Catalina — A Special Retreat

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When I was a young boy growing up in Los Angeles the big trip was for my parents to take me to Catalina Island. I wouldn’t sleep for two nights before departure because of the anticipation of the ocean voyage and fun on the beach. There were two white ships that carried passengers from Los Angeles Harbor to Avalon, the main town on the island. They both departed mid-morning. The seating was padded benches and chairs arranged for best ocean views and during the voyage a small band would play popular tunes of the day and passengers could dance in the main lounge. There was a cruise director who arranged various games for the young people and made appropriate announcements along the way. There was always flying fish to view as they sprang out of the water to escape the ship and whale watching during certain times of the year. These ships were the S.S. Catalina and S.S. Avalon owned by the Los Angeles Steamship Company, which in turn was owned by the Matson Line.

Around noon the ships would arrive in Avalon, dock and discharge hundreds of passengers to roam the town, take some sightseeing tours, enjoy lunch at one of the restaurants and to claim a spot on the beach for sunning and swimming. Some stayed overnight while most departed late that same afternoon for the return sailing to Los Angeles. A couple of times my parents rented a small house near the water for a few days to get away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. We would get around town on rented bicycles. The seafood was always great, the water was perfect for swimming and a great time was had by all.

Catalina Island hasn’t really changed that much in the years that have passed since I first took the big white ships to Avalon. Yes, it has modernized in some ways, but the town is still small and the residents remain friendly.

Santa Catalina Island is just off the coast of Southern California and 22 miles from the mainland. It is part of the Channel Islands archipelago and is 22 miles long and eight miles across. Being very mountainous it has but two population bases, the town of Avalon and Two Harbors.

People have been living on Catalina Island for at least 7,000 years. These earlier groups of peoples exploited the rich resources of the sea from abalone and other mollusks, to small and large fish and marine mammals such as sea lions. The semi-arid island offered limited plant resources, so the islanders traded sea products for their other needs. Over the millennia, as peoples migrated through California, natives used the island for their homes. They would cross the channel by small boats. Later the Spanish used the bays to anchor their galleons and smugglers used the area to hide riches stolen from European ships that would pass by.

Catalina was later used for ranching, mining and military operations. Today, it is a restful escape for the millions who populate Southern California. The movie industry has shot many films here beginning in 1918 until the present. In the older days the hotel St. Catherine’s was the “in” place for the movie crowd and yacht people. The hotel no longer exists and the bay, which it faced, is now a private beach. Often movie sets would be constructed near the water to appear as though it were Tahiti or some other tropical location. Palm trees would be brought in as well as other assorted flowered plants. Even today, movie moguls and stars visit the island in private yachts, anchor in Avalon harbor to get away from the hurry of Hollywood.

The islands most recognizable landmark is the famed Casino building. The 12 storied round art deco structure is surrounded by the sea on three sides. Inside it houses a dance hall, museum and pipe organ. At night, it is a blaze of lights on Avalon Bay. Big Bands of earlier times would play on weekends in the Casino and often couples would take the ships over and stay Saturday night to enjoy dancing.

Today, the main pier extending out over Avalon Bay is a hub of activity. It is home to the Catalina Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center where you can get information seven days a week. You can also find tours, water activities, dive centers and some great places to eat on the 407 foot pier.

To get to the island I suggest using Catalina Express. These fast boats depart from San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Dana Point. You can obtain schedules and fares by calling 1-800-481-3470 or visiting them on the Web at .

Where to stay? Some suggestions are: Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel – in 1926, author Zane Grey built a home on the hillside, overlooking Avalon Bay. He spent most of his later life in Avalon writing and fishing. His home is now a hotel that still includes some of Grey’s original furnishings. Then, there is the Inn on Mt. Ada, which is a six-room private bed and breakfast, and the only hotel on Catalina Island to be awarded the Four-Star Award by Mobil Travel Guide. Located on top of Mt. Ada, the inn boasts breathtaking views of Avalon Bay and the town of Avalon. It was built in 1921 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. The colonial structure is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other motels and hotels as well as bed and breakfasts you may wish to look into before going there.

What’s to do besides just relaxing, reading a book and sunning and swimming? The locals observe what they call “Island Time”. Slow down, kick back… and relax. Do what you want to do when you want. You’ll find shops, restaurants and other attractions in the town of Avalon. You can walk just about everywhere in town, but you can also rent bicycles and peddle around. There are also golf carts if you want to get fancy. I would suggest taking several tours while there. Book a glass bottom boat tour, and if the season is right, a whale watching sailing, or perhaps some time in a kayak to see the natural beauty up close along the otherwise inaccessible coastline from Avalon along magnificent cliffs and into secluded coves.

Golfing is popular at the Catalina Island Golf Course. This scenic, 2,100-yard course has nine challenging holes, two sets of tees for 18-hole play, and is the former home of the Bobby Jones Invitational Tournament.

Beaches are conveniently located on Avalon Bay, which is within walking distance of the entire town of Avalon. The beach is filled with soft sand and has gentle surf. Restrooms are close by.

Snorkeling is an easy and fun way to experience the natural beauty of the underwater mystery. The water is clear and clean, with visibility ranging from 40 – 100 feet. Water temperatures vary from 55-72 degrees.

Scuba diving off the Avalon coast is known worldwide as one of the healthiest marine environments on the planet. You’ll never forget your dives here.

Hiking is made for exploring the miles of back roads and trails permitting wonderful views of the ocean, mountains and rolling hills.

Fishing is very popular. With its many coves, beaches and reefs, which foster schools of mackerel, sardines and smelt, your chances are good to catch Yellowtail and While Sea Bass.

Jones Rent-a-Boat allows you to be your own tour guide. Boats are available for sightseeing, fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Motorboats, kayaks, pedal boats and paddleboards are also available as are fishing tackle rental.

I always enjoy taking a tour of the island by coach. It takes you up to the airport area and gives you a chance to see more of the island with its buffalo and other animals that roam the hills. The views from the roads high above Avalon are special.

If you want an old fashioned movie one night, the Avalon Theatre is located in the tower level of the Casino. It features first-run movies nightly and seats up to 1,184 people.

If you are looking for a more private beach experience check out Descanso Beach located on the far side of the Avalon Casino. This is a picturesque, two-tiered area with great swimming and lots of activities. This is where the old St. Catherine’s Hotel was once located.

There is a restaurant for almost every taste. Ristorante Villa Portofino is good as well as Armstrong’s Seafood Restaurant and there are several pizza parlors if that is your choice. Be sure to drop into the Avalon Bakery and Donut Shop, which is open daily to put on a few tasty pounds. Steve’s Steak House is the place for beef and a few drinks.

The weather in Catalina is about the same as that in Long Beach. Good all year around. Warm summers, cool winters. Whichever the time of year you voyage to Catalina, have a ball!

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