Catalina – an Island Escape from LA
Catalina Island, or Santa Catalina as it’s traditionally called, is technically part of California. But when I set foot on the island’s shores after an hour-long ferry ride, I felt like I had been transported to the other side of the world. Just 22 miles away from the traffic, smog and pollution of Los Angeles, this idyllic island is about as physically and culturally different from LA as Monte Carlo – minus the expensive cars (or any cars for that matter)! In fact, there are only 800 full-sized vehicles on the island, and there’s a 15-year waiting list for residents to be issued a permit to own a car – a sharp contrast to the motor-driven society I had just escaped.
Tourists and locals alike get around on golf carts or by taxi – but most traverse Catalina’s main town of Avalon by foot. At one square mile, nearly every point of interest in town is less than a 10-minute walk from Avalon’s signature “Green Pleasure Pier” (and yes, it really is green).
The Catalina Express (our boat transportation to the island) docked at the main harbor – a five-minute walk from the Pavilion Hotel. My hubby and I arrived just in time for the 5 p.m. wine and cheese tasting. After loading our plates with artisanal cheeses and filling our glasses with perfectly chilled Chardonnay, we joined the other guests at the ocean-side lounge, set against a botanical oasis of green palms, oversized birds of paradise and beautiful purple flowers.
Island History and All that JazzCatalina was home to a small Native American tribe before Europeans happened upon it in 1542. In 1919, the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame) acquired the island with the intention of transforming it into a vacation paradise. They succeeded, I thought as we traversed the pedestrian walkway en route to Catalina’s grand casino, Avalon’s most noted landmark and another Wrigley masterpiece. Built in 1928, the massive round structure with graceful columns never actually housed a casino, but it was a fixture in the big band heyday. All the greats from Benny Goodman to Glen Miller performed there. Today, it operates as a museum, a venue for music festivals and the island’s only movie theater.
As we strolled along Crescent Avenue, we discovered plenty of tempting dining options, but Avalon Grille stood out as a unique, upscale pub serving up comfort food with a creative twist. For me, Toasted Head Chardonnay with grilled salmon on a bed of lentils and spinach. For him, Guinness paired with beef brisket and smoked cheddar macaroni and cheese (and a few stalks of grilled broccolini for color and nutrients). The grand finale: Sautéed strawberries served with a puff pastry filled with vanilla bean ice cream and dusted with chopped almonds.
After dinner, we wandered into souvenier shops, small, family-owned bookstores, high-brow art galleries and low-brow boutiques – all located on just one square mile of real estate. I was enchanted with a place called Two’s Company. The shop’s striking jewelry was set with semiprecious gems like blue topaz and peridot, purported to relieve stress, protect against negativity and heal the heart. Who couldn’t benefit from that, I thought, as I plunked down a buck fifty for a shiny new ring. But perhaps our most delectable stop was Lloyds of Avalon Confectionary. No visit to Avalon is complete without Lloyd’s caramel apples, tantalizing saltwater taffy that tugs at your fillings and jalapeno peanut brittle – this spicy number was just what we needed to cut the sugar!
For a perfect end to the evening, and a guaranteed good night’s sleep, we indulged in a massage by the sea. Set on quite possibly the most beautiful stretch of shoreline I’ve ever seen, these massages go far beyond the standard 60-minute rub down. Under the moonlight, skilled therapists kneaded out our knots and smoothed out our muscles while the ocean breeze and the sound of gentle waves lulled us into a deep relaxation – a great prelude to a romantic evening (if you have more practical pursuits in mind, foot reflexology is available, too).
Adrenaline CanyonThe next morning, after fueling up on strawberry waffles smothered with whipped cream at Sally’s cozy waffle house, we set out for our two-hour stint as Tarzan and Jane. The tour began back at Descanso Beach, where for two dollars a day, beach goers can lounge amidst the palms sipping on cocktails. Tempting, but we had a date with a few thousand feet of steel cable.
Before I knew it, we were on board a Mercedes Unimog (think upscale mini-bus) with three other couples en route to the top of Hogsback Ridge. When the bus stopped eight minutes later, we saw the first of five zip lines. One by one we were connected to a pulley, eventually sliding down 3,671 feet of steel cables that run from the top of Hogsback Ridge, about 600 feet above sea level, down to Descanso Beach below. We zipped down the mountain at 45 miles per hour in a zig-zag like fashion – at one point dangling 300 feet above a cactus-filled canyon. Every line was different, and all five had their perks.
The first line was the shortest, so you can get comfortable! The second was the longest and offered unsurpassed views of the island, provided you could wriggle your body to the side to get a clear shot. The third had the steepest drop. The fourth afforded us an opportunity to reach for the leaves. And the fifth was a free-for-all – no form required.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, Catalina offers plenty of active pursuits from hiking and biking to eco-tours that include both. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy owns nearly 90 percent of the island’s rugged interior, so the only way to access the protected area is to book an eco-tour where you’ll see ravens, bald eagles, goats and buffalo that have been roaming here since 1924, when they were brought over from the mainland for the filming of “The Vanishing American.” The ironic twist: Scenes featuring the bison ended up on the cutting room floor, and due to cost overruns, 14 animals were left to roam Catalina. With no predators, the bison population has ballooned to more than 150 animals.
Ocean AdventuresWhile it’s tough to top Catalina’s land activities, the island does offer a wide variety of water sports and even a few underwater adventures you can enjoy without getting wet. The water in Catalina is shockingly cold in the fall, so we opted for the UnderSea tour. Basically, you board a boat that doubles as an underwater vessel with windows on all sides – think Disneyland’s Finding Nemo ride but with real fish. In fact, every passenger has a personal view for the 45-minute cruise through an area called Lover’s Cove. Savvy boat operators drop fish food along the route, so it’s not surprising that the finned attactions come out in droves. We saw bright orange garibaldi (native to California and protected in California waters), neon fish (characterized by an iridescent blue stripe that stretches from nose to fin) and spotted calico bass (a popular catch for fisherman on the island).
If cruising in a mock submarine sets off your claustrophobic alarms, consider snorkeling, kayaking or parasailing. We opted for the latter, but Catalina, like many islands, is notorious for foggy mornings. When we started prepping for our 11 a.m. parasail, we realized we might be entering a no-fly zone. As luck would have it, the fog lifted just in time for a noon flight. The weather was perfect and the view was incredible.
“This is SOOO cool,” my hubby exclaimed, as we sailed through the sky side-by-side, quite literally on cloud nine.
Since the driver lets you take off from the boat and reels you back in, the danger of flying is minimal, though we did get a thrill when he slowed down just enough for our chute to drop to sea level. When our feet skimmed the water, he punched the engine until we were soaring high again. We were like two giddy kids on our first merry-go-round. Besides the serene escape 500 feet above sea level, the ride offers a new perspective of the island and the opportunity to capture some incredible photographs.
After parasailing, there was just one more thing we needed to check off the Catalina-must list before returning to the smog and traffic of LA – sip on a frothy Buffalo Milk (don’t worry, it’s not what you think). This creamy concoction of vodka, Kahlua, fresh bananas, dark cream of cacao and a splash of coconut milk has been an island favorite for decades. After downing one dockside, I was sated, happy and fueled for the 45-minute ride home – and thrilled to have discovered one Catalina tradition I could take with me.