Oh Catalina! A respite from the glitz and noise of the mainland, this little island is a joyful discovery.
“Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a waitin’ for me, Santa Catalina, the island of romance” . . . and so starts the old song that turned a holiday island, off the coast of Long Beach in California, into a vacation-spot superstar. The song was recorded in 1958 by the Four Preps. Two of the college friends’ group were surfing off the coast in Southern California and they saw Santa Catalina island in the distance and wondered how far from the mainland it was . . hence the origin of a pop song of its time that shot up the charts, and made the holiday island a new sensation – again!
The island is one of many in the Channel Islands group. And from the get-go, the island was a popular playground for early inhabitants in 5000BC, Spanish mariners, hunters, smugglers and the military.
It became a tourist destination around 1887 with the focal point of the island a little settlement called Avalon – which has since been designated a city.
The Wrigley family purchased the island sight unseen in 1919 for $3 million. Mr Wrigley made his fortune in chewing gum!
Take the Catalina Express for a gentle hour’s sail from Long Beach.
The island was developed within a small space as much of the terrain is rocky and wild. And the only beach is at Avalon.
The beautiful chandelier above the ballroom floor in the Casino.
The massive construction of the island’s most recognisable landmark, the startling art deco structure, is the Casino. The building houses a beautiful theatre (movies are still shown here); a massive ballroom and a museum.
The ballroom still has the ghosts of thousands of young dancers who would come across the sea (a three-hour trip then) to dance the night away during the 30s and 40s.
The museum has wonderful images of the crowd that crushed the dance floor. There was never alcohol served in the building, and the casino has never had any form of gambling on the premises.
Ornate walls inside the casino and (right) the amazing construction of the circular building.
Lovely hotels and quaint guesthouses provide plenty of rooms for holidaymakers and a day trip isn’t a bad idea either. Funky restaurants, live music venues, ice cream parlours par excellence, and fun souvenir shopping have the red carpet out for visitors.
This is a retro destination that exudes the vibrant ambience of a laid back part of California like no other.
- GETTING AROUND
Catch the Catalina Express from San Pedro, Long Island (a one- hour boat ride and up to 30 departures daily).
Around Avalon, it’s for walking or you can hire a golf buggy to get around. Not many cars here.
- WHEN TO VISIT
Anytime! But in autumn the prices are down, the crowds less frantic and the island slows to a gentle pace. Enjoy the Halloween Parade at the end of October.
All out adventure or slow and steady? The island offers Zip Line Tours starting at 182m above Descanso Beach; off-road exploring in a jeep to visit the local bisons (true), foxes, eagles and deer. Parasail over the Pacific Ocean or hike the rugged hills.
Or . . . visit the fabulous Catalina Museum with special exhibitions and the history of the island from the beginning displayed.
At Descanso Beach, snorkel and swim the crystal clear waters – and head to the Beach Club for a Catalina Burger.
At night head to the Casino for a first run movie. Get there and hour early on the weekend nights to hear a stirring performance on the original pipe organ.
Writer Bev Malzard, did not zip line, but she did have a nap on the beach, eat ice-cream and spent an afternoon in the museum/art gallery. The history in black and white photographs is rich and new world ‘American dream’. That Wrigley fella was on to something when he got the world chewing gum! (Juicy Fruit is the chew du jour for Ms Malzard.) Look below, this little Aussie was on offer on Catalina Island.