Catalina Island Review - The Hidden Beauty amd Secrets of Catalina

Catalina: the port of Avalon

Preparing for an adventure into the interior of Catalina Island, I geared up with hiking boots, sun screen and sun hats.  Very few people, even the locals, seldom go outside of the city to experience the beauties of nature that the Catalina Island Conservancy offers, but I found out quickly that it’s well worth the effort.

Catalina: Windward view

Most people think that William Wrigley’s foundation still owns the island of Catalina, but since 1972 that is no longer true.  It was then that Philip Wrigley, William’s son, in an effort to conserve the landscape of the island beauty, deeded 88% to the Santa Catalina Conservancy.  He kept 11% for tourist related endeavors and allowed 1% to be owned privately. 

Catalina: Soapstone quarry from the Tongva Indians

Originally inhabited by the Chumash and Tongva Indians – all who were banished by the missionaries – the island was named in 1572 after Saint Catherine.  It wasn’t, however, until the Banning brothers started their steamer run that people began to see Catalina as a tourist resort.  Their reign ended unexpectedly with the fire that destroyed the city of Avalon in 1918.  Soon after, Wrigley bought the island and after rebuilding the main city, he went forward in his dream of making it a tourist destination and a location for his Chicago Cubs to practice during their winter break. 

Catalina: Pimu, the bald eagle

Hollywood soon followed his lead and stars as Laurel and Hardy; Densi Arnez, Clark Gable and John Wayne began to frequent the small island with its Mediterranean type climate.  Soon more discovered that even when Los Angeles had bad weather, Catalina did not.  The island began being used as a center for movie production and many numbers like Mutiny on the Bounty called the island their temporary home. 

Catalina: grazing Buffalo

It was, in fact, while filming the 1924, Vanishing American that the bison or buffalo were first brought over. Rather than deport them when the film was finished, the huge animals were allowed to roam the island freely.  Today, their magnificent descendants, once an endangered species, still have the freedom of the inner island.   The same goes for the Catalina Fox, who, like the island rattlesnake, has been proven to be a unique animal unlike its other California cousins. 

Catalina: Tachi, the native fox

Travel to the island of adventure and romance has varied over the years. Now the Catalina Express, which runs constant shuttles back and forth from Long Beach, Dana Point, and San Pedro, carries the majority of the tourists.  Costs for tickets run from $66.50 RT to $97 (if one wants the luxury of the commodore lounge. The commodore lounge gives beverage coupons to their customers, as well as a comfortable ride.)  A private party room (The Captain’s Lounge) which includes a bottle of champagne, can also be rented for special crossings at extra cost of $60.  In addition, besides private planes, which land at their small Airport in the Sky, there is also the helicopter service costing $160 RT.  The difference is fourteen minutes versus a little over one hour. 

Catalina: Zip Line station

The Zip Line Eco Tour looked like fun, but we didn't have time to do it.   Reservations are required for these and they can be visited without the package, as well.  There are 3,761 lineal feet where you can ride up to 45 miles/hour and heights of over 300 feet.  They also have the Villa Vacation package and the Paradiso Package for first time island visitors. 

Catalina: Avalon Harbor

Those visiting the island today can expect a slight increase in costs for food and other expenses. This is because everything must be shipped over from the mainland.  Nothing is grown on the island.  The residents, themselves, find that expenses living on the island run about 30% more than the mainland.  For that reason, many have more than one job. 

Catalina: the quaint city of Avalon

Our taxi was one of the only 600 cars on the island.  Everyone else must get around by golf carts (which can be rented.) This is to keep the environment green.  There is a ten year wait to get a standard car onto the island. 

Catalina: Hotel Villa Portofino in Avalon

We were privileged to stay at the beautiful Hotel Villa Portofino, which offers fireplaces in the room and double wide bathtubs for those romantic times.  Continental breakfast is served in the morning.   One of the luxury hotels on the island, rooms range from $95/night up to $550 for suites during the season.  (Off season for hotels is October to May.)  A quaint Italian type villa, the building was built in the 60’s and unfortunately, there are stairs all over so handicap access is not available.  Many of the hotels, I found out, were older buildings like this one and only a few had access for handicap visitors.  A few of the hotels do take animals. (Pets travel free on the Catalina Express as long as they meet the requirements of leashes and cages.)

Catalina: Windward view

Leaving the hotel at 7:30 am, we were escorted by Lesly Lieberman and Leslie Baer of the Catalina Island Conservancy office and headed out of the city into the “wilds” of Catalina. 

Catalina: At the native nursery

The green of the hills contrasted to the vivid crystal blue of the ocean as we traveled toward the inner island and the windward side.  Because of the Mediterranean climate, the hills are greener in off season than in the summer when everything around is brown.

Catalina: Buffalo scratching his head

Wrigley’s mission, when giving the land to the Conservancy, was to preserve the island in its natural habitat and that is the mission that the group has endeavored to carry out.  There are over 600 unique species of animals and 430 plants not found anywhere else in the world.  They are protect and, with the help of the nursery, kept alive and flourishing. Many non native plants, brought in by well meaning visitors, as the herb fennel, try to take over the land and change the soil so that the native plants cannot grow.  Unlike other conservancies, Catalina’s is proactive.  Rather than letting the land just go back to nature, they conservancy must clear out the invasive fast growing plants (as the fennel) and safeguard those that are native to the island.  The idea is to experience a piece of California as it might have been 200 hundred years ago.  Their mission is to educate people and help them to enjoy the land, while actively taking care of it.

Catalina: Volunteers from Americor

Because of limited funding, the conservancy relies heavily on volunteers and they have programs that run throughout the year.  Volunteers can be any age and they are employed in many areas that helps the island.  Among the jobs they do are fence walking, beach cleaning and working in the James H. Ackerman Native Plant Nursery.  One can come for six days, five nights and sleep in the tents at the Laura Stein camp (and maybe have a midnight greeting from a fox, deer or buffalo.) The sample volunteer schedule includes catered dinners at the camps, entertaining evenings on the town, campfires, shopping trips, as well as volunteer work.  Many people return over and over for the educational vacation.  Or they can come for a more luxurious two day stay that combines the elegant Hotel Portofino with a morning of work and then lunch at the Airport In the Sky, an optional hike and an afternoon of relaxing at Avalon. 

Catalina: Best surfing beach

“Of the more than 7,000 people that visit the island, only a small percentage ever venture into the beautiful interior,” says Ms. Lieberman.  “Many people only know the city of Avalon or a few go to the more remote town Two Harbors.  Some might rent condos in the exclusive area of Hamilton Cove. “  To remedy this, the conservancy has developed special package tours.  For a half day, up to six people can take a Jeep Eco Tour with a trained naturalist $495 or a full day for $795. 

Biking is another wonderful option.  Mountain bikes can be rented at the dock.  In order to go biking on Catalina, a permit is needed.  Not far from the landing at 125 Clarissa Street is the conservancy office where you register to go biking.   The passes are a benefit of membership, which is a mere $35. 

Catalina: Catalina Express

“Hunters,” says Ms. Baer, “are welcome on the island, but it’s an experience many of them are not prepared for.  You need to be in good shape to hunt here.”  She pointed to the many hills and valleys where the deer and bison roam.  Shelping a deer up the hill can prove difficult for even the strongest of men.   Again, a permit is needed, to keep tabs of people, and that can be obtained from Deedee Conner or Kevin Ryan at 310 510 1888. 

Catalina: Laura Stein Volunteer camp

Traveling into the Middle Ranch area, we visited the Roy Rose Garden, which cultivates and cares for many of the native plants, we saw the rare Catalina Mahogany and the Saint Catherine’s Lace flower.  Because the deer like to eat the flowers and leaves, many of the plants are protected with wire fencing around them. 

Catalina:Airport in the Sky

After, we visited the Airport in the Sky. Built on two leveled mountain tops, its café serves remarkable Buffalo Burgers and Sue’s secret recipe cookies.  Reportedly people fly here from all over for these delicacies.  (And no the buffalo you eat are not the ones who roam the island.)  The Wild Lands Express, which costs $26 RT, ($21 OW)  can take you from the tour plaza  to the airport. 

Catalina: Soapstone quarry from the Tongva Indians

Not far from the airport, we took a wonderful hike on the TransCatalina road by Airport Circle toward the ancient soapstone quarry where the natives made their bowls.  If you’re tired or are running out of time, you can cheat the 2.3 miles by going left instead of right.  It’s only .2 mile hike on the Soapstone Trail then.

Catalina: the Casino and Harbor

Other great things on the island include the Casino Island Museum. ($5 admission) Built by Wrigley, the Casino is well known for its wonderful ballroom and theatre.  It’s a great place to spend New Year’s Night.   There are tours of the city, sundown isthmus cruises, seal rocks cruise, glass bottom boat tours, undersea tours and a trip on skyline drive into the interior where the views are fabulous.  You might also like parasailing, ocean rafting, golf, a segway tour, or flying fish boat trip.  Kayaking is another popular island sport. 

Catalina: nude beach

19 miles from the quaint city of Avalon is the country town of Two Harbors, located at the Isthmus of Catalina Island.  Reportedly some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling can be had here and many people enjoy the paddle boats.  Nearby is also a nude beach, for those who wish to indulge.  

Dinner our last night was at an excellent restaurant – Steve’s Steakhouse – which serves fresh fish as well as excellent steaks.  On a second floor, with no elevator, handicap patrons have difficulties.  However, the maitre de informed me that if there is a disabled person needing assistance, they will come down and carry him up the stairs.  Steve’s is one of the main restaurants that is available in the off season. 

Because off season is when the island is the prettiest, and because it gets more sun than Southern California, itself, I recommend traveling then.
Get ready to relax and absorb the natural environment and remember to make your reservations early.  

Information on the volunteer vacation packages can be had from the Conservancy at  310 510 2595 or from Hotel Villa Portofino ( 888 510 0555;  information about the Catalina Express at 800 429 4601 or;  for information about events at the Casino call 310 510 7400.  For Steve's Steakhouse 310 510 0333.

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