Catalina Island, California
If your perception of a perfect place is somewhere you can’t rent a car, or if you like the idea of golf carts greatly outnumbering automobiles, this is your island paradise.
Of course, Catalina Island is more than just a hikers, bikers and auto-haters haven. It’s a place for lovers.
The Four Preps confirmed that in Twenty-six Miles, no. 2 on the hit parade more than 40 years ago.
“Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is the place to be,” sang the Preps, who immortalized it as “the island of romance.”
Romance is not always what it seems, however. And from the mainland of San Pedro, it’s not 26 but 21.8 miles, according to the local chamber of commerce. Depending whether you arrive by helicopter or boat, it might be 22 or 23 or maybe even 28 miles from the coast of California. But who’s counting?
The island with gently rolling terrain is only 21 miles long and eight miles wide. Its striking feature when seen from the sea are two 2,000-foot high mountains – Mt. Orizaba and Mount Black Jack.
Its pleasant climate is such that the daytime temperature rarely goes above 80 degrees in the summer, and seldom below 50 degrees in the winter, making it an all-year round attraction – though summers are the most popular for visitors.
The best time to go is in the spring when glorious hues of green and yellow wildflowers dot the hillsides of the mountains, which overlook the quaint, hilly harbor of Avalon with its array of colorful boats and schooners.
The island’s main city is Avalon, a one-square-mile city where the main drag, Crescent Avenue, is filled with pastel-colored restaurants and shops reflecting the colorful clay tile manufactured here in the 1930s. Incorporated in 1913, Avalon’s population of 3,200 in the summer and on weekends swells to more than 10,000 people.
Catalina Island was a popular tourist attraction more than a century ago, and even earlier than that during the gold rush days that started in 1849. But William Wrigley Jr. of chewing game fame brought it to the nationwide attention in the 20th century.
He bought Catalina Island in 1919. He made it spring training camp for his second avocation, baseball’s Chicago Cubs, who had spring training camp here for almost 30 years. The baseball field in Catalina was built to match the dimensions of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Visitors can still play golf where baseball players used to tee off at the Catalina Island Country club.
When Wrigley bought the island, there was only one car here.
Autos were limited by law until 1973, when they became even more uncommon after city officials obtained special dispensation from the California State Legislature to make it the only city in the state allowed to regulate the number of cars on its streets.
Today, there are 535 autos on the island and 1,240 golf carts with a huge variety of vehicle modifications, according to the Catalina Island Visitors Bureau.
Permits for vehicles here are issued on a two-for-one basis – two vehicles must leave the island before a permit for a new one is issued. Talk about “California Dreamin'”…or car-conscious California nightmare: The wait to bring an automobile here is about 25 years.
Wrigley was not the island’s only famous resident.
Western writer Zane Grey built a pueblo-style home on the hillside overlooking Avalon Bay in 1926 and spent much of the rest of his life here writing and fishing. His home is now a popular hotel.
Romance or not – The Four Preps sang they would come here via water wings carrying their guitars – visitors first have to get to the island. The fastest way is a 14-minute trip via helicopter departing from both San Pedro and Long Island boat terminals. The fare for Island Express Helicopter Service is $69 one way or $127 round trip. Flights leave hourly.
Upon arrival at Catalina, Avalon is less than a mile away or a healthy walk along the seashore. Helicopter pilots will also radio in mid-flight for taxis, which cost about $7 to Avalon for two passengers.
The most popular way to get here, however, is by boat, an hour or so long trip depending on whether visitors take speedier or slower vessels.
Catalina Cruises offers a 700-passenger jet boat, claiming it is the smoothest and fastest ride to the island. The jet takes about 55 minutes to arrive. Catalina Cruises’ Classic Fleet boat takes two hours. The fare for the Jet is $40 round-trip. Children are $30 round-trip. Passengers should check in 45 minutes before departure. Crossings in the summer are generally smooth. The boats sell food, beverages and cocktails.
Dolphins and whales are frequently spotted, and boat captains will often slow down for passengers to get a better look.
Families are frequent visitors here, but the island maintains its special allure for couples. Catalina is especially romantic during a full moon. A tip: check newspaper weather sections for lunar phases to help plan a romantic adventure far from the maddening crowd.
What’s a little romance without bicycles?
At Brown’s Bikes, rates range from $5 an hour for single speed bicycles to $60 a day for six-speed tandems. Diamondback mountain bikes are also available with helmets provided. Some bicycles have baby seats and strollers.
How about a secluded romantic cove?
For those who want to bring their own food, Catalina Island Kayak & Snorkel provides a double kayak with a picnic cooler and complete snorkel gear for two. The four-hour getaway is $56 for two people.
Romance flourishes everywhere. For example, there’s a casino tour that takes in the Avalon Theatre with its Art Deco murals and classic 1929 theater pipe organ. Visitors seeing the world-famous casino ballroom can only imagine how many romances began here. Another inexpensive tour less than $10 a person is a Moonlight Drive aboard an open-air tram that includes nostalgic music and great harbor views. Drivers provide historical highlights.
For intimate getaways, visitors can travel through the island’s interior to the crystalline aqua-green waters of Little Harbor. Nestled among palm trees, Little Harbor campground is built on the site of an ancient native American Village. The campground is a good base for day hiking and the pristine beach is ideal for beachcombers. The campground has toilets, cold showers, barbecue pits, fire rings, telephones and picnic tables.
Lovers Cove, Avalon’s marine preserve, teams with colorful marine life. Because the fish are protected, they often will take food from the hands of snorkelers who can also encounter sea lions.
Horseback riding is always associated with romance. The Catalina Stables offers various rides, including the city slicker, a two day and one night camping experience on horseback. Riders through the interior of the island usually see a herd of wild buffalo. The base price is $385 per person.
Beyond the one-square-mile city of Avalon, Catalina features a vast untouched wilderness area where bikers and hikers can see American Bison roaming freely. Other wildlife includes bald eagles and the Catalina Island Fox. A variety of guided tours are available.
Catalina Adventure Tours offers various combinations of glass bottom boats and harbor cruises.
Other adventures include an undersea tour six feet under the water aboard the Starlight or Emerald submersible vessels that reveal a wide array of bright orange garibaldi, spotted calico bass, half moons, rockfish and bat rays, among others.
In the evening, popular local entertainment includes jazz at The Blue Parrot, which has an excellent view of the sparkling harbor at night. There’s karaoke at El Galleon Restaurant on Crescent Avenue or Antonio’s Cabaret nestled on the bay.
Visitors and locals alike seek out the island atmosphere and live music at Luau Larry’s. Another local favorite for its pool tables, dartboards and one of the best jukeboxes around is The Marlin Club. J.L.’s Locker Room is the island’s only sports bar with big screen TVs, pool and other games.
Hotels reinforce the romantic theme. An old favorite built in 1888 is the 48-room Hotel Metropole, which offers ocean, mountain or courtyard views. Rooms range from $135 to a pricey $895 for a two- bedroom apartment.
Whatever it costs, and whether it’s 26 miles or more across the sea, Catalina Island for lovers and others remains…”the place to be.”