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Catalina Island: Island of Romance

Twenty- six miles across the sea

Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me 

Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance…
26 Miles by the Four Preps

Catalina Island is a place to relax, to find adventure, and a renowned island of romance. Just an hour by boat or fifteen minutes by helicopter or private plane from the Los Angeles area, this sunny island resort with crystal clear waters and cool ocean breezes might be a distance of twenty-six miles but it feels a million miles away.

One of eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, it was claimed for Spain by one Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who named it San Salvador, and renamed Santa Catalina by another, Sabastian Viscaino, who arrived on the eve of Saint Catherine’s Feast Day.

Its earliest known Native American residents were relocated to mainland missions, and over the years it was inhabited by missionaries, smugglers, miners, ranchers, the Union Army, and a series of private owners.

George Shatto bought the island in 1887 for $200,000 during a real estate boom. He was the first of a series of entrepreneurs to create a tourist resort on the flat land that bordered a crescent-shaped beach. His sister-in-law Etta Whitney chose the name Avalon from the beautiful island valley in Tennyson’s King Arthur saga Idylls of the King. He added regular steamer service and sold small lots, some just big enough for tents, but was underfunded for his ambitious projects, and in a plummeting real estate market defaulted on his loan.

Catalina Island was sold in 1892 to the three Banning brothers, whose father had established stagecoach and steamship transportation and communications networks in Southern California. They founded the Santa Catalina Island Company and increased steamship service, installed telephones and telegraph systems, and added dance pavilions, bandstands, an aquarium, a Greek amphitheater, a golf course, an inclined railway, roads to the interior, stagecoach tours, a men-only gambling club, and covered benches known as “spoonholders”. Glass bottomed boat rides originated here in the 1897. Rental tents accommodated those who couldn’t afford a hotel.

Catalina Island became world-renowned for its flying fish and for big game sport fishing. The Tuna Club, founded in 1898 , is the oldest fishing club in America.

Wrigley Mansion, Catalina Island, California
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Wrigley Mansion, Catalina Island, California

William Wrigley, Jr.

After a fire in 1915 that devastated much of the town and with the effects of World War I on tourism, the island and Santa Catalina Island Company were sold in shares. Investors included master marketer and chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. Jr., who bought controlling interest based on what he saw on a postcard. After visiting with his wife, he bought out the other partners.

Wrigley had rock quarries, a foundry, and a furniture factory. He mined silver, zinc, and lead. His Catalina Tile and Pottery Factory produced paving bricks, building tiles, and red roofing tiles for structures like the Casino, Chicago Cubs Spring Training Clubhouse, Bird Park and colorful glazed tiles seen on buildings, benches, and fountains throughout the island.

Wrigley added more steamers, and built homes, bigger hotels, and a yacht club. He organized a cross-channel swim marathon and golf tournaments, and brought his Chicago Cubs to Catalina Island for Spring Training. He used from steel structure of the Sugarloaf dance pavilion to for a Bird Park aviary.

the Casino, Catalina Island, California
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the Casino, Catalina Island, California

In its place he built the 140’ 12-story landmark Casino. Never designed for gambling, it was given the Italian name then meaning place of entertainment. The twenty-four karat gold stars set in four-inch squares of sterling silver leaf still twinkle on the ceiling during movies in the 1184 seat state-of-the-art Avalon Theater. It featured silent films and was the first built for talkies.

ballroom of the Casino, Catalina Island, California
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ballroom of the Casino, Catalina Island, California

A Tiffany chandelier and sterling silver figures of gods adorn the balconied ballroom with a nearly 360 degree view of the town and harbor. Mood lights were color coded–blue for fox trot, red for cha-cha. Bob Hope was here on USO tours. Kate Smith sang God Bless America in the ballroom. The circular dance floor is still the largest in the world. Admission was included in the $1.69 price of a steamship ride with live music and included a drink.

Phillip Wrigley had already been president of Santa Catalina Island Company for seven years when his father died in 1932. He gave Avalon a new look with palm trees, serpentine walls, fountains, bell towers, and its bright colors, like Pier Green.

During the Big Band era, the Casino was open every summer night for dancing. Sport fishing drew visitors from around the world. Movies were filmed here and Hollywood legends, Presidents, and literary giants were commonly sighted.

These golden years were interrupted by World War II, when military training stations were set up on the island and the steamships were used for troop transport. After the war, the 1,602’ high mountaintop Airport in the Sky was completed and opened to the public. The Catalina Nature Center was added. Wartime amphibious planes and helicopters were used to travel to the island, and faster boats replaced the steamers.

11% of the island is presently owned by the Santa Catalina Island Company and 1% is privately held. The Wrigley family donated 88% of island–over 42,000 acres with 48 miles of coastline– to the Catalina Island Conservancy, an independent non-profit organization established in 1972 to restore and preserve this area to its natural state. It includes 200 miles of roads, and allows controlled public recreational and environmental educational use.

In May, 2007, fire raged through about 10% of the interior land, but this time Avalon was spared.

Avalon

You will be on island time when you arrive at this vacation destination’s only city. Rows of pleasure boats sway gently in the breeze, and colorful parasailing canopies reach for the sky.

Pleasure Pier, Catalina Island, California
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Pleasure Pier, Catalina Island, California

The Green Pleasure Pier is a hub of activities, as in the days when big game fish were weighed here and sport fishermen like Zane Grey, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, and Winston Churchill were photographed with their catch–perhaps a tuna, marlin, or black sea bass, or swordfish.

dolphins, Catalina Island, California
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dolphins, Catalina Island, CaliforniaY

Getting there

You’re apt to spot whales and dolphin on the popular Catalina Express ferry ride from the mainland. Their website has a printable Day Pass with island discounts.

A shuttle runs between Avalon and the Airport in the Sky for those arriving by helicopter or private plane. Another shuttle connects Avalon to Two Harbors, stopping at campsites and trailheads along the way.

Activities and Island Adventures

Only 800 full-size vehicles are allowed for the 4000 island residents, and the most common mode of transportation is the golf cart. Each household is allowed one.

ziplining, Catalina Island, California
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ziplining, Catalina Island, California

ziplining, Catalina Island, California
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ziplining, Catalina Island, California

  • Sightsee, find your thrill, discover your inner biologist or geologist, relax and soak up the sun or find a secluded cove. Catalina Island has an astounding array of ways to enjoy the great outdoors, from an Avalon city tour in an open-air tram to the newest attraction, a 4000’ zip line that soars 300’ above the canyon floor.
  • There are rental bikes and golf carts, shuttles and taxis, but it’s easy to stroll past the waterfront shops and restaurants of Crescent Avenue, also known as Front Street, and the surrounding area. Stop by Avalon’s Nature Center, run by the Nature Conservancy, to learning about island’s flora and fauna. It’s free.
  • Play a round at the Catalina Golf Course. Built in 1892, it’s the oldest still-in-use golf course west of the Mississippi. Many celebrities, including a 4 year old Tiger Woods, played here. The adjacent Catalina Country Club building was built for Chicago Cubs spring training and now offers some of the best dining in town.
  • A must-see is the Casino’s ballroom (check the concert schedule) and Avalon Theater with its 1929 Page organ. Discovery Tours’ Behind the Scenes Casino Tour includes the green rooms used by Cary Grant and Errol Flynn and a chance to walk on the stage where Benny Goodman played.
  • The Casino building also houses the Catalina Island Museum, a repository of historical photographs, Catalina pottery samples, archaeological finds and more.
  • The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens (Admission $5) features rare plants endemic to Catalina and other Channel Islands and desert plants from around the world. Its centerpiece, the Wrigley Memorial, is built with quarried Catalina stones and colorful glazed tiles from the Catalina Pottery Company. Mr. Wrigley’s body was originally interred at the Memorial, but was moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
  • The more adventurous enjoy searching for wildlife like the Catalina Island fox and antelope in the unspoiled wilderness of the rugged interior by camping or hiking the 37 mile Trans-Catalina Trail. (Permit required) Bison, originally brought here in 1924 for the filming of The Vanishing American, based on Zane Grey’s novel, roam freely. Bald eagles have been successfully reintroduced after being nearly eliminated by DDT use in the 1970s. Tours are also available by motorcoach, jeep, Hummer or open-air Mercedes Umimog.
  • Whether you prefer to be in or on the water, options abound. You can take a semi-submersible submarine tour, rent a watercraft, tour in an ocean raft, or see the underwater sights aboard a glass bottomed boat. Kayak or go on one of Catalina Island’s renowned fishing expeditions. Don an undersea helmet and take a Sea Trek Adventure. There’s also snorkeling, scuba diving, and snuba, a combination of the two requiring no diving experience. Whale watching trips are offered January through March when California Grey Whales migrate.
  • With colorful marine life, underwater gardens, sea caves, and coastal reefs, Catalina Island offers world-class underwater experiences. It was named the #1 dive destination in North America in Rodale’s Scuba Diving magazine in Reader’s Choice Awards of the Top 100 dive destinations in the world.
Catalina Ocean Rafting’s two hour Coastal Wild Dolphin Encounter, Catalina Island, California
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Catalina Ocean Rafting’s two hour Coastal Wild Dolphin Encounter, Catalina Island, California

  • For a close encounter with playful marine mammals, Catalina Ocean Rafting’s two hour Coastal Wild Dolphin Encounter in power inflatable boats is a best bet. Travel ten miles along the shore’s secluded coves, beaches, landmarks, and rare formations and head ten miles out in search of dolphin, harbor seals, and sea lions, all while learning about the island and its wildlife.
  • Boats and shuttle buses connect to the village of Two Harbors at the west end isthmus. Many films from the silent flicks to Clark Gable’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Treasure Island, McHale’s Navy, Gregory Peck’s landing in McArthur–were shot here, on what became known as the Isthmus Movie Colony. The abundance of marine creatures like starfish, sea urchins, and colorful fish make this a popular spot for diving and snorkeling.

Dining and Accommodations

Here are just a few of the top dining and accommodations options:

Descanso Beach Club, Catalina Island, California
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Descanso Beach Club, Catalina Island, California

For the best al fresco dining, head for the Descanso Beach Club–just past the Casino. There’s outdoor patio seating, fire rings on the beach, barbecues under the stars and live dinner music.

Catalina Island Vacation Rentals offers a range of accommodations from well-appointed condos and villas to cozy historic cottages.

 The M Venue in the Metropole Marketplace, Catalina Island, California
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The M Venue in the Metropole Marketplace, Catalina Island, California

Ocean-view hotels include the Hotel Metropole, namesake of the one lost in the fire of 1915. It features romantic amenities like fireplaces, a rooftop sun deck, whirlpool tubs, spa services, and private balconies overlooking the water. Its newly remodeled restaurant, The M Venue in the Metropole Marketplace features a sophisticated menu featuring all natural fresh products.

The staff of Alison Wrigley’s newly refurbished ocean-view Pavilion Hotel will pick up your luggage at the Avalon boat terminal, and the concierge assists with reservations.There’s complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon wine and cheese tasting, use of iPads, and priority cabana and chairs reservations at the Descanso Beach Club.

Novelist Zane Grey’s former hillside home is now The Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel. Its rooms are not numbered but named for his books.

The four-star Inn on Mt. Ada was once the home of William Wrigley, Jr., whose famous guests included Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, and the Prince of Wales. It is also open for lunch.

A visit to Catalina Island is an easy and affordable island escape. You needn’t be rich or famous, like so many who have chosen this as their vacation destination, to savor the best of what the island has to offer.

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