Catalina Island: I Don’t Think We’re In L.A. Anymore

Sunday, April 5, 2009

This Is L.A.? Just a short trip from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, Catalina Island seems like it’s worlds away.

By Laurel Busby

Except for a hectic trip to New York City, I hadn’t left California for a vacation in over four years. Needless to say, I desperately needed to get away. Unfortunately, I only had one day to try to fit in two weeks worth of relaxation. Spending Easter Sunday on Catalina Island almost achieved the impossible.

I’d been pestering my husband about visiting Catalina Island ever since we had moved to L.A. two years before, but he was not particularly excited to go. Finally, on the day before our first open Sunday in three months, I convinced him to make the trip. Knowing almost nothing about the island, I spent the night before we left scouting for tips on how to get there and what to do once we arrived. I love ferry rides, snorkeling and animal life, so my imagination was in heaven as I navigated the Web site and saw that Catalina had all three.

The next day my stomach was not acting as thrilled as I was. In New York City I used to relish the cold, open air on the Staten Island ferry as it would plod across the calm Atlantic waters towards Manhattan, but the speedy Catalina Express was giving me the beginnings of seasickness. The high-speed ferry takes 1 1/4 hours to make the 22-mile trek from the California coast, but those prone to queasiness are encouraged to book a trip with the slightly more sedate ferries that make the trip in 2 1/4 hours for a cheaper price.

catalina3Luckily, the sight of Catalina Island on the horizon mellowed my stomach. This sleepy resort community looked as distant from Los Angeles as a remote Maine village. Once we arrived, I discovered that the pace here is slow, the island is quiet and the people are extremely friendly. Instead of rush-hour traffic and angry, speeding drivers, Catalina’s worst traffic jams consist of tourists on foot bunching up as golf carts zip along. Only buses and bicycles are allowed on much of the island, and the absence of teeming, gas-burning vehicles creates a calm, eco-friendly environment.

With human activity dating back over 7,000 years, the island has had its fair share of residents, including everyone from the Native Americans who first called the island home, Portuguese and Spanish explorers, Russian otter hunters, English smugglers, the Chicago Cubs (who conducted Spring Training here from 1921 to 1951 — gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. owned both the team and the island at the time), to the present-day population of approximately 3,500 year-round residents residing mostly in the sleepy town of Avalon.

Catalina’s only town, Avalon has a picturesque harbor that visitors can explore on their own with rented paddle boats or kayaks, or with a group on one of the many glass-bottom boats with underwater windows and see-through floors for gazing down at the abundant sea life that lives just off shore.

Avalon’s shopkeepers and employees working in the many stores along the pretty village streets look happy and relaxed compared to their Los Angeles counterparts. They chat, smile and generally take their time. On a trip through town on a public bus, the driver regaled my husband and me — his only two passengers — with stories about the town’s various buildings and the community.

catalina2The first thing you notice upon entering the harbor is the Catalina Casino, easily the island’s most eye-catching and recognizable landmark. Although I thought the circular, twelve-story Art Deco building might actually have gambling, its name is a misnomer. The complex is actually a combination vintage movie theater, ballroom, museum and wedding spot, but has never been a casino (the term Casino was taken from Italian to mean “gathering place”). The building opened in 1929 and was a popular entertainment spot during the 1930’s and 40’s when the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Harry James played there. Though heading into its 80th year, the building still retains the charm that helped attract visitors such as Winston Churchill, Laurel and Hardy, and John Wayne to the island.

However, as any nature enthusiast knows, Catalina’s main attractions are located outside. From Avalon Bay we hopped on a tour boat and sailed south to Lover’s Cove Undersea Gardens, an underwater collection of kelp beds home to literally hundreds of species of fish and a popular scuba spot. We watched through the boat’s large windows as bright orange Garibaldi — California’s once endangered state fish; herds of opal-eye dorado; and iridescent smelt swarmed around our submersible boat.

Next we turned to snorkeling. Although the water tends to be a bit chilly in early April, the wet suits we had on provided a warm skin, allowing us to swim among the fish that we had watched from inside the boat just moments before. But, because the suits provide so much buoyancy, it was almost impossible to dive very far below the surface to follow the fish as they skittered into deep hideaways.

When we stepped out of the water, my slender husband was shaking from the cold, but my extra layer of fat had kept me comfortable. We sat on the rocky beach until we were both toasty warm and he was no longer trembling. We were now both relaxed and fatigued, but we had worked up quite an appetite from our exertions and we still had another six hours before our boat left. We had brought sandwiches with us, but they were long gone, so in the late afternoon we walked the half-mile back to the harbor, changed out of our bathing suits and into dry clothes, and began searching for a restaurant.

There were several well-appointed eateries we considered as we walked along the waterfront, but not many were attracting us. Until, that is, we stumbled upon Antonio’s Pizzeria. With a stunning view looking out across Avalon Bay and a wood plank interior, Antonio’s had no pretension and a rustic flavor that fit our need to relax. Notably, the walls were papered with hundreds of dollar bills that customers had illustrated and dated to mark their visits. We lucked onto a waiter with a smirking sense of humor, and he scattered a cup of peanuts onto our table for us to enjoy as we awaited our pizza.

As the hours left in our visit wound down, we wandered through the town until we reached a miniature golf course leading through trees and a stream. We played the course and returned in time to catch our 8 p.m. boat home. As we sped homeward, my husband confided to me that he was in love and wanted to pack up the house and move to Catalina; I just couldn’t wait to return to try out the camping, search for flying fish, and visit the isolated Two Harbors on the far side of the island — accessible only by ferry in the summer months.

On that trip home on the Catalina Express, I once again began to feel a sense of nausea, but I didn’t care, the queasiness was more than worth the journey.


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