Catalina Island – Southern California Getaway


I’ve been trying to get to some of my favorite places before I leave the San Diego area in a few months. When I first arrived, I remember struggling with what I viewed as the lack getaways—my definition of them, anyway. I was used to taking a scenic drive to some small town where it was more relaxed and probably quaint.

During my childhood in Davis, my family sought out Northern California destinations, such as Mendocino, Napa, Point Reyes Station, Willits, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Truckee, and Downieville. Some years later, I ended up in Ashland, Oregon, where I ultimately graduated from high school. Ashland is one of those weekend destinations. Still, we made our way to other Oregon towns, including Jacksonville, Butte Falls, Brookings, and Gold Beach. Mount Shasta City in California was also an alluring retreat in the region.

I moved to Eugene to become a Duck and stayed a while. There, the Oregon Coast was my favorite weekend jaunt—Florence, Yachats, Newport, and Lincoln City. Bend was always worth the trip, as was Sisters. After I landed my first professional library position in Seattle, I fell in love with Bainbridge Island, Snoqualmie, Langley, Port Townsend, Anacortes, Friday Harbor, Deer Harbor, Lopez Island, Ellensburg, La Conner, and Leavenworth. Of course, Victoria, BC, was always a treat.

San Diego proved to be another situation altogether. I immediately found the Southern California sprawl overwhelming—not to mention the freeways. Hopping in the car and getting on the road felt daunting, and it wasn’t long before I began to feel hemmed in. The trip to Julian for pie and some mining town ambience was the one exception. I did come to love the various drives passing through Julian, drives that often swerved into Borrego Springs. Yet it took a while before I discovered other places. Idyllwild and Joshua Tree finally grabbed my heart, as did the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. I stayed in Mount Baldy once. Somewhere along the line, I added Catalina Island to my list.


It takes some work to get there from San Diego—several fast freeways and a ferry ride. My maiden voyage departed from Long Beach on the Catalina Express, which also leaves from Dana Point and San Pedro. More recently, I’ve been departing from Newport Beach on the Catalina Flyer, which is particularly convenient for visitors from San Diego (though this ferry only runs once a day and does not have year-round service). The first time I called the Flyer for reservations, one of their attendants urged me not to miss the Bloody Marys sold on board. I didn’t imbibe that time, but I recently broke down to kick off this farewell journey in style. I was a little queasy by the end of the boat ride, but I would probably do it again.

What I like about Catalina Island can be summed up with the word, whimsical. Avalon is a fitting name for the main town. You get on a boat and cross the ocean, often spotting dolphins and whales along the way (dolphins love to frolic in the wake of the ferry). Then you arrive in another dimension, another time and space that truly calls for doing nothing. Of course, there are plenty of playful activities to sample. Take a ride on the Yellow Submarine to get a good look at the fish in the harbor. There’s a glass bottom boat for this same purpose. And a number of crazier rides tempt daring types—parasailing outfits and zip line runs. A person can also take a boat to get in some snorkeling or check out a different side of the island.

The inland bus tours are guided by drivers who have delightful stories to tell—they know the island and its history inside and out. If you go, you’ll most likely end up on an antique bus, circa 1950s. You may even see a bison or two, and then your guide will tell you why. I won’t spoil the fun. I’ll leave it to the visitor to discover this tale, not to mention the numerous other yarns (that’s the beauty of this place, the ongoing storytelling about what has gone down around here). I can offer one hint, though – Zane Grey. I did hear the bison herd has gotten too big at times, so they’ve sent some back to South Dakota to live with the Lakota Indians.


Zane Grey, aside, the island’s history is fodder for writers looking for a great backdrop. I’ve certainly been known to contemplate the possibility of a longer writing retreat in a cute vacation cottage. All of these cheerful vintage homes beg the imagination to consider who may have lived here and why. The people get around on golf carts, though smart cars are becoming increasingly popular. On one bus tour, I learned “autoettes” are the only vehicles residents are allowed to own, unless they happen to be on the waiting list for the limited number of full-size cars permitted on these streets. The list hasn’t moved in twenty years. As an FYI, visitors can rent golf carts for their own excursions.


Of course, Hollywood hasn’t ignored the place, old Hollywood, anyway. Today’s representatives of tinsel town seem to have moved on to other domains. Yet the former heyday of movie stars long dead, their interaction with the island, is evident. Those looking for an overview of area history – including Hollywood vignettes – should not miss the updated Catalina Island Museum, recently relocated from the historic Casino to a fine new building.


During my visit to the museum, I was excited to stumble upon a marvelous exhibit by a figure who moved in the background of my Seattle Days, the famous glassblower artist, Dale Chihuly. I quickly learned it is the museum’s first exhibit featuring an artist of his stature. The pieces on display are perfect for a locale bordering a marine preserve. I was most drawn to the “Seaforms” room, housing individual pieces that evoke sea plants and creatures. I probably could have viewed these creations in the Puget Sound region years ago, as Chihuly created the display in 1983, five years before I arrived there. His much newer Mille Fiori (2016) demands a long look, as well. Also on display are “Coastal Blue and Cloud White Baskets,” “Blue Ridge Chandelier,” “Aureolin Yellow Spire Chandelier,” “Red Reeds,” and “Sea Blue and Green Tower.” (This show closes on December 11, 2017.)


One of the museum’s permanent exhibits propels visitors through the island’s various eras, starting with its indigenous beginnings, and not all of these accounts are whimsical. I was appalled to discover the story of a weird so-called archeologist who once lived and worked on the island, Dr. Ralph Glidden. To say he didn’t know how to respect old bones is an understatement. He dug up several hundred Indian skeletons in the Channel Islands, and then displayed them in a manner that could only be branded undignified. While his Catalina Museum of Island Indians has been defunct since 1950, his handling of human remains continues to make even the least conscientious people uncomfortable. The Catalina Island Museum is now making a lesson out of this chapter of the island’s history, raising awareness around the lackadaisical treatment traditionally afforded ancient burial grounds in America.


History buffs should also consider a tour of the Casino Ballroom, as the guide will conjure the big band era, how people dressed to the nines before getting on a steamer ship departing from the mainland for an evening of elegant dancing. (You can view a number of photos of these ships, not to mention their passengers, in the Catalina Island Museum.) There’s a stunning movie theater beneath this ballroom—the Avalon Theatre—with a domed ceiling showing off art deco style murals by John Gabriel Beckman. Get there early enough on a Friday or Saturday evening, and you will be treated to live pipe organ music before your talkie starts. The stately Page pipe organ once accompanied the silent films that were screened there.


The island may sound high falutin, but it is actually down-to-earth, meeting my requirements for the quaint getaway. While all of these touristy perks are fun, I like to walk around, or sit somewhere. Then I walk around again, until it is time to eat somewhere. And then all I can do is sit somewhere else, because there are so many charming views to lull the mind. As I compose this from a white wicker chair on my hotel porch, the morning air feels silky. In a few hours, I plan to head to the Descanso Beach Club Restaurant for lunch, where I’ll sit at a table and watch people play in the water. Maybe I’ll rent a kayak for a few hours.