Travel: Catalina calling

April 17, 2010


it is almost May, so thoughts once again turn towards Santa Catalina Island. Charlotte and I have been making yearly pilgrimages to Catalina since 1995, mostly in May for our wedding anniversary. Heading for Catalina has become an old habit. We love the place.

We’ve been there in May. And also several trips for Thanksgiving. We went once during the summer, mostly out of curiosity about how things might be different during “the season.” They were, and we’re not likely to rush back. We prefer the casualness and relative quiet of the off-season, though there always seems to be something going on in Avalon, the only town on the island.

Catalina has always held a certain appeal for me. Part of it is the rich history of the island. A Chicago kid like me instantly feels at home where the Wrigley family imprint seems to be everywhere–they’re felt from the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, way up the hill to the Wrigley Chime Tower, next to the Zane Grey.

Part of it is the novelty of hopping on a boat in Long Beach and stepping off an hour later, still technically in California, but arriving in a different era. No Starbucks. No real chain stores, except for Vons. I’m willing to bet the place hasn’t changed all that much over the years.

Keep in mind — We don’t snorkel nor scuba dive. We don’t own a boat. We’ve gone 15 years without ever renting a golf cart to drive around. We skip the bar scene. But there’s still plenty to do on Catalina — or there’s nothing to do at all, depending on your mood.

Start with the basics. You can travel to Catalina either by helicopter or boat from Long Beach and San Pedro. The downtown Long Beach boat is the fastest, getting you over to Avalon in about an hour. Multiple trips daily. An adult round trip ticket currently costs $66.50, $60 for seniors 55 and older.

Where to stay? It depends. Our first choice is usually the Catalina Canyon Resort, up above the Country Club and the golf course, up above Avalon. It’s quiet and tropical in appearance. They have a swimming pool and hot tub and offer a free shuttle up and down the hill into town.

If you want to be right on the main drag, check out Pavilion Lodge, an easy five minute walk from the boat and about five second from Luau Larry’s a popular Catalina bar. We also have had good experiences at Hotel St. Lauren and the budget-conscious Hotel Atwater.

What about restaurants? Our favorite is Armstrong’s a very nice seafood restaurant right on the water. It’s expensive, but great. The Busy Bee and El Galleon are both popular with tourists. The locals tend to favor Buffalo Nickel, which is tucked away about a mile south of the main boat dock. They also provide free shuttle service, but we always enjoy a leisurely walk along the water. Antonio’s Pizzeria is also a mandatory stop during any weekend visit.

What to do in Avalon is your call. Much attention is being given to Catalina’s newly-installed zip line, which promises a different island experience. There are certainly plenty of small shops to wander through. Hiking the two miles up the canyon to the Wrigley Memorial seems obligatory for any first-time visitor. Friends tease me, but I absolutely love the 18-hole miniature golf course, located just off the downtown. it’s fun and challenging.

The most famous building on the island has to be the historic Casino. By all means, spend the money and take the building tour, offered every afternoon. Stand in the deco-flavored upstairs ballroom and you’ll be enveloped by the history, swearing you were dancing with the couples who came over during the ’30s and ’40s.

Downstairs is the movie theater, modeled after Radio City Music Hall. Doesn’t matter what the movie showing may be, go see it, just to experience the room, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night when they feature live organ music.

The Santa Catalina Island Company sponsored all sorts of daily tours. The one we’ve enjoyed the most is the trip out to the airport (“Airport in the Sky”) and back. You’ll get a sense of what the inland country is like and maybe even spot a buffalo, or two.

We’ve avoided the glass-bottom boat, but the submarine tour actually provides an amazing window on underwater life in the harbor. Bicycles, boats, scuba diving equipment, and golf carts are all available for rental. Everything you need to know about visiting Catalina is just a click away.

See you on the boat.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Dave, You’ve got me reminiscing about the day’s when I used to sail to Catalina with friends out of Redondo Beach. We were never interested in heading to Avalon, we had plenty of action in Redondo, we were heading to Catalina back then for the quiet moments spent in what felt like a sanctuary out in the middle nowhere. We would set a course straight toward the isthmus, we didn’t get there in an hour but in more like 3 or 4 hours doing about 10 knots. As we approached the island we would head due south with our final destination being Emerald Bay. Our days were spent hiking on the island, scuba diving, fishing and camping out on our sail boat. While the guys were never interested in leaving their sanctuary, we girls would always catch a ferry boat that would pass the moorings and it would drop us off at Avalon for a short day trip. Avalon was just a little tiny tourists location back then and had no where near the restaurants or night life that you describe. They did have a restaurant that sold buffalo burgers , I never ordered one. I’m thinking about how much it has changed and counting the years that have passed since I have been there, geeez I’m getting old. Today I would head for Avalon, the heck with the quiet life.