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Destination Catalina: A Review of L.A.'s Offshore Neighbor

By Hettie Lynne Hurtes Photos: Randy Roberts

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So many people in Los Angeles haven’t been to Catalina Island, even though it’s only an hour away.

It’s so close, and yet it’s an island with flora and fauna you won’t see anywhere else. You can bask in the sun or tire yourself out with some fun water and land sports.  Let’s explore!

 

First, the most common way to get to the island is by boat.  The Catalina Express, to be exact. It’s not your old fashioned ferry that smells of exhaust and is so noisy you can’t hear anything but the motor.  These modern vessels are carpeted with airplane-style cushioned seats.  Plenty of leg room and of course ocean views.  You can order a Bloody Mary, kick back and enjoy the hour-long ride.  It’s a $72.50 round trip ticket, but if it’s your birthday you ride free!  You can depart from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point.  For details visit their website: www.catalinaexpress.com.

You’ll be dropped off at Avalon Harbor, the touristy part of the island with lots of gift shops, bars and eateries.  You can walk the entire downtown in less than an hour, from your docking point to the Avalon Casino.

No, you can’t gamble at the 1920’s era casino, but you can tour the massive edifice that also contains a small museum and magnificent movie theatre complete with a live organ performance prior to the screening.

There are few cars allowed on the island, but you can rent a golf cart that’ll take you all over Avalon for $80 for 2 hours, which is probably more than what you’ll need.  You can follow the map they’ll provide that’ll show you a route up into the hills for spectacular views of the harbor. Drivers have to be 25 or older and have their own insurance.  There’s no locked container for personal belongings, so make sure you either leave them in your hotel or take them with you when you exit the vehicle.

Speaking of hotels there are lots of them…most smaller than those you might find on the mainland.  Preferring boutique hotels to the larger variety we stayed at two: The Avalon and The Aurora, both owned and operated by local residents of the island, one of them Kathleen Gosselin, who’s hands on approach to hospitality is refreshing.

The Avalon is styled in the Arts and Crafts tradition with imported African mahogany throughout the inn and Craftsman furnishings. 

You can book a room that overlooks the harbor or one with a view of their charming garden where you’ll enjoy your complimentary breakfast (weather permitting). The garden features a koi pond where each fish has been named by innkeeper, Laurie Sanchez. They're so friendly, they'll eat right out of your hand.  There are also several bird feeders where you’ll likely see a number of multi colored hummingbirds and maybe even a woodpecker or two.

It’s also relaxing watching parasailing from the 4th floor rooftop garden while sipping a glass of champagne.  There are coffee, tea and fruit always available, as well, in the lobby.  I loved the memory foam mattress and pillows and appreciated the hook up by the bed for an iPad or iPhone. There’s also free WiFi access…just ask for their code!  Another amenity: a beach bag with beach towel you can take down to the sand, and you’re welcome to use their comfy terry robes during your stay.  A lot of hotels have coffee and tea service in the room, but popcorn?  The Avalon supplies Orville Redenbacher packets for your microwave, just in case you can’t watch TV without it! 

Prices at The Avalon range from $195 to $499 a night, depending on time of year and size and location of room.  Details and reservations at www.theavalonhotel.com

 

Also in the heart of Avalon is the Aurora Hotel and Spa.  The style here is more retro modern, with black and aqua décor. 

Beautifully appointed rooms, especially the junior suites featuring an L-shaped sofa, desk with laptop drawer, vanity area, kitchenette with Keurig machine and a variety of Keurig coffee and tea cups, and a spacious bath with fragrant products and flickering candles on the Jacuzzi tub. 

The Aurora has a rooftop patio, too, where you can sunbathe or just enjoy the panoramic views.  The hotel spa is basically a room where you can make a reservation for a relaxing massage or body wrap.  Just ask at the front desk.

The complimentary breakfast at the Aurora is a satisfying way to start your day.  Fresh seasonal fruit, hard boiled eggs, a variety of pastries, orange juice, hot and cold cereals and fresh coffee or tea.  And if you’re a late riser, no problem, it’s served till 10!

Rates range from $169 to $769 depending on the size and location of the room. The highest rate is for the unique Aurora Suite, perfect for the Honeymoon couple or for those celebrating any extra special occasion.

You can find out more and make reservations at www.auroracatalina.com

 

As for activities on Avalon, they are mostly water related.  One of my favorites is the Dolphin Quest run by Catalina Expeditions.  It leaves from the Green Pier in the center of town and takes you on an hour long boat ride to see some of the sea mammals off the coast.  You’ll be transported in a Rigid Hulled Inflatable Craft, kind of like a pontoon that travels about 30 knots.  You’ll sit in a jockey seat, so word of advice to the ladies: don’t wear a skirt or dress. And tie your hair back, because the winds can be quite brisk. You’ll head about 2 miles offshore to a nearby cove where dozens of California sea lions bask in the sun. 

You may even see some bobbing in and out of the water. We lucked out and spotted a bald eagle in the rocks above the cove.  Wish it had spread its wings and flown…that would have been awesome!  What was awesome though, was on the way back from the cove where we were inundated by dolphins.  They started out at a distance, but minutes later they surrounded our boat provoking oohs and ahs.  Pretty exciting!

www.visitcatalinaisland.com

A more family friendly activity is the Semi-Submarine Tour, where you board the Nautilus, a vessel that has underwater portholes from which to spot the variety of fish in the area. You’ll join the captain and his crew on a “secret research mission” aboard the vessel. Remember the old Disneyland sub ride?  Well this is another version.  What’s cool about this one is that the boat actually leaves the dock, and as you motor along you can feed the fish from inside the vessel. How? With torpedo buttons you purchase onboard….each shot attracting hundreds of varieties including bass, perch, smelt and our own California state fish: the golden Garibaldi. 

 The ride is 45-minutes and costs $34 for adults, $25 for kids.  You can catch this boat from the Green Pier. Just make your reservations at www.californiaadventuretours.com

And now for something a little different: The Zip Line. Just to let you know I was definitely a skeptic.  I saw folks dangling hundreds of feet up in the air from a cable and thought: no way!  But after talking with those who experienced the thrill, I was finally convinced it was something I might just survive.  The Catalina Zip Line Eco-Tour is a 2-hour commitment, but, no, you’re not zip lining the entire time.

You’re fitted with  appropriate gear, given a brief explanation of what you’re in for and how to make the experience fun but safe, and then driven up to the first station. 

 



You’ll propel down 5 different zip lines, dropping from 500 feet to 60 feet above sea level with one zip line that’s 11-hundred feet long. You’ll be zipping nearly three quarters of a mile above the canyon floor at speeds pushing 45mph. The views are spectacular, once you overcome your trepidation and can look around.  Each zip ends at a platform that highlights the flora and fauna of the island. The zip line is a year round operation as long as the weather permits. If you have any questions about Catalina or the zip, the crew is more than willing to assist.  They’re encouraging, helpful and make you feel you CAN do this. 

The Zip Line Eco-Tour is $99 per person…$112 on weekends.  There’s a weight limit of 245 lbs, and closed toed and heeled shoes are mandatory.

Check it out or make a reservation at: www.visitcatalinaisland.com

Another exciting adventure is taking a Jeep into the heart of Catalina.  You can head over to the Catalina Conservancy in its historic home off the main drag.  They can set you up with a vehicle and tour guide who’ll lead you up and down the winding roads leading into the interior of the island. We were lucky to get Cesar Ocampo, who’s lived on Catalina all his life.  There was no question asked he didn’t have an answer.  It’s not only an adventurous 2-hour journey, it’s also a course in Catalina history and geography.  Cesar also knows all about the unique flora and fauna of the island and surprised us with facts like the squirrels that live there are classified giants, larger than the island’s indigenous foxes!  Who knew! Cesar will also do everything he can to take you to where the buffalo roam.

We lucked out and saw them up close and personal…one lying down in front of our Jeep, rolling in the dirt without a care in the world.  Photo op!

Our guide also took us up to the island’s airport where we made a pit stop and were strongly advised to purchase a couple of their world famous oatmeal cookies.  Apparently people fly in just to satisfy their craving.  There’s also a wonderful gift shop where much of the money taken in goes to the Conservancy.

Some of the most spectacular views of Catalina Harbor can be seen on this Jeep tour.  On a clear day Cesar says you can see all the way to Palos Verdes and San Clemente! And to view these panoramic vistas in such quiet and calm is something you won’t quickly forget.

The Jeep Eco-Tour is $70 per person.  You can get more info and make reservations at www.catalinaconservancy.org

Dining in Avalon is mostly beach food: burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips and ice cream.  There are a couple of eateries with a more interesting menu including CC Gallagher’s featuring a variety of light offerings including a tasty plate of toast, crackers, olive tapenade and hummus.  Another town favorite: The Lobster Trap that even on Mondays is jammed.  No wonder: it’s fun and there’s no better seafood on Catalina!

If you’re into a more healthy diet and are looking for vegetarian or vegan cuisine, there’s only one on the island.  It’s the Café Metropole on Crescent Avenue.  You can either dine inside or on the charming arbored patio. 

It’s informal, but everything is fresh and made to order. Pam Albers, the island’s former City Attorney, is the owner and chef and told me one of her goals is to provide flavors from around the world not available on Catalina: Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Moroccan and Mexican along with American barbeque. 

Pam bakes her own gluten-free bread, and dressings are soy free.  If you like falafel you’ll love Pam’s.  It’s moister than most and served on flatbread with tahini sauce, lettuce, tomato and onion.  Yum! MJ’s Favorite is a salad imbued with candied nuts, cranberries, Feta cheese and tomato.  Prices are in the $7-10 range….way less expensive than the $16 burgers in most places in town.  Want to check out the menu?  Go to www.cafemetropole.com

Want more suggestions on where to go and what to do on Catalina Island?  I’m afraid you’ll just have to do some research on your own.  That’s what I’m going to do before heading out on the Catalina Express hopefully real soon.

 

 

 

 

Published on May 23, 2013

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