Winter Escape to Catalina Island

By Carole Jacobs

Located just 22 miles from Long Beach on the Southern California mainland, Catalina Island is technically part of LA County – but it’s no chip off the old block. The minute we stepped on the Catalina Express in Long Beach for the hour-long voyage to the isle, we left behind the grit, grime and gridlock of LA, skidding across a sea of glass as the city skyline receded into the soupy smog. 

In 45 minutes, a rocky, mountainous mirage appeared on the horizon. Sparkling beaches lapped by cerulean seas ringed around a toy-sized isle just 22 miles long and eight miles wide at its widest. In less time than it’d taken to polish off a drink from the ferry’s cocktail bar, we’d gone from 21st century LA to Shangri-La.

As the ferry pulled into Avalon Harbor, I trained my binocs on the vista ahead: Crowding the horizon was the quaint city of Avalon, Catalina’s only incorporated burb with 4,000 souls and still as charming as the day it was born in 1887. 

From a distance, the city resembled a life-size wedding cake, its multiple tiers spilling down steep slopes before surrendering to the Pacific.  But up closer, Avalon looked like it had dropped from a Victorian storybook. Turn-of-the-century mansions peeked from sagebrush hillsides, crayon-colored gingerbread houses and craftsman-style cottages marched down the steep residential slopes and the seaside promenade was chockablock with cafes, candy stores, boutiques, toy stores and seafood eateries that served spiny lobster hauled from the Pacific 10 minutes ago.

Escape from the snow

Less than five hours ago, we had fled the dead of winter in the high-and-dry Eastern Sierra, having decided to seize the op to fast-forward to spring via Catalina Island’s “Best of Winter” packages. The joint offering by Catalina Express and Paradise Hotel Partners included a 60 percent weekday discounts on lodging at our pick of Avalon’s 20 landmark hotels, free ferry transport to and from Catalina, complimentary breakfast, afternoon wine-and-cheese, and free entry to island festivities galore, including First Fridays at the Catalina Island Museum and An Evening with Oscar at Avalon’s world-famous Casino.

We settled in at the Avalon Hotel, a 15-room icon of early California architecture located on a quiet side street just steps from the Crescent Street pedestrian mall. Our gorgeous room threatened to hold us captive with its deep soaking tub, designer bed and furnishings and a private balcony overlooking the harbor. But hunger intervened, so we reluctantly left our cushy crash pad behind for the real world beyond.

A few blocks away, we nabbed a window table at the unimposing Lobster Shack for a just-caught seafood feast courtesy of owner/commercial fisherman Caleb Lins, who plies the waters in his 40-foot boat, Money Matters, for spiny lobster, local white sea bass, yellowtail and sand dabs.

Back at the hotel, we headed up to the rooftop terrace for panoramic views of the twinkling harbor and capped the night with a glass of wine courtesy of the hotel.

Morning on the ropes

We awoke to sun flooding through our balcony windows and the smell of breakfast on the hotel’s garden patio, complete with a koi pond, fountain and fire pit. After fueling up on organic coffee, fresh-squeeze OJ, yogurt, granola and homemade muffins, we followed the oceanfront pedestrian walkway past decorative pavers, fountains, palm trees and the Casino to Descanso Beach Resort, Catalina’ hip-and-happening luxury beach resort.  Here you can lodge in an open-air cabana, dine at the beachfront resort and bar, get a massage in the spa cabana and enjoy the ultimate moonlight rush, the “Night Zip,” which ziplines you from the mountains to the sea through a rugged canyon at speeds approaching 45 miles per hour.

We decided to brave the resort’s Catalina Aerial Adventure, an extensive ropes courses suspended in a grove of towering eucalyptus where you can swing, Tarzan-style, from tree to tree on a challenging series of rope ladders, log bridges, balance beams and zip lines tucked in deep forests. Just looking at it made me tired, and after our “swinging adventure” we were almost too pooped to think about doing lunch down at the beach club.

Almost. The shrimp and artichoke quesadillas, beer-battered onion rings and a “Buffalo Milk.” Named after the island’s wild and wooly critters, it’s a milkshake made with regular milk, not buffalo, and fortified with four kinds of booze. A few sips more than revived us for the afternoon’s outings, although the walk back to the hotel remains a complete blank.

On top of Mt. Ada

Cars are a rarity on the 76-square-mile island and there’s currently a 14-year waiting list for locals, so nearly everyone gets around by golf cart.  Before renting one, we decided to take a nap to snooze off the booze, although even pedal to the metal, the golf cart went no faster than we could walk.

We took a back road up, up, up, following the sound of chimes to a long, vertical staircase. After climbing hundreds of steps, we arrived at the Chimes Tower, perched high above the sea. Built in 1925, the chimes have been tolling on the quarter hour ever since.

Back in the cart, it was a short hop over to the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, a Hopi Indian-style oasis sprawled across a cactus-covered hillside. The late author penned many of his Westerns here.

It was a nearly vertical drive up to the Inn on Mt. Ada, the white colonial palace I had glimpsed from the ferry landing. The mansion turned out to be the former home of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who purchased a controlling interest in the island in 1919 (his baseball team, the Chicago Clubs, needed a warm place for spring training). He chose the setting for his new home (named after his wife, Ada) because it received first sunlight in the morning and the last rays at sunset. During his time on the isle, Wrigley spent millions developing and preserving the island, purchased two steamships to transport tourists to the island and built the world-famous Casino.

We toured the gracious living and dining rooms and, in a vain attempt to pass ourselves off as hotel guests (the hotel costs $700 a night), hit the sundeck to watch the mist rise from the mountains and darken the sea below. As the wind picked up, the yachts and sailboats anchored in the harbor rocked in unison and I got seasick just watching them.

A starched waiter approached us and explained that “prospective guests” were welcome to have breakfast or lunch at the hotel (and for a price that wasn’t much higher than the food at Denny’s). Alas, we only had the cart for another hour and the prospect of doing that climb on foot was less than appetizing.

Crowning glory of Avalon

We spent the next hour exploring the Botanic Gardens, located at the summit of Avalon and home to the 37-acre Wrigley Memorial Garden, showcasing endemic plants that grow naturally on one or more of the California islands, but nowhere else in the world.  

Back down on the waterfront, we returned the cart and walked over to Lloyds of Avalon, Catalina’s favorite candy store, for a sugar fix. Torn between the homemade salt water taffy, peanut brittle and fudge, we finally decided to splurge on a box of handcrafted buttercreams.

Night on the town

Gourmet restaurants of every stripe line the Avalon waterfront, where the intimate side streets and cobblestone walkways almost make you feel like you’ve been transported to Paris’ French Quarter.  We started with killer margaritas at Maggie Blue Rose, an authentic Mexican restaurant, then headed to Ristorante Villa Portofino, an authentic Italian restaurant with white-linen service overlooking the harbor and casino where two small plates of linguine with capers and halibut set us back nearly $50.

 “Welcome to island sticker shock,” our waiter said. “They have to bring everything in.”

Hubby was hot to recoup some of our losses, so we followed the waterfront promenade to the Catalina Casino, where we were surprised to discover it wasn’t a gambling hall at all but an ornate, art-deco theater, ballroom and concert hall with rose-hued walls, black art deco reliefs and a 50-foot ceiling from which hung not one but five Tiffany chandeliers. There was a green room that had been used by Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, a stage where Benny Goodman played before adoring fans and an editing room where Cecil B. DeMille viewed the rushes of the days’ movie shoots.

The Casino also housed the Avalon Theater, one of the nation’s first art deco movie houses built in 1929 to embrace the advent of talking motion pictures. Adorned with murals designed and painted by John Gabriel Backman of Mann’s Chinese Theater fame, art deco furnishings and lighting fixtures and the historic Page Pipe Organ, the historic stunner features golden oldies as well as first-run Hollywood flicks.

Morning at the museum

The following morning, we walked up to the beautiful Catalina Island Museum, a 60-plus-year-old museum once located at the Casino and now occupying the new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building on a side street above town. We wandered through a fascinating exhibit that traced the history of Catalina from the Native Americans who inhabited the isle 8,000 years ago to Hollywood’s more recent mark on the island. The early 1900s was a golden age for Catalina when movie stars flocked to the island to chill and escape their fans. Charlie Chaplin fished off his boat, Winston Churchill famously caught a marlin in 20 minutes and John Wayne threw quarters to the kids, who would dive into the water to retrieve them.

Other fascinating exhibits included 100 years of Catalina advertising design and the work of José Guadalupe Posada, Mexico’s legendary printmaker. The museum also hosts music and dance performances, lectures by guest speakers from the world over, and the finest in silent, documentary and international film.

Goodbye to Catalina

With a half hour to spare before catching the ferry, we raced through town taking keepsake photos. It had rained that morning, and Catalina was luminous under a just-scrubbed sky.

We caught the ferry with five minutes to spare. As we sailed back to LA, we congratulated ourselves on having finally (after living in Southern California for 40 years) found the time to cross the water and get a glimpse of Catalina.

And a glimpse is all it had been: Unlike many beach towns in the U.S., Catalina doesn’t shutter down during the winter. And while Catalina is a wee isle, in 48 hours we had barely scratched the surface.

On a cocktail napkin from the ferry’s snack bar, we listed all the things we’d wanted to do but couldn’t fit into our visit. There’d been no time to take the night tour of Avalon to see the distant glow of city lights; no time to spy on the fish on the glass bottom boat tour; no time to board a fast boat and chase dolphins and sea lions; no time to hike the early 19th century stagecoach route across Catalina’s pristine wilds; no time to jeep across the East End wilderness and wave at the buffalo; no time to hike through the unspoiled beauty of Cape Canyon – and not a spare minute to snorkel Lover’s Cove, parasail over Avalon Harbor or get a massage at the Island Spa Catalina.

Hubby said the only solution was to come back. “And this time, let’s not wait another 40 years!”

DETAILS

Information: Catalina Island Company, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/island-company; Catalina Express, www.Catalina express.com; Avalon Hotel, www.theavalonhotel.com; Lobster Trap, www.catalinalobstertrap.com; Descanso Beach Club, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/activities-adventures/descanso-beach-club; Catalina Island Casino, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/activities-adventures/catalina-casino; Catalina Golf Cart Rentals, www.catalinaislandgolfcart.com; Lloyd’s of Catalina, www.catalinacandy.comCatalina Island Museum, www.catalinamuseum.org; Catalina Chamber, www.catalinachamber.com.

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