Santa Catalina Island is located 26 miles off the coast of Southern California, accessible only by boat or air (if you can afford a helicopter or private plane); your actual mileage may vary depending on mode of transportation and departure point. 88% of the island is owned by a nature conservancy and will never be developed. There’s a small village on the western side of the island, at Two Harbors, but most of the action is centered on the small city of Avalon on the eastern side. Starting at the shoreline and quickly climbing uphill, the city covers only one square mile, which – among other things – contains seven churches and 35 bars. The most common modes of transportation are foot and golf cart; cars are rare, and there is currently an 18-year wait for permits to have one. The historical center of entertainment and social life in town is the Casino (Italian for “gathering place” – no gambling!) on the northern end of the waterfront, which contains a museum, a ballroom, and hosts movies on weekend nights – that’s the only theater in town.
I had always heard that Catalina was beautiful, and have wanted to visit ever since I moved to California five years ago, so I was very excited to plan a trip there with Tall Paul to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. (It was extra-special that my motion-sickness-prone husband was willing to brave the boat trip for the first time in at least 25 years.) After a 90-minute, fog-shrouded ferry trip from Marina del Rey – we were entertained by some dolphins on the way, but otherwise couldn’t see much – the skies cleared as we approached Avalon Harbor on Friday morning.
If you don’t boat, fish, or dive, you might not find a lot to do in Avalon, but it’s a great getaway. I think it may have to do with the fact you can’t drive there, but it feels much further away than it is; we kept forgetting we were still in Los Angeles County. There are lots of tours available. We took a bus trip to the island’s interior on Friday afternoon, climbing narrow, twisty roads from sea level to nearly 1500 feet high at the Airport in the Sky. We hoped to see some wildlife along the way – the island has a native bison population, as well several other indigenous species including foxes and bald eagles – but didn’t have much luck, other than one lone bison grazing on a distant hill. We saw no shortage of pigeons and seagulls all weekend, though. On Saturday morning, we went out into the harbor and a nearby cove on a semi-submersible boat, where we got pretty up-close with the fish and the kelp, which was fun. (I’ve also done this in the Caribbean, and I’d recommend it more highly there – clearer water, and more colorful and varied fish.)
Other than the tours, we didn’t plan much. We walked, browsed in shops, took lots of pictures, read our books, and played miniature golf on Sunday morning at a surprisingly good course across the street from our hotel. We had excellent dinners on both Friday and Saturday nights, but our other meals were pretty much unremarkable. Before we went to dinner on Saturday night, we did some very entertaining people-watching; there was a 1930’s-style formal benefit ball being held at the Casino that night, and people really rose to the occasion. We saw gowns and tuxedos, fancy dresses and dress military uniforms, flapper outfits and zoot suits – the vintage outfits were definitely the most impressive. We didn’t attend – we hadn’t known about it before we arrived, and besides, we don’t dance in public – but we enjoyed the style parade.
We took the boat back to the mainland late Sunday afternoon, and getting photographs of the sunset helped distract Tall Paul from the rough waters. Other than the motion-sickness anxieties, it was a very relaxing and enjoyable weekend. I’m glad we went and hope we’ll go back someday.