Catalina Island

What do you do when you really need a break? When you just want to escape to an Island and get away from it all, but you only have the weekend because you have to be back to work on Monday? Well, the folks here in Southern California come to Catalina. Being here is just like being in the Greek Islands or the Mediterranean: it’s quaint, it’s small, and once you get here, you just relax! Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina for short, is the perfect getaway for southern Californians. Just off the coast of Los Angeles, most people head straight for the harbor town of Avalon, known for its cute little shops, restaurants and hotels on the water.

Being so close to Hollywood, movie and TV producers have used Catalina over and over for filming locations. The gorgeous island of Catalina was first claimed by the Spanish, after Juan Cabrillo sailed in on his Spanish galleon and ‘discovered’ it in 1542.

Sounds like the stuff movies are made of…

And in fact, Santa Catalina Island has hosted over 500 motion pictures, TV programs, commercials, and documentaries since the turn of last century. The island has been transformed into North Africa, the lost island of Atlantis, the American frontier, and even the home of Jaws! The island’s beauty draws the eye of camera still today…Santa Catalina is a “natural.”

Residents of Los Angeles love to come here on the weekends, as it’s just a short boat ride away. They come to enjoy the beach, the historical landmarks, the eco tours, and the adventures!! Snorkeling, diving, kayaking, zip-lining, it’s adventure overload! Beachside activities or beachfront massage, it’s also where people come to relax. There’s history, culture, great shopping, and gorgeous little hotels & restaurants. And did I mention romance? You will definitely find the ambiance to your liking, that’s for sure.

To experience Catalina, all you have to do is get there—and on the Catalina Express, it doesn’t take long! They call it that because it flies like a plane across the water. It’s fast, it’s safe, and it runs all day every day, with airline-style seating and attendants who serve drinks and snacks. This ride’s over way too soon!

We got to chat with the captain, Joe Cortez, on the way over. This fast catamaran is 144 feet long and holds a little over 300 passengers. He told us we were traveling at a speed of about 29 knots, though it can go faster, but they try to run at a reduced speed for fuel efficiency purposes. Those 29 knots translate to about 35 miles an hour. On water, that’s fast! And before you know it, you are pulling into Avalon Harbor to dock..

You’ll have to leave the heels at home. Avalon is a walking town…but there is another way to go! To really get everywhere, the best thing is to rent a golf cart for easy transportation up and around the hills of Catalina. Do call ahead to reserve golf carts on the weekends as they can sell out quickly. They’re pretty easy to drive. You just put it in forward and go!

Avalon may be tiny, but its history is legendary. Did you know the owner of Juicy Fruit and Double Mint gum bought this island almost a hundred years ago? It’s true. William Wrigley, Jr., who also owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team, loved the weather here so much, he brought the whole team here for spring training! To get to his still standing castle mansion on the hill, you have to go up a lot of steps…100 steps to the top. Well, the story goes, that if Mr. Wrigley thought the Cub boys weren’t working hard enough at practice, he’d make them run all the way up the hill, and all the way up those steps to say good night to him. Then, they knew they’d better work a little harder the next day. After that climb, I wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere the next day, let alone practice baseball!

William Wrigley’s legacy reaches far beyond that of bubble gum and the Chicago Cubs. As the owner of Catalina Island, he made a huge impact on the culture, architecture, and economy here on the Island. The symbol of Catalina is the Art Deco casino on the harbor. This circular icon opened in 1929, but it’s not what you think it is! This casino is not for gambling; casino means ‘gathering place’ in Italian. People have gathered here for entertainment and culture for over 80 years. Recently restored to its original condition, it has a luxurious movie theater, a spectacular ballroom and performance venue for Broadway shows and festivals. If there’s a “happening” in Catalina, it happens here.

As you’re walking around Catalina, what do you see? A lot of cute little shops and restaurants, right? But if you look a little closer, you’ll see some Catalina history, too. In fact, the local deli used to be the old Wrigley stables. If you look inside, you can still see the barn beams across the ceiling today.

Catalina isn’t just known for adventure, attractions, romance, and relaxation. It’s also known for its tile. In 1927, William Wrigley opened the Pebbly Beach Quarry and Tile plant because of the island’s extensive mineral and clay deposits. Back in the 1920′,s ceramics was a big business here in Catalina, and now, this tile is super rare. It’s also super gorgeous! You’ll see it all over the buildings here. In fact, what used to be the old bank building has a lot of these elaborate tile, many with intricate pictures of animal and sea life. Back in the 20’s, when they made building tiles, they branched off into making other types of ceramic pieces and dinnerware. Someone told me that a dinner plate that was 15 cents back then, would be a hundred dollars if you could find one today. You can see original tile all over town and the way you can tell it’s original is because it’s made with red clay. The red clay was porous and they didn’t last very long, but whenever you see one with red clay, it’s original 1920’s.

Catalina’s natural beauty was very important to the Wrigley family. Wrigley’s son established the Catalina Island Conservancy to protect it, and you can take hummer or jeep tours into the center of the island to discover it. With spectacular views, wild habitats and educational displays, these truly are unique tours the whole family will enjoy. They venture through scenic Middle Ranch Canyon and explore Cape Canyon in the heart of Catalina’s interior. You’ll see the natural habitats of the American Bald Eagle and Catalina Island Fox. Then they whisk you off to the scenic Little Harbor overlook on the windward side of the island for spectacular panoramic views. You’ll go on to the Airport in the Sky, which is 1,600 feet above sea level. They even give you a complimentary lunch and finish up with a visit to the Conservancy Nature Center’s educational displays.

One of the newest improvements on the Island is the Descano Beach Club, where you can call ahead to reserve cabanas and beach chairs with a view of the ocean. Descano Beach Club cabanas come with table service, wireless internet and a complimentary beach towel loan. Located in a private cove just past the casino, the beach club offers the beauty of a private beach with all the advantages of a club. Next door, there’s an outdoor restaurant and bar that’s open to everyone and it’s always fun!

It’s beautiful and relaxing here on Catalina Island. But, don’t forget to bring your adventurous spirit, too, because this is the island for a high flying eco-tour! If you’re ready to kick off your island adventure on a high note, then…zip-lining, here we come! Seek out Dylan Beirold and Justin Spring at the Catalina Zip-line Eco-tour Company for an incredible experience above the terrain of Catalina. They’ll suit you up in their special equipment, give you an intensive orientation, and off you go in your zipline harness, screaming “Wahooo!” all the way.

There are five zip-lines, that take you from the mountains all the way down to the sea…one of the only zip-lines in the world where you can do that…amazing! The first time was great, but I wanted to go a little faster. That’s right, I admit it, I have the need for speed. I was in luck…on line two I was flying close to 45 miles an hour! Now this is my kind of adventure! And, you don’t walk away empty handed. Souvenir photos of your ride are included!

Adventure is the name of the game here in Catalina, and the list goes on and on… From zip-lining over the island…to walking the ocean floor beneath it… That’s right! Your family is going to love this one! Sea Trek is an experience on the ocean floor where you’ll walk…and breathe…on the ocean floor. That is, if you can successfully put on a wet suit! Bob Kennedy is the main man for Sea Trek, part of Catalina Scuba And he filled us in on what this underwater adventure is all about.

He told us that Sea Trek is an underwater walking tour that brings visitors underwater to experience the marine life, whether they have the skill to scuba dive or not. They supply the divers with air from an air compressor, served through a helmet. The air goes inside this helmet and you won’t even get your mascara to run. There’s a flip microphone assembly inside the helmet, so guides are able to talk you through the tour and show you the ecosystem underwater. You need to bring a swim suit, a towel, and a sense of adventure. They provide everything else. They will even put you in some walking shoes as well as the wetsuit to keep you warm in the cold water.

Once you’re suited up, you make your way out to the platform, and simply submerge to the short depth below. Using a rope as a hand rail, you begin to explore the giant kelp forest. You’ll see orange garibaldi, some mammoth big calico bass and a lot more. No one can fish for these creatures in the reserve, so they grow to be great big fish in a protected sea. After about 15 minutes, you circle back to the ladder and climb to the surface!

Catalina Island is a hidden gem…it’s charming…it’s fun….and let’s face it, being on the water is always a blast! So what better way to explore it, than on a boat ? But not just any boat tour — you can take the semi-submersible “Emerald” which cruises 5 feet below the water! If you’re not interested in getting wet on Sea Trek, then this is a great alternative! Come eye to eye with all the marine life …without the wetsuit.

Discover Tours runs the “Emerald” semi-submersible boat which is set up basically with the top half above the water. When passengers get on board, they go down and sit in the cabin which sits five to six feet below the surface with porthole windows (some boats in Avalon have see-through bottoms), so kind of what you’re doing is actually scuba diving through the cove without getting wet.

My guide for this excursion was Louis Mansanas and he covered the natural inhabitants both above and below the water. If you sit up top, you’ll see birds and local animals indigenous to the terrain of Santa Catalina. You might be lucky to see a rather large nest up on the cliffs. Louis informed us that it was actually a blue heron’s nest, a newer thing for the island, it’s one of the first nests in this area that they’ve seen for several years. Someone with binoculars saw four of the juveniles in the nest and we saw the adult just above the nest. More and more she’s been staying out of the nest, leaving the juveniles to themselves, and we could see them walking around the edge of it, getting a bit more adventurous…getting closer to the edge. I’d expect they’d soon be flapping their wings, ready to fly off and begin their life cycle.

Now above water, you can see fish, as well as below. Fish around the Island will swim at you or at any boat that comes hoping you’ll drop some food in for them and they’re always hungry. We had some calico bass come right up close and a few even jumped right out of the water. For a better look, you go downstairs and the fish come right up to the window and look at you! Look for the orange garibaldi- it’s the California state fish!

Most of the water adventures you’ll want to try can be booked on the Avalon pier, right in the center of town. And if you walk along the main waterfront, there’s no shortage of shops and vendors. But look closely- even the shops have a history! The old bank is now a really cute shop and if you have a chance to go in, you can see the old vault is now a wine cellar. Just mosey around and take a look inside the shops and see if you can tell what their past has been. And before you get too tired, you’ll probably want to check in to a convenient inn for the night.

Hotels in Catalina are intimate, and when you’re walking everywhere, one of the most important features is location. The Pavilion Hotel is very conveniently located in the center of Avalon, just fifteen steps from the beach and about five minutes walking distance from the ferry terminal. So, travel light so you don’t have to lug the suitcase that five minutes.

Not only that, the Pavilion has several package deals to make a weekend on Catalina even more enticing. There’s a romance package, tailored to couples who would like to come to the island and enjoy their time together. The most popular package is the unlimited package, geared to couples or families, and can include a VIP cabana at the beach club, massages, 4 course dinners, golf carts, snorkeling—even zip-lining. A great value, especially since everything is pre-booked and reserved for you—a lifesaver on busy weekends when a lot of the adventures are sold out.Surrounding a huge garden courtyard, rooms are newly remodeled, many with private patios. All feature HD flat screen TV’s, in-room coffee and tea, MP3 players, loaner I-Pads and free internet. A continental buffet breakfast in the morning and a wine and cheese tasting in the afternoon are also complimentary for guests.

And once the sun goes down, the Pavilion Hotels’ fire pits are the place to be. You know? In every California beach movie, you’ve ever seen there’s always a scene where there’s a bonfire on the beach, good friends are just hanging out—talking about what a great day they had. Somebody brings a guitar and strums a few tunes. Here on Santa Catalina Island things like that never change. It’s a great place for a weekend getaway here in Southern California—the perfect place for couples and families to relax and reconnect. Not to mention, it’s a way to insert yourself into a quiet little habitat of wildlife above and below the water’s surface where city life really is miles away.