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Catalina Island

Natural Splendor

As we left behind the din of the freeway, the smog and the industrial urban ugliness of Los Angeles and took the ferry to Santa Catalina Island, I was surprised by how close this desert paradise is to the city. After a delightful one-hour and 15-minute ride aboard the Santa Catalina Island Express we arrived at Avalon, the only town on the 76-square-mile island. The tiny village was named by Anna Wrigley (of the illustrious Wrigley family, known for the eponymous chewing gum) who took the name from a line in a Tennyson poem.

What makes Santa Catalina one of the most impressive of the Channel Islands chain is that in 1972, Bill Wrigley, Jr., the grandson of William Wrigley, Jr. (1861-1932), who built the town of Avalon, turned 86 percent of the land into a nature conservancy. The family played a prominent role in the history and development of the land as they brought public utilities, steamships, a hotel, the Casino and extensive plantings and trees here. They also built a spectacular residence, which is now a delightful inn. A moratorium on cars makes golf carts, bikes and walking the modes of transportation.

You won't run out of things to do on Catalina, especially if you're a nature lover. You can hike among the endemic trees and shrubs like Catalina mahoganies, ironwoods and yerba santas and you might come upon some of the diverse wildlife, possibly ravens and boars. Catalina Stables offers trail rides, or you can rent bikes to explore the waterfront. You can play golf at the beautifully kept nine-hole Catalina Island Golf Course.

Avalon Casino and Harbor, Santa Catalina Island

We took the Undersea Tour arranged by Santa Catalina Island Company Tours and offering a fascinating view of beneath-the-water marine life in a semi-submerged boat. While passing the coral reefs, we spotted such fish as topsmelt, garibaldi and halfmoons weaving through the giant kelp. We had also hoped to take the Skyline Drive, which goes along the ridges of Catalina's hills and advertises "spectacular scenery, deep canyons, quiet coves, blue ocean, buffalo and a visit to the exhibits of the nature center in the Airport-in-the-Sky." Unfortunately, our bus overheated, cutting short the tour, but it seems like a worthwhile trip if there are no mishaps.

We enjoyed a morning stroll around the Wrigley Memorial Garden where we wandered among succulents, cacti and native rare flowers like St. Catherine's lace and bedstraw, and a climb to the top of the memorial, built in 1933-34 in elegant Art Deco style and overlooking imposing Avalon Bay. Erected in the same era, 1929, the Casino, meaning gathering place in Italian, is a rotund, impressive building on a jetty. Its ballroom is also Art Deco with lovely mosaics, and it now houses a movie theater with 1,000 seats.

Summer tours include a sunset cruise to the Isthmus, reputed to be the most beautiful part of the island, and a nighttime boat trip to watch the flying fish. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports offers guided full- and half-day kayak and snorkeling expeditions, as well as several different evening excursions replete with dinner and star-gazing. Other seasonal sports are parasailing and excellent fishing.

Catalina is a good choice for a long weekend because of its accessibility to much of Southern California and because it is a destination for both relaxing and participating in outdoor activities.


Catalina Stables, 600 Avalon Canyon Road. Tel. 310-510-0478.

Catalina Island Golf Course. Tel. 310-510-0530.

Santa Catalina Island Company Tours, P O Box 737. Tel. 310-510-TOUR.

Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, 125 Claressa Avenue. Tel. 310-510-2595. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Avalon Theater, the Casino. Tel. 310-510-0179.

Descanso Beach Ocean Sports, P O Box 386. Tel. 310-510-1226.


The Inn on Mt. Ada, a Victorian mansion 350 feet above the town on the sunniest spot on the cliff, was built by William Wrigley, Jr. for his wife, Ada. With just six rooms and good service, it has for the past 13 years been the island's most sought-after accommodation.

The Hotel Metropole, the oldest hotel in Avalon, features Victorian decor and modern amenities and is next to the Metropole Marketplace. Many rooms have an ocean view and a Jacuzzi, fireplace and private balcony.

Villa Portofino is optimally located on Crescent Avenue near all the restaurants and shops. The minimally-priced rooms with queen-sized beds are tiny and lacking in both views and natural light. However, the hotel is clean and the staff is helpful. Restaurante Villa Portofino is one of the island's best dining spots.

Hamilton Cove is an enclave of private condos that was built in the 1980s. Most are owned by celebrities from Los Angeles and range in price from $250,000 to $1 million, but they can also be rented for a night or for an extended stay.

The Inn on Mt. Ada, P O Box 2560, Avalon, CA 90704. Tel. 310-510-2030. Rates start at $340 for two persons including full board, cocktails, wine, champagne and the use of a golf cart. www.catalina.com/mtada

The Hotel Metropole, P O Box 1900, Avalon, CA 90704. Tel. 800-300-8528 (in California), 800-541-8528, (nationwide), 310-510-1884. Rates start at $115 including continental breakfast. www.hotel-metropole.com

Hotel Villa Portofino, 111 Crescent Avenue, P O Box 127, Avalon, CA 90704. Tel. 800-34-OCEAN, 310-510-0555. Rates start at $55. Hamilton Cove Real Estate, 125 Metropole. Tel. 310-510-0190, 510-0090. www.hotelvillaportofino.com


The Catalina Express departs from Long Beach and San Pedro to Avalon throughout the day. Schedules vary with the season. Reservations are recommended. Tel. 800-429-4601, 800-618-5533, 310-519-1212. www.catalinaexpress.com

--Emily Fancher

Winter 1997-98