Santa Catalina: The Island of Romance and More

Remember the song: “26 Miles” by the Four Preps?
Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance
Romance, romance, romance

By Sandra Scott

The 11-story Casino is the iconic landmark in Avalon Bay. If you plan to gamble you will be disappointed because it isn’t that kind of casino. The large building contains a movie theater, ballroom and more.
The 11-story Casino is the iconic landmark in Avalon Bay. If you plan to gamble you will be disappointed because it isn’t that kind of casino. The large building contains a movie theater, ballroom and more.

There is more than romance in Santa Catalina — there is fun, adventure and relaxation. The island is located 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles and made up of two towns: Avalon on the east end and Two Harbors on the west. The island is 22 miles long and eight miles across. The land outside the towns is rugged wilderness owned and operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

1. Getting there: The easiest and least expensive way to get to Catalina is by ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point. It takes a bit more than an hour. Or, take a helicopter from Long Beach, San Pedro, Burbank or John Wayne Airport. You can also get there by your private aircraft or boat. Carnival cruise line also stops on some their cruises.

2. Getting around: Avalon, the island’s main town, is small so everything is within easy walking distance. The public bus has a fixed route up the canyon to Wrigley Memorial and the Botanical Gardens. Rent a golf cart or bike, take a sightseeing tour in a motor coach or open-air tram, or use a shuttle bus service or use the taxi service to the Airport in the Sky, Two Harbors or the interior campground. Or, rent a car. The traffic is minimal. There is a 20-year waiting list to own a car on Catalina.

3. Where to stay: There are a variety of accommodations from plush hotels to quaint B&Bs. Plus, tent-site camping, beach-front cabanas, condos and vacation rentals. To avoid the crowds and take advantage of great values, consider visiting in the spring or fall. Avalon is the happening place but for those looking for an out-of-the-way place check out Two Harbors for a quiet, relaxed way to enjoy the island.

4. History: The island has been inhabited for at least 8000 years. During that time is was home to Native Americans and visited by the Spanish who named the island in honor of St. Catherine. Over the years the island was used by otter hunters, smugglers, ranchers, and for mining and military operations. More recently, from 1919 until 1970, it was owned by William Wrigley, Jr. of chewing gum fame and owner of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley developed it into a resort island and it was used as the Chicago Cubs spring training site from 1921 to 1951. Learn more at the Catalina Island Museum.

5. The Casino: You can’t miss it. The 11-story Casino is the iconic landmark in Avalon Bay. If you plan to gamble you will be disappointed because it isn’t that kind of casino. The name comes from the Italian meaning a “gathering place.” Since 1929 it has been the focal point for the island’s activities. Wrigley felt arriving visitors would feel “here is beauty, relaxation, and fun,” and a way to — for at least a little while — escape from the country’s depressed times. The large building contains a movie theater, ballroom and more. Take the 90-minute walking tour and see where the big bands played to the enjoyment of their famous guests.

6. “Water all around it ev’rywhere”: Go scuba diving in the kelp fields or stay dry aboard the Sea Wolf Semi-Submersible Vessel and see the marine life through your own porthole five feet below the surface. Enjoy a trip on the Ribcraft in search of dolphins. Take a nighttime cruise in search of the California Flying Fish. There are a variety of boat tours — something for everyone. Relax on one of the several beaches including Avalon, Starlight, Lorenzo, and Buttonshell Beach along with many coves to explore.

Relax on one of the several beaches in Santa Catalina, including the Middle Beach.
Relax on one of the several beaches in Santa Catalina, including the Middle Beach.

7. Land time: Check out the Avalon Scenic Tour and see the town, including the home of Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, who lived there when she was 16 and married to merchant marine, James Dougherty.

Hop a Hummer for the Avalon Canyon Trail Tour or the one to Mt. Ada for great views of the area. The adventurous should check out zip lining, rock climbing, or the unique Aerial Adventure with five self-guided, self-paced courses made up of rope ladders, log bridges, balance beams, and other challenging elements. Don’t miss the Wrigley Memorial Botanic Garden; they often have free guided tours.

8. Buffaloed: Don’t miss viewing the buffalo herd. While filming “The Vanishing American” in 1924, the production crew imported 14 bison from the Great Plains.  They never left the island and over the years the herd has increased making them the island’s largest resident land mammals. They are regularly spotted on the land tours.

9. Shopping: There is no shortage of shopping opportunities from the obligatory T-shirt to the Catalina Pottery Shop offering original vintage Catalina Pottery made on the island from 1927-1937 along with other handmade items. Every Easter weekend, along the waterfront in Avalon, there is a three-day art fair featuring local and mainland artists and crafts, along with musical entertainment.

10. And: Let the fun continue with swimming, standup board paddling, kayaking, relaxing with a spa treatment, golfing, or attending one of their several events from concerts to the annual outrigger championship to underwater cleanup by scuba divers. There are weekly activities such as Summer Beach Bingo (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Kid’s Fishing Derby (Wednesdays). Something for everyone year round.

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