For many who grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, the name of Santa Catalina will always evoke the vision of California at its most romantic, thanks to the Four Preps’ influential pop song of the same name. But the actual island has helped city folk enjoy romance, nature and elegant surroundings in their preferred proportions for nearly a century.
Although the songwriter described it as “26 miles across the sea” from his point of view, the actual place is only about 22 miles off the Southern California coast. You could easily visit the island in a single day, but with all the outdoor opportunities and tours to go on, allowing one or two nights is better. Summertime high temperatures are usually in the low to mid-70s.
The entire island is 76 square miles but its main town, Avalon, is a mere 1 square mile. Many locals zip around in golf carts or on bikes, both of which you can rent, but walking is the preferred method for visitors to visit the shops, restaurants and bars.
Crescent Street is the main drag in Avalon and is where you will find many of the town’s restaurants, hotels, shops and beaches. The Green Pier extends out into the harbor and is the launching point for tours such as the Undersea Sub Expedition, Glass Bottom Boat Voyage and other adventures.
Along the harbor is also where you will find the iconic Catalina Casino. There is no gambling; the name reflects its original Italian meaning of “a place for entertainment,” and the 12-story building has served that purpose since it opened in 1929. There are two tours available: Discover the Casino, which lasts about 45 minutes, and Casino Behind the Scenes, 90 minutes.
The highlights of a tour include visiting the Avalon Theater with its art deco mural, the original pipe organ and the incredible Casino Ballroom with a 10,000-square-foot dance floor beneath 50-foot ceilings and five Tiffany chandeliers. The room can handle more than 1,200 people. In the 1930s and ’40s, when big bands dominated American music, its elevated stage was a favored venue from which their sounds were broadcast. Outside the ballroom, the balcony wraps around the building, affording views of Avalon Bay and beyond.
While many who come to the island are content hanging out along the main drag in Avalon, the more adventurous will find almost unlimited things to do. One great start is to walk over to the Descanso Beach Club where the Zipline Eco Tour embarks. This zip line consists of five segments, one more than 1,000 feet alone, at heights that reach 300 feet above the canyon below. The ocean views are superb.
After the zip line, stop in at the beach club itself, where you can enjoy beachside dining or bar service, either at an ocean-view table, chaise lounge, private cabana or even on the sand at one of the finest beaches in town.
To really get to see the island you might want to sign up for the Journey to the Sky Tour, about a two-hour excursion. The old ’50s Flexible bus travels 31 miles into the rugged interior along rolling valleys, canyons and peaks. The tour takes you up to historic Middle Ranch and then out to the island’s windward side with spectacular ocean and hidden harbor views. Along the way you might see bald eagles, Catalina Island fox and mule deer, and even bison. You have plenty of opportunities to get off the bus and walk around and take photos including the vistas from Catalina’s Airport-in-the-Sky.
If you want a more rugged tour, there is also the Bison Expedition, in a open-air biofuel Hummer. The story goes back to 1924 when 14 bison were brought in for a film and left here. At one time their numbers had grown to about 500, but the Catalina Island Conservatory, formed in 1972, tries to maintain the herd at about 150 to keep the island’s ecosystem in balance.
If you are interested in exploring the island on your own, there are 200 miles of hiking trails including the 37.2-mile Trans-Catalina Island Trail, which traverses the entire island. Mountain biking along the island’s mostly unpaved roads is also popular. Check with the Catalina Island Conservancy for regulations and to secure a hiking permit or Freewheeler Bike Pass at 301-510-2595 or www.catalinaconservancy.org
There are many ways to get to Catalina island such as via helicopter or private boat but most visitors take one of the high-speed ferries from the mainland. Catalina Express departs daily from the towns of San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. This boat ride takes only an hour or so. For details call 800-481-3470 or visit https://www.catalinaexpress.com.
For more information on a trip to Catalina or to book hotel, land or sea adventures, contact the Catalina Island Company at 877-778-8322 or www.visitcatalinaisland.com.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.