Santa Catalina Island – California, USA

This week’s journey takes us back to the site of our first anniversary getaway: beautiful Santa Catalina Island in southern California. Located only 22 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Los Angeles (but a world away from its foul air and lousy traffic!), this rocky, beguiling channel island is a romantic and luxurious – but surprisingly affordable – escape from the ordinary.

The island of Santa Catalina is a geographic and geologic anomaly; unlike California’s other seven Channel Islands, it was never directly connected to the mainland, instead forming from the upward heave of tectonic plates. As noted by Sunset Magazine, it is, in fact, a partially-submerged mountain, “a vertiginous place of sea and soar, where long, narrow strips of pebbly sand yield abruptly to ruddy cliffs topped with brushy kiwi fuzz … there’s not a lot of middle ground, no gradual altitude gain. You’re at sea level or at the summit.”

Prior to the modern era, Catalina was inhabited by Native Americans who called the island Pimugna or Pimu and referred to themselves as Pimugnans or Pimuvit. The Pimugnans were renowned for their mining and working of soapstone, which was found in substantial quantities and varieties on the island. This material was in great demand and was traded with other tribes along the California coast.

The first European to set foot on the island was Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Sailing for the Spanish crown, Cabrillo claimed the island for Spain in October 1542, christening it San Salvador after his ship. In 1602, another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, re-“discovered” the island on the eve of Saint Catherine’s day (November 24), and renamed it in the saint’s honor. The colonization of California by the Spanish coincided with the decline of the Pimugnans, largely the tragic result of diseases brought by European settlers. By the 1830s, the island’s remaining native population had migrated to the mainland to work in the missions or as ranch hands for private land owners.

From the 17th to the 19th century, territorial claims to the island transferred to Mexico and then to the United States. During this time, the island was sporadically used for smuggling, otter hunting, and gold-digging. By the end of the 1800s, Santa Catalina was almost uninhabited save for a handful of cattle herders. Several investors tried – unsuccessfully – to develop the island into a resort destination before chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. obtained controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919. Wrigley invested millions in needed infrastructure and attractions to the island, including the construction of the Catalina Casino. Starting in 1921, the Chicago Cubs, also owned by Wrigley, used the island for spring training. The Cubs continued to use the island  until 1951, except during the war years of 1942 to 1945. Following Wrigley Jr.’s death in 1932, control of the Santa Catalina Island Company passed to his son Philip, who continued his father’s work improving the island’s infrastructure.

In 1975, Philip Wrigley deeded 42,135 acres of the island – approximately 90 percent of its surface area – from the Santa Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a private non-profit organization dedicated to the island’s environmental protection and restoration. The balance of the Santa Catalina Island Company that was not deeded to the Conservancy maintains control of  its resort properties and operations on the island.

Close to one million people travel to Santa Catalina Island every year, though the total numbers in any given year vary depending on economic conditions. We visited for three blissful days in August 2014, and loved every moment of adventure and exploration. Enjoy the island through our eyes (and camera lens)!

avalon bay + harbor

The town of Avalon surrounds beautiful Avalon Bay on the southeast end of the island. Avalon has been a popular destination for visitors – including film stars and presidents – since the early 1900s, and still maintains its charm and allure today. Boasting numerous hotels, restaurants, beaches and recreational activities, Avalon is the only incorporated town on Santa Catalina.

B. woke every morning of our stay on the island at 6am, setting out early to wander along the waterfront, enjoying Avalon’s lovely harbor – reminiscent of the French Riviera – before local ferries and cruise ships deposited their passengers on the pier.   Thankfully, T. was roused every morning by 11am, and we spent the rest of our visit exploring and photographing Avalon together, on foot and by golf cart.

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catalina casino

The island’s most visible and iconic landmark – the Catalina Casino – is perched on the northern edge of Avalon Bay. Financed by William Wrigley Jr. and completed in 1929, the casino contains a movie theatre (the first in the United States designed specifically for films with sound), a 20,000-square foot art deco ballroom, and – until 2016 – an island art and history museum. Despite its name, the building is not now – and has never been – a gambling facility.

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descanso bay + beach

Just beyond Avalon Harbor and the Catalina Casino lies the tranquil bay of Descanso. The beach club here – home to the island’s only seaside restaurant – is a popular destination for divers, kayakers, and adventure seekers looking to take advantage of a nearby zip line and climbing tower. Visitors can also rent private chaise lounges and luxury cabanas on the club’s beautiful imported sand beach.

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These sweet little fawns greeted B. each day on her early morning stroll to the cove!

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inn at mt. ada

The historic Inn at Mt. Ada – former home of the Wrigley family – is perched on a hilltop overlooking Avalon Bay. Each of the inn’s six guest rooms offer spectacular harbor views, private baths, and refurbished antique decor.

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hamilton cove

This private, gated villa community is located approximately one and a half miles from Avalon.

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golf gardens

Nestled in an idyllic garden setting less than one block from the beach, Avalon’s Golf Gardens has welcomed putt-putt enthusiasts to its 18-hole course for nearly 40 years. The course is known in mini-golf circles as one of the most beautiful and challenging in the world, and it absolutely lived up to its reputation. We had never experienced a more frustrating round of miniature golf!! Our scores – truly appalling – will forever remain a secret!

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hotel catalina

The charming Hotel Catalina served as our home away from home during our stay on the island. A lovingly restored Victorian mansion built in 1916, the hotel is located only steps from Avalon’s restaurants, cafes and waterfront promenade. Twenty seven rooms on three floors (as well as 4 private, self-catering cottages) offer partial ocean and mountain views. It was a lovely stay over three days and two nights – we highly recommend it!

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getting there

Visitors can reach Avalon by ferry from mainland ports in Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach and Dana Point, or by helicopter from Long Beach, San Pedro, Burbank Airport and John Wayne Airport. Ferry service is also available between San Pedro and the unincorporated village of Two Harbors.

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Source: Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau

We absolutely loved the crew onboard our Catalina Express boat from Dana Point – they were friendly, funny and knowledgeable, pointing us in the direction of several local attractions and eateries (all of which turned out to be fabulous!). The journey took approximately 75 minutes and cost US$75 per person round-trip.

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Several cruise lines – including Carnival and Princess – also include Santa Catalina as a shore excursion or destination port of call.

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Thank you for joining us on this adventure in the Channel Islands! – T. & B. June

Next week’s journey: Altschloβpfad – Germany

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