Mention to any Californian that you’re heading over to Catalina Island, and invariably you’ll get this response: “Ooh, I’ve always wanted to go to Catalina! It looks amazing!” Well, if you never been to Catalina (or it’s been ages since your last visit), now is definitely the best time to visit.
There’s so much to see and do, in such a beautiful and idyllic setting, that you’ll find yourself wondering what kept you away so long. Here’s everything you need to know for your 3-Day Dream Getaway to Catalina Island.
By Guest Guru Kim Sudhalter
ABOUT THE ISLAND
Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina for short, is one of the eight Channel Islands that lie scattered like jewels along the Pacific shore from Los Angeles up to Santa Barbara.
Formed when giant tectonic plates collided under the sea, Catalina boasts a ruggedly beautiful mountainous terrain that just begs to be explored.
The island, which lies about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, was first developed as a vacation resort in 1887 by real estate developer George Shatto.
It changed hands several times in the intervening years until 1919 when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company, becoming sole owner of the entire island. He set about turning Catalina into one of the most enchanting vacation spots imaginable and more than 90 years later his presence can still be felt throughout the island.
CROSSING THE CHANNEL
Your trip to Catalina begins with a quick jaunt across the channel by ferry or helicopter from San Pedro or Long Beach. Along the way, you’re liable to see all types of marine life in action.
On a recent ride over on the Catalina Express, my boyfriend and I spotted a pod of Blue Whales shooting spouts of water high into the air. Then, as we headed toward land, a school of dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping and performing to the delight of everyone on board.
Catalina’s main town, Avalon, lies nestled in the terraced hills, looking for all the world like a shimmering Mediterranean fishing village along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. You pull into a harbor bursting with vibrant colors, and bustling with activity.
Stepping off the boat, you immediately encounter booths offering a wide variety of activities from parasailing and off-road Segway adventures, to glass bottom boat tours and electric bike expeditions. We only had two days, so some hard choices had to be made.
ZIPPING ACROSS THE ISLAND
Accompanying us on our trip was my boyfriend’s 14-year-old daughter. One of the first things she wanted to do was the Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour.
This recently installed experience gives you an unprecedented view of the island’s interior as you travel nearly three quarters of a mile along the 3,671-foot zip line. The ride is made up of five separate zips with a total elevation drop of 440 feet at speeds reaching up to 45mph.
Never having zipped before, we were (okay, I was) extremely nervous at first, but our amazing guides, Elena and Chris, immediately put us at ease with jokes and fun information about the island. That first step out, on the zip they affectionately call the Bunny Slope, was the hardest by far. But by the next line, a monster called Big Daddy, we were old pros and it was just fun from there.
ROOM WITH A VIEW
Hours later, it was time to clean up for dinner so we checked into our hotel, the Hotel Catalina, a Victorian-style hotel featuring air-conditioned guest rooms, a pretty courtyard patio with a hot tub and fountain, free Wi-Fi, DVD players, and even a barbecue area. Another recommended hotel option is the Hermosa Hotel.
MMM… PEANUT BUTTER & JELLY VODKA
Dinner that night was at Steve’s Steak House, acknowledged the island over as one of the best restaurants in town. We enjoyed delicately marbled ribeye steaks, a succulent seafood brochette, and some incredible desserts while seated at a romantic, open-air terrace window overlooking the harbor.
The part of the night we’re still talking about, however, is when our bartender, Rich, introduced us to Peanut Butter & Jelly Vodka. You wouldn’t think it would be appealing, but I’ll tell you what—it was fantastic!
Big fans of breakfast, we also had the opportunity to try the famous potatoes at The Pancake Cottage, and enjoyed the stunning harbor view at the Casino Dock Cafe (right next to the historic Art Deco Casino Building). We sat and people-watched over a few margaritas at Mi Casita, and after zip-lining, cooled off with some frozen drinks at the Descanso Beach Club, Avalon’s magnificent public private beach club.
Many other restaurants were recommended to us by locals we met along the way. Ones we plan to check out on return visits include Armstrong’s Fish Market & Seafood Restaurant, and M Restaurant at Hotel Metropole.
BUFFALOES ON PARADE
In 1975, Philip Wrigley deeded his share in the Santa Catalina Island Company – which he had inherited from his father—to the newly formed Catalina Island Conservancy.
Created to protect the island’s natural habitat, the Conservancy today has stewardship of 88% of the island, protecting its pristine beaches along with more than 60 plant, animal, and insect species that are found nowhere else on the planet.
One of the more unusual animals to be found on the island is the buffalo. Brought over in 1923 as background scenery for a movie called “The Vanishing American,” the head of 14 buffalo immediately took off for parts unknown the second they were released from the boat.
Wranglers tried in vain to track them down, but soon gave up looking in the island’s rugged terrain. Wrigley decided they’d make a fine tourist attraction, and added several more. Over the years they multiplied, and today, more than 150 call Catalina home.
These mighty creatures were a major must-see on our trip. We booked a three-hour Catalina Island Conservancy Jeep Eco Tour of the island’s interior during which, we were assured, we’d spot several.
My group and another couple shared a custom-designed Jeep with our tour guide, Andrew, a hugely knowledgeable marine biologist who, like everyone else on the island, seemed to wear many hats: zip line instructor, camp counselor, and island tour guide. We wound high into the hills as he entertained us with stories about the island’s geology, flora, and fauna.
As we overlooked secluded bays and deep gorges, Andrew told us how all of the island’s indigenous plants and animals arrived either by “wind, wing, or wave” (or Wrigley in some cases—the fourth “W”). We learned about “island gigantism,” a biological phenomenon which causes small animals isolated on an island to evolve into larger versions of their mainland cousins (like the huge Catalina ground squirrel), or “dwarfism,” where larger animals get smaller (the unbelievably cute Catalina Island Fox).
Then we saw THEM. Hulking along the ridge of a hill was a herd of shaggy buffalo, making their way slowly to more fertile feeding grounds. Throughout the day, we were to see many more, rolling in dirt, shuffling along the roads, and enjoying life in the sunshine. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see these magnificent animals roaming free… one I know I’ll never forget.
Catalina Island isn’t just for summer fun! Fall is the perfect time to come check out its many festivals and events. The Catalina Airshow will take place in Avalon Bay, followed by the three-weekend Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival in the Casino and at the Descanso Beach Club. Then there are marathons, eco-marathons, triathlons, and swing dance events galore. For more info, visit the Catalina Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau website at www.catalinachamber.com.
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