Santa Catalina Island
By Sue Barthelow
In March 2005, Bob and I drove down to Southern California to visit my family and a few friends. We took a break to spend three days in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. It was a refreshing interlude. We had wanted to visit Avalon for several years. Finally, on this trip, the weather and timing worked out perfectly for the detour.
Being the computer savvy people that we are, we found lodging and made reservations for our hotel and for the ferry using the Internet. What a great convenience. I was able to look the hotels over and to select one that met our general guidelines for lodging. And I did this from the comfort of our living room before we climbed into the car to start the trip.
We left our car in San Pedro and took the Catalina Express ferry over to the island. The water was smooth on the way over, and the boat seemed to glide almost effortlessly as it made its way across the channel. I couldn't take my eyes off of the ocean and the shoreline. So much to see. At a point ¾ the way over, a group of porpoises joined us temporarily, running along our side and leaping over the boat-created waves. The last part of the voyage intrigued me as we approached the island with its mountains rising steeply from the coastline.
Upon docking in Avalon, we donned our knapsacks and headed into town. Having gotten directions to our hotel on the Internet, we were able to walk straight to Hotel Mac Rae to check in. When Bob and I travel, we like to carry everything on our backs. We adopted this method of traveling after watching the Rick Steves travel shows on PBS. We purchased knapsacks and other travel accoutrements from his web site. With the use my knapsack has endured, I'm impressed with its usability and quality.
Hotel Mac Rae is a simple establishment located above street level and accessed from a flight of stairs that ascends from the sidewalk between a restaurant/bar and a shop. Upon leaving the stairwell, we entered an airy patio that beckoned with its flower pots and benches. We found the office, which reminded me of a movie theater ticket office, at the end of the patio. When checking in, we declined the offered movie DVDs, there for those who can't face the world without that sort of entertainment. After checking in, we made our way to our room down several stairs and through an inviting courtyard away from the main patio. The room was spare, but offered everything we needed. After all, we weren't there for the hotel; we were there for the island. We wouldn't be spending our waking hours in the room.
Our trip was taken during the off-season in March. As it turns out, Avalon is quiet when its not packed with people there to enjoy the summer sports. Sure there were some hard core divers and boaters hanging around, but other than that, nothing much was happening. That's just the way we like it. On the downside, we discovered that many shops, restaurants and rental places are closed except on the days that a cruise ship is in port. Luckily for us, that happened three days a week, two of which overlapped our stay.
Since our first day on the island was not a cruise ship day, we filled the afternoon with a casual stroll around town followed by a short lounge on the beach. Watching a couple of kids playing at waterside, we discussed our options for finding a much desired beer. The day was sunny and warm, and we were ready to imbibe.
It isn't very hard to find a beer in Avalon. The hardest part is selecting the type of bar that feels right. Having selected a bar, actually Antonio's Pizzeria and Cabaret, we ambled over to it. Antonio's was located on the beach and had an eating deck, which was nearly empty at this time of the day. We ordered our beers and some snacks and then spent an entertaining hour watching the sea gulls as they swooped and landed on the deck, trying to steal an easy meal. We were amused to watch one or two actually walk into the restaurant through the open door. I wondered if they were placing to-go orders.
Selecting a place for dinner the first night was easy. Not much was open that night. Having found the El Galleon Restaurant & Lounge, we settled in for a while. Need I mention that it too had good beer? We started at the bar and discovered from the bartender that Avalon has a large number of resident Chicanos. Our bartender was originally from Aguascalientes, Mexico. After an interesting conversation over our beers, we moved into the dinning room.
Catalina Island has a long Spanish/Mexican history. Although the island was originally settled by Native Americans, Juan Cabrillo claimed it for the King of Spain in the 1500s and named it San Salvador. Later, the Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, awarded it to Thomas Robbins as a land grant in 1846. Robbins established a small rancho on the island. Many years and several owners later, the Wrigley family, who settled there in 1919, hired a number of servants and workers from the Chicano communities. Many of these early settlers stayed on and raised their families there. This existing community helps to attract newer settlers.
There's an amazing transformation that occurs in Avalon when a cruise ship is in. It changes from a quiet, lazy, kick back sort of place to a hubbub, fight-your-way-through-the-crowds sort of place within minutes of the arrival of a cruise ship. Suddenly, there are hundreds of people milling about trying to fit as much as they can into the few short hours the ship is in port. It reminded me of our visit several years ago to Rothenburg ob der Taubor, Germany with its many tour busses that descend on the town for the day. Here in Avalon, the ship arrives during the night and dumps the passengers off for the day. Late afternoon, the crowd makes it back to the ship, which then coasts onward.
Sitting just outside the Avalon harbor, a cruise ship looks merely large. It's only when it gets under steam and heads out to sea that its size becomes apparent. It seems to take forever to turn and get under way. Finally, getting up to speed, its size makes it look like it's hardly moving. Only the waves it generates shows it to be the behemoth that it is.
I was a bit concerned about the availability of tables in the restaurants for lunch and dinner on cruise ship days until I discovered that most of the cruisers eat on the ship. So, why are some of the establishments only open on the days the ships come in? I guess it is just another one of those questions that have no good answers. Maybe the cruise ships attract day-traveling ferry passengers who know that the establishments will be open on a cruise ship day.
We took advantage of the cruise ship days to do some quality people watching and to visit the shops and restaurants that weren't open every day. While wandering around town, I spied a mannequin outside one of the shops. It wore a black dress that had a dark fringed scarf-like shawl draped over it and secured with a broach. I immediately fell in love with that shawl. I pointed it out to Bob and then continued strolling along the avenue. Within minutes I knew that I had to have it. I have a black travel dress, and it was just what I needed to dress it up. Back to the shop we went and out came the money. Contentedly carrying my purchase, we ambled on.
Once we tired of window shopping and people watching, we moved inland and away from the crowds.
On that first cruise ship day we took a nice long walk up to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens. Following a map, we located the avenue that meandered inland through a canyon. We marched passed the high school and then a golf course, mostly unused this time of year. The golf course, built in 1892, is said to have been the first course established west of the Rocky Mountains. On our right was a defunct tourist attraction that was either under repair or was being converted into something more useful. We continued up the road until we finally reached its end and the entrance to the Gardens.
After following various paths around and through the native plantings of the Gardens, we arrived at the Memorial. What a place. The Memorial, made of quarried Catalina Island stones, marble, concrete, colorful handmade glazed tiles and red roof tiles, rose from the back of the Gardens. Climbing up the ramps and stairs, we came out onto a large open platform that overlooked the Gardens. After taking in the view, we found another flight of stairs that led up to the Memorial itself. Reaching the top, we paused to catch our breaths as we waited for our turn at the window-like opening in the wall. Finally at the opening, we took in the grand view back towards Avalon and its harbor. Giving up our places to the next waiting group, we headed down the stairs and wandered back to town.
Along the way back, we had to watch carefully to make sure we weren't run over by the many golf carts being piloted by the cruisers. When in town, we had seen several businesses that rented golf carts by the hour. Since the cruisers are there for such a short time, many of them rent a golf cart so they can quickly tour the unrestricted part of the island. By the time we made it back to town, we were wishing that we had stuck out our thumbs and hitched a ride.
In Avalon, golf carts aren't only for the tourists. Many of the locals have their own carts, which they use instead of a car. The city restricts the number of cars. Residents typically wait eight to ten years to bring a car to the island. A new permit is issued only when an existing car becomes ineligible for renewal or when a permit is voluntarily surrendered. Even the number of personal golf carts is limited.
Most of Catalina Island is under the care of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and is not open to the casual visitor. We had a couple of maps that showed roads and trails that can be used to access the interior of the island for those adventurous enough to try it on foot. Wanting to get some exercise, we bought tickets for the local bus on the second cruise ship day and wheeled our way back inland to the Gardens for a hike. There was a dirt road near the Memorial that would take us inland, up into the towering mountains that make up most of the island.
Up, up, up we walked until we thought we could go no further. We would view the road up to the next bend and say, “Let's just go over there and see where we are. Maybe we're almost to the top.” Finally, we just kept going, singing as we climbed.
The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see.
And all that he could see, and all that he could see
Was the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.
And that's just how it was. We finally reached the crest. All we could see was a tiny bit of ocean and the road continuing on, level at last, around and around near the crests of the mountains, heading into the center of the island. By this time we had had enough, and we sat down to rest for a while. The cruise ship hunkered down off of the Avalon harbor. The long distance view allowed its size to become apparent as it hovered just outside the harbor. As the fog started rolling in, we got up, shook ourselves off, and headed back down to road in search of yet another beer.
Dinner that night was found upstairs at The Blue Parrot overlooking the harbor. The harbor looked like it was full of fireflies as lights twinkled here and there, showing where the various boats were anchored for the night. Occasionally, a dingy or row boat would make its way from the shore to a boat docked in the harbor as the boaters returned from an evening on shore. Weary from our day, we soon made our way back to our room for a much needed rest.
The next day proved to be cold and foggy. We were glad to have made our inland trek the day before on a beautiful, sun-drenched day. We filled this, our last day on the island, with a walk around the shore to Pebbly Beach followed by a tour of the Casino.
Having no idea what to expect, we ambled along the coast road towards Pebbly Beach, stopping briefly at the harbor point to watch the birds play on the rocks and in the light surf. We discovered that Pebbly Beach is Catalina Island's industrial area. Along the way, there was an ultra small housing community nestled in a ravine that ran a short distance between two of the mountains rising up from the shore. That must be where some of the locals live, the rest living in Avalon itself. We came upon a restaurant and the heliport, followed by what looked to be the industrial port used to bring cars, furnishings and other goods over from the mainland. Continuing on, we found the power plant and finally the water treatment plant. Here, the road ended at the entrance to the landfill. It seems like Bob and I end up at the landfill no matter where we travel. We once came upon a landfill in a town in Burgundy, France while touring the vineyards there. I guess we're attracted by more things than the average tourist is. There's nothing much to say about Pebbly Beach except for the fact that visiting it gave us a good excuse for another walk.
Back in Avalon, we strolled to the other end of the harbor to take a tour of the Casino. The Casino, opened in 1929, was built by the Wrigleys as a gathering place. It held many events over the years. Crowds of revelers would travel over from the mainland for these events. The tour started downstairs in a fabulous art deco movie theater. It soon moved up via a ramp to the next floor, a trek in and of itself. This floor held the lounges and coat rooms. Continuing up the ramp to the top floor, we finally reached the ballroom. The grand ballroom, with its fifty-foot ceiling and huge dance floor, was spectacular. It hosted many dances in its day, big bands playing, couples swinging to and fro, and other couples moving outside to the terraces for fresh air. What a sight. Unfortunately, the tour came to an end and we were shepherded back out, ready to leave or not.
Our stay in Avalon nearly over, we returned to the hotel to retrieve our knapsacks and headed for the ferry, reservation slips in hand. The return trip was rough and was an experience in and of itself. Happy to return to the shore side of the Long Beach Harbor and away from the swells, we glided to a stop back in San Pedro. It was time to return to our whirlwind visiting with family.