retains the elegance of a private home, bathed in natural light. A favourite of single travellers, the Inn boasts a 60 per cent return rate, and has year-round occupancy, even during the month of August when a two-night stay is required. Breakfast and lunch are included in the room rate, not to mention 24-hour access to the very well stocked Butler’s Pantry. Room 5, ‘Morning Glory’, has a terrace and sea view, perfect for a honeymoon. There’s a wonderful display of real Catalina pottery downstairs, a tasteful design detail that adds authentic gloss to the historic house. At rates of $600–$900 a night, this property is not for the faint of wallet, though some last-minute discounts are available. Nevertheless, a property of this quality delivers every justification for its generous price.
Down the hill on the flats, the Avalon Hotel does all that boutique luxury inns need to do to earn their repeat business, with a complement of only 17 rooms on three floors. Housed in a heritage structure, the Craftsman-style décor, location, amenities, superior beds, high breakfast IQ, and patio with koi pond and fire pit, make this hotel the outstanding and desirable option at $250–$600 per night. Room 301 is the best room in the house, with its wraparound balcony, harbour view and wet bar. Check online for deals which include transport and other offers. Lucire also looked in on Hotel Metropole, a bustling 52-room family-friendly place which overlooks a shopping mall. The property has a range of lodging configurations, including a two-bedroom ‘beach house’ ($1,400 per night); luxury VIP suites ($900 per night); and junior suites and rooms (beginning at $350 per night). L’Occitane amenities and vintage Catalina tiles are on display. We liked room 301 with its porthole window harbour view.
If you seek the altogether otherworldly experience and the true definition of silence, a voyage to the settlement called Two Harbors on the Isthmus of Catalina might be the answer. Accessible by private boats, ferry, or an adventurous drive down twisty roads from Airport in the Sky, there’s little to do except listen to yachties talk about their boats, sunbathe, hike, or knock back a few Buffalo Milks and watch the sun go up and down. The 12-room Banning House Lodge, built in 1910, now functions as a bed and breakfast, and it’s like sleeping at a weekend cottage, albeit one with Craftsman furniture, modern plumbing, no television and paper-thin walls. But there is a peculiar charm to the place, as if you’ve come to another country, perhaps an arid island, or a remote equatorial African port. Bring your own provisions, since the Lodge allows use of its vintage kitchen. They do serve a nice breakfast, included in the room rate, and a comfy terrace and sitting room with fireplace make for cosy surroundings. Down the hill there’s even an ATM, two restaurants and a funny little general store, a kind of semi-civilized Gilligan’s Island enclave, and you will definitely feel you have left everything far behind, a not-unpleasant sensation for a world gone frantic and mad for life in the fast lane. •
If you go …
A short digression on the Catalina Bison
If you seek the altogether otherworldly experience and the true definition of silence, a voyage to the settlement called Two Harbors on the Isthmus of Catalina might be the answer. Accessible by private boats, ferry, or an adventurous drive down twisty roads from Airport in the Sky, there’s little to do except listen to yachties talk about their boats, sunbathe, hike, or knock back a few Buffalo Milks and watch the sun go up and down
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
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