One of the best ways for California residents to pretend they're visiting some far-off, exotic destination – but save considerable time and money – is to visit one of California's true gems, Santa Catalina Island.
Just 26 miles off the Mainland, Catalina may as well be in Spain or the Greek Isles because the charm is apparent from the moment your boat glides into Avalon Bay, a panorama of luxury yachts often populated by young, beautiful people, surrounded by the dramatic hills of the harbor where homes and villas are perched almost on each other, almost every single one commanding a spectacular view of the bay.This is a picture postcard scene that never has a bad day. It's always dripping with the colors of a tropical paradise, an inspiring combination of earth, sea and architecture that will instantly lift your spirits and help you forget your everyday life at home.
On our most recent trip to the island, we boarded the Catalina Express in Dana Point, the easiest way for San Diego County residents to get to Catalina. They also offer convenient connections from Los Angeles area docks at Long Beach and San Pedro. The company operates several different boats but our 97-foot mono-hull sliced right through some bigger-than-average swells making the 90-minute trip over slightly bouncy but quite pleasant overall. It's not uncommon on these trips to see porpoises and seals – as we did – and the fresh salt air is invigorating if you venture outside the main cabin.
Before we left Dana Point, we were informed by the Catalina Express office that there was a chance the trip home in two days could be delayed due to expected high winds. If the winds came, our choice would be to come home a day early or a day late. We chose to go anyway – worst case scenario was a quick overnight hop to Catalina, which we didn't think was much of a down side.
One reason we wanted to go was to sample the newly remodeled Pavilion Hotel, a longtime island favorite (formerly known as the Pavilion Lodge) that has been transformed into an upscale hideaway right downtown on Crescent Avenue, Avalon's "main street." The first thing we noticed was the lush tropical vegetation throughout the inner courtyard with both indoor and outdoor seating for a wine-and-cheese bar that also doubles as a breakfast bar in the morning. Pathways lead through the courtyard to the individual units that have a bungalow feel even though they're all part of the same building. Each unit has its own lanai.
Opening the French doors to our room we immediately noticed the attention to detail and what must have been a complete upgrade from the previous décor. New wicker chairs, top-quality adornments on the beds, wide-screen high-definition television, upscale bath accessories and just an overall coziness made our room at the Pavilion feel just as special as our island getaway itself. Attentive, cheerful staff added to the overall impression that the owners definitely want to make this lodging stand out for its quality.
This was a couples getaway for us – our daughter was staying with friends back home – so we asked for recommendations on a good place to have dinner. Steve's Steakhouse came back as the answer and we walked just a short distance down Crescent Avenue and then up the stairs to Steve's.
If you go to Steve's Steakhouse, our suggestion would be to dine there when it's not so busy. Our Friday night visit at the height of the dinner hour coincided with a large wedding party also being held at the restaurant in essentially the same room, although back a bit from the diners who were positioned up near the view windows. We had no reservations so we were placed at a table that probably shouldn't even be there – it's located adjacent to the kitchen, right next to the path all the waiters take when placing or delivering orders, and also next to the party area. While we had no complaints about the food, the decibel level was as loud as any we've ever experienced in a restaurant and was probably the only negative experience we've ever had on Catalina Island.
The positive experiences on Catalina Island are many, indeed. The Santa Catalina Company – which owns and operates a good number of businesses on the island – has put together an expansive list of excursions and adventures all designed to take advantage of the island's scenery, history and water sports.
The latest and greatest addition to the tours is the Zip Line Eco Tour, one of only a few zip lines in California and, in this case, one of the most scenic. If you've watched reality shows like the Amazing Race, it seems like a zip line is thrown in somewhere along the route every season. That's because riding a zip line is big on thrills, but considered safe because of the extensive safety measures built in.
A zip line is essentially an inclined cable strung between two points, with the harnessed rider attaching himself to the cable with a pulley-like device that allows him to ride the line downward with the force of gravity. On Catalina, riders reach speeds of up to 40 miles an hour on a series of five zip lines that take riders across Descanso Canyon more than 300 feet above the canyon floor. Riders also learn something about the unique flora, fauna and history of the island by reading interpretive signs along the way. By all accounts, the Catalina zip line – which opened spring 2010 – is a resounding success.
Also on the list of possible Catalina activities are such experiences as Snuba diving where you are able to dive and breathe underwater without heavy diving equipment – and without any prior diving experience. If you'd rather stay out of the water, the Undersea Tour takes you in a semi-submersible where the windows are below the surface of the ocean and you're able to view sea life much like you would if you were diving.
There are several tours into the island's interior and you can travel in off-road four-wheel-drive vehicles or in vintage buses. On a previous visit we took an informative sometimes hair-raising journey 31 miles into the island's interior. Lasting about four hours, this tour gave us an entirely new perspective on an island we'd never really bothered to fully explore. Spectacular views were just the beginning; the rugged interior holds many surprises for visitors who think the edge of Avalon is where the sightseeing stops.
Thanks to the foresight of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, some 42,000 acres were set aside from development back in the early 70's and the result is a natural, pristine island that probably is much like the Spaniards found it when the island was discovered in the 16th Century. A few roads, buildings and small communities exist here and there but, for the most part, the island's interior is unblemished. The Conservancy owns about 88 percent of the 21-mile-long island.
We didn't see much of that on our most recent trip, however. That warning we received in Dana Point turned out to be prophetic and high winds made it likely we would not be able to cross back to the Mainland on our scheduled day. Because we had airline tickets booked for departure almost immediately upon our return, we had to leave Catalina early in order to insure we were home in time.
Yes, it was disappointing. But the nice thing about Catalina is we don't have to go half way around the world to go back and visit again.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Catalina Island is about 26 miles west of the L.A. area. There are several boat companies that service Catalina from seven ports in Orange and Los Angeles counties, as well as helicopter service from the L.A. coastal area.
WHAT: Catalina Island offers many recreational activities ranging from deep-sea fishing to horseback riding to hiking to snorkeling.
WHEN: Catalina is a great destination year-round, although the lowest prices are in the shoulder season, April-May and September-October. Most hotels offer lower prices then, but combo packages help reduce the overall cost of lodging and transportation any time of year. Several events are offered throughout the year, so check with the Chamber of Commerce for a listing.
WHY: Catalina is close, easy to reach, incredibly picturesque and the perfect daytrip or getaway weekend for any living in or visiting Southern California.
HOW: Call the Catalina Chamber for a complete list of transportation and lodging options. Phone (310) 510-1520 or visit www.DiscoverCatalina.com. For more information on the Pavilion Hotel, phone 800-626-1496 or visit www.pavilionlodge.com.
Photos, from top: Casino stands sentry over Avalon's colorful bay; a couple anticipates a relaxing weekend in Catalina; Catalina's new zip line is proving quite popular; Pavilion Hotel's courtyard area
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway; zip line photo courtesy Santa Catalina Company