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Catalina Island Travel Guide

Catalina Island (or Santa Catalina Island) is about an hour away from San Pedro by car, 75 minutes away by ferry, and 15 minutes away by helicopter. The island has only one sizeable town and it looks a lot like a Southern California town from the 1970s. The island lies 22 miles off the Los Angeles coast and resembles a Mediterranean village more than a California resort. Homes are built along steep, terraced hills. The island itself measures 21 miles long and 8 miles wide and is fronted by Avalon Harbor where sail boats are anchored neatly in rows. With less than 4,000 residents, the atmosphere in Catalina is naturally low-key and village-like.[1]

The development of Catalina began in 1919 when William Wrigley Jr., a member of the famous chewing gum family, bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. Today, the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy protects over 80% of the island, ensuring homes for the foxes, ground squirrels, ornate shrews, western harvest and deer mice, and other creatures unique to the island. Plants endemic to Catalina include the Catalina mahogany tree and the lovely St. Catherine’s lace, among seven other rare plants.[2]

Most people arrive via the Catalina Express. This speedy ferry runs multiple times a day with scheduled services from San Pedro and Long Beach. It departs and arrives at the Pleasure Pier, which itself is lined with numerous shops. Large cruise ships usually make Avalon Harbor one of its port of calls on three- and four-day excursions that tour the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Ensenada, Mexico area.[3]

Unlike its smoggy neighbor across the straight, Catalina Island is a place where cars are out of place. Driving is strictly limited and there are no car rental companies. Most people walk. Bikes and golf carts, however, are available for rent and charge by the hour.[4]

Accommodations in Catalina are comprehensive. There are several comfortable hotels, cozy cottages, and even luxurious hostelries complete with full kitchens, fireplaces, and whirlpool tubs. One notable place is the stately white Inn. This elegant bed and breakfast is situated on Mount Ada, offering guests sweeping ocean vistas. It is a Georgian colonial mansion that has been restored. There are only six guest rooms, so advanced reservations are a must.[5]

The Casino Building, one of the best examples of Art Deco in the country, is the most recognizable landmark on the island. Standing 140 feet tall in circular form, the structure was completed in 1929 and used as a ballroom to host big dances during the days of Glen Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and other big-band orchestras. The building has since been converted into a movie theatre. It also houses the Catalina Museum.[6]

If you are interested in seeing the rugged interior of the island, the best way to do that is by hopping aboard the tram tour. This four-hour trip on an old stagecoach takes passengers up 2,000 feet to Skyline Drive where panoramas of the entire island can be enjoyed. The tour also makes a stop at El Rancho Escondido where you can see spirited Arabian horses.[7]

One of the best spectacles on the island is the herds of bison and buffalo that still graze the grasslands of the interior. They were brought there in 1924 to film the silent movie “The Vanishing American”.[8]

Another draw in Catalina is its water and beaches. Scuba divers are particularly drawn to the island’s clear water and teeming sea life. Backpackers enjoy going on excursions from Avalon and hiking into the interior. A number of well-equipped campgrounds are within a day to three days reach of the bay. Golfing on the island is surreal. There is a well-kept 9-hole golf course set amidst stunning views of the coast, mountains, and ocean. Pleasure Pier is the scene of boats, fishermen, and recreational anglers.[9]

Catalina’s charm is that it is mellow-paced and devoid of the glitz you’ll find in Los Angeles. You can go at your own pace, converse with friendly people, and transact at reasonable prices. The island is worth spending a relaxing day or two.[10]

Baker, Christopher, Judy Wade, and Morten Strange. California. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1994. ISBN: 0671879065.

[1] Baker, 180
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at 181
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.

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