It’s not often that a one-hour journey can transport a traveler to completely different surroundings, but the ferry to Catalina Island absolutely accomplishes that feat. From the moment we sailed past The Queen Mary on our way out of Long Beach Harbor, the freeway traffic, questionable air quality, and general chaos of Southern California drifted away into oblivion.
As we approached the dock in Avalon Bay we noticed something unexpected--cars and trucks on the roads. Isn't Catalina known for not having any cars? Were we in for traffic jams here as well? It was our understanding that these sorts of vehicles were not welcome on the island… time to investigate.
Since Santa Catalina Island is fairly large – over twenty miles long – practicality dictates that a few motor vehicles are necessary, but the numbers are strictly limited. This has created a ten-year wait for the privilege of bringing a car to the island. So folks fill the void with golf carts, which leads to a study in human nature. Give Homo sapiens any sort of vehicle and they will inevitably trick it out, which is one of the things that Catalina is famous for. We found some hot rods with chrome wheels and custom paint, some stretch models like little limousines, and even a little golf cart tow truck.
Feeling rather insignificant on our decidedly non-tricked out bicycles we brought along on the ferry, we forged ahead nonetheless. Catalina is bike friendly, no worries about getting clipped by a truck or mowed down by a texting motorist; however the hills are not very friendly at all. It was easy enough to ride around Avalon, the island's only town, but level ground is nearly nonexistent anywhere else. So we limited our explorations to the area in and around town.
Almost all of Catalina’s 3,700 residents reside in Avalon, forming a semicircle around the harbor. The bay is lined with restaurants and shops along one side of Crescent Avenue as well as a narrow public beach along the water. But the beach is not the main attraction on this island, a quiet, quaint escape is. So pick a spot, relax and watch the boats come and go.
For a slight increase in activity we wandered out on the Green Pleasure Pier, the hub for most tourist diversions. The pier is the place to fish, find tour boats, shop for souvenirs,or grab a snack (that might end up getting inadvertently shared with the seagulls).
At the far end of the beach, The Casino overlooks the bay. This is not one of those establishments filled with tuxedo clad gentleman and gaming tables; that would be totally out of character for the pace of the island. This is a casino in the formal definition of the word, from the Italian casa, meaning house, a casino is a building for housing civic functions like concerts and dancing.
The beautiful, round, twelve-story Art Deco structure juts out majestically into the sea and includes the world's largest circular ballroom along with the 1,184 seat Avalon Theater. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. built the casino, along with many of the island's other most prominent structures, in the 1920s after buying the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919. The famous gum man immediately began to promote Catalina as a tourist Mecca, and even purchased two ships to ferry folks out to his friendly little Shangri-La.
Wrigley also happened to own the Chicago Cubs, so he made the decision to host the Cubbies spring training on the island. It must have inspired the baby bears, since their last pennant came during that time. Perhaps they should consider a return engagement.
We rode our trusty bikes inland up Avalon Canyon Road, passing the site where Cub Spring Training was held from 1921 to 1951, to the Wrigley Memorial and Gardens. The 130-foot high memorial was built to honor Wrigley after his death in 1932 and the surrounding thirty-eight acres were set aside as a nature conservatory.
At the top we took a break to enjoy the view and observe the many examples of flora and fauna preserved in the gardens. The Wrigley Memorial Garden Foundation places special interest on protecting the native endemic plants such as Catalina Ironwood, Catalina Mahogany, St. Catherine's Lace, Catalina Live-Forever, Catalina Manzanita, and Catalina Bedstraw. These species are endemic, which means they don't grow any place else on Earth. The reserve is also home to some celebrity bison. These burly animals were brought over for a movie in 1924, performed their parts and then left behind. Now they are thriving in their new home.
Unlike the movie buffs, we couldn’t stay for good, but we sure had a great visit and so will you when you visit beautiful Catalina Island.
Have you been to the island? What other activities would you add?