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Catalina

Copter ride like winning Reward Challenge

By CARY ORDWAY

If you're looking for a romantic getaway, look no further than California's famous Catalina Island. Visiting Catalina will be both romantic and memorable no matter how you get there,but we have just the solution if you want this trip to be one of those documented in that special album right alongside your honeymoon.

Try, this time, visiting Catalina Island by helicopter.

Your honey will feel like you two have won the Reward Challenge on TV's Survivor as you jump in your helicopter and are whisked away to an island just far enough from Los Angeles to make it feel like it's another country. No, Jeff Probst won't be waiting on the other side, but your Catalina taxi will take you the quick three-quarters mile into Avalon where you'll find charming lodgings and cuisine every bit as spectacular as that devoured by the winners onSurvivor.

And just one more suggestion — make this trip a surprise. For maximum impact, pop this little outing on your significant other, let's say, on the way to the dry cleaner. Just stick your overnight bag under the dirty clothes and you're all set.

Helicopters leave several times each day from Long Beach and San Pedro. Island Express Helicopter Service operates a fleet of four modern six-passenger helicopters from their base helipad in Long Beach, next to the Queen Mary. It takes just a few minutes to weigh passengers and luggage, and then it's just 14 minutes of actual flight time to Catalina.

Lifting off from Long Beach was a thrill as our pilot gradually raised the helicopter a few feet into the air and then suddenly turned the aircraft around, put the nose down and swooped forward, quickly picking up speed to 120 knots. Suddenly we had a birds-eye view of the Long Beach shipping terminal as well as cruise ships at San Pedro where we took about a three-minute detour to pick up more passengers. These helicopters are remarkably quiet onboard; unlike others we have flown in, this helicopter didn't require headphones to talk above the sound of the engine. And they're smooth-riding — the reluctant flier will be comforted to know helicopters don't feel turbulence like fixed-wing aircraft.

Yes, a helicopter trip can be pricey — it's currently $170 roundtrip from Long Beach so, for most people, this is a "special occasion" kind of experience. One way you might look at it, though, is that the cost of flying is only about two or three fancy dinners more than the cost of taking a boat. Do chocolates instead of dinner on a couple of birthdays and you're practically there.

Of course you won't want to skimp on the dinners while on Catalina Island. Part of the whole experience is enjoying places like Steve's Steakhouse, well-known on the island as one of the best, and a long list of restaurants and cafes offering a variety of cuisine. Several of the restaurants have sidewalk seating and a few have prime locations on the water where you can enjoy dinner and/or drinks on a deck with a postcard view of Avalon Harbor.

On our latest visit, we took a little time to do some sightseeing while on the island. The glass-bottom boats and semi-submersible submarines are great ways to get out and see some of the abundant marine life just off shore from the island. We took the Discovery Tours semi-submersible for a 45-minute excursion along the coastline into Lovers Cove, a protected marine sanctuary where diving and fishing are not allowed. The semi-submersible looks like a submarine but never actually dives below the water. However, the rows of windows on both sides of the boat are positioned about six feet underwater, giving the sense that you're actually diving.

Passengers on our boat were especially excited by the several feeding stops during which the crew threw food over the side to attract what must have been hundreds of fish to the boat — so many that, for an instant, the sub's interior darkened as fish blocked the water-filtered sunlight from reaching the windows.

We also enjoyed some time on a U-Drive golf cart. If you've been to Catalina, you know that streets are narrow and cars are almost non-existent. Most locals get around in golf carts and, for $30 an hour, visitors can drive the winding roads on both sides of the harbor to get some unforgettable views of Avalon. Navigating the streets of the village and its hillsides adds to the unmistakable feeling that you are in a foreign country. Close your eyes and when they open it could just as well be the south coast of France or maybe Spain, or anywhere but where you are — just 26 miles from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Completing the illusion that we were far away from home was our choice of hotel: the Hotel Villa Portofino, a charming boutique hotel in a perfect location just across the round-about from the edge of Avalon Harbor. Our room was small — just like in Europe -- but with a lot of extra touches like stylish carpets and marbles, color-coordinated walls and crafted ceilings, a sitting table and chairs, a flat-screen television and a small refrigerator. Most of the rooms open out onto a small, terraced courtyard that is landscaped with lush tropical plants, palm trees and flower arrangements. Guests were taking full advantage of the hotel's sun deck where one could look out and see a panorama of the harbor, the famous Catalina Casino and the sightseers on the streets below.

Those sightseers were fewer and farther between once the sun started to set over Avalon and the tour boats had all left for the Mainland. On this particular Sunday night, the downtown was eerily quiet with the only sounds being the occasional whirring of the golf carts. Overnight in Avalon is a completely different experience from the usual daytrip to the island; 15,000 people may visit the island on a busy day, but only 4,000 residents and a few tourists stay the night.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Catalina Island is about 26 miles west of the L.A. area. In addition to helicopter service to the island, there are several boat companies that service Catalina from seven ports in Orange and Los Angeles counties

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 see their website at www.visitcatalina.org. For more information on Island Express Helicopter Service, visit www.islandexpress.com or phone 1-800-2-AVALON. For More information on the Villa Portofino Hotel, phone 888-510-055 or visit www.hotelvillaportofino.com.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

Photos: Helicopters used by Island Express; fish-eye-view from semi-submersible; sundeck at Villa Portofino Hotel. Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Huntington Beach, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach

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