Peering down from the gangway of the Catalina Express, I see fat orange Garibaldis, the California State fish, nibbling among the rocks. It’s early-afternoon on a sunny day and we’ve arrived at Avalon, the little town on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California.

The Catalina Express departs for
Avalon from Long Beach
regularly from 6:15 a.m. to 7:55 p.m.

Yes, the island of “Twenty-six miles across the sea” fame, the song made famous in 1958 by the Four Preps. But we didn’t swim here with “water wings and my guitar.” We took the Catalina Express, the modern ferry that crosses the water in one hour and five minutes—much easier to visualize than 26 miles.

Views of the Long Beach skyline, Queen Mary, freighters, and cruise ships plying the Mexican Riviera are to be had from topside aft, the only outdoor seating. Inside, besides seating, there are tables and restrooms. There’s a full bar with snacks and on the top deck, the Commodore Lounge―a private seating area for 50 people. For just $10 more on the ticket price (plus you get to pre-board) you can recline in leather seats and enjoy a free cocktail and snack. It’s a particularly popular place in the summer, when the ferries are crowded.

From the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel
you can see all of Avalon, including
a cruise ship at the edge of the bay.

A taxi takes my husband and I up to the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, perched atop a green hillside overlooking the Bay of Avalon. Our handsome driver, Jorge Garcia, is a retired dancer who worked with Jose Greco. “I’ve been on the island since 1991,” he tells us. “I go home to Jalisco in the winter when island tourism slows down.”

After checking in we walk down and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening exploring the town of Avalon.

The Channel House Restaurant facing the bay, with its paved brick enclosed patio shaded by green umbrellas and an enormous ficus tree, proves perfect for a mid-afternoon lunch. My husband orders a sensible Chinese Chicken salad and a cup of clam chowder; I devour a swordfish burger with fries.

Custom tile art
welcomes you to Avalon.

Crescent Avenue, lined with eye-candy boutiques, is a pedestrian walkway only; no vehicles allowed. Its water fountain and stuccoed benches are dotted with colorful Catalina tiles. Every nook and cranny sprouts pansies, snap dragons, begonias. Hanging bare root baskets are home to fuschias and orchids. Here you can indulge in espresso, ice cream, salt water taffy, shrimp cocktails, waffles, oyster bars, or a cantina that boasts 70 different kinds of tequila.

We slurp oysters and beer
outdoors on the patio at Armstrong’s
Market & Seafood Restaurant.

At sunset, we find a table on the outdoor deck at Armstrong’s Fish Market and Seafood Restaurant. We order beer to wash down oysters on the half shell, which we consume under the watchful eye of a seagull, perched to dive for any crumb you might drop into the water.

The next morning we take Discovery Tours new off-roading adventure, its Cape Canyon Tour. We meet our Catalina Conservancy guide, Dave, in the Island Plaza, just one block from the waterfront. He hands us each a free bottle of chilled water and introduces us to the open-air, all-terrain 1968 Mercedes Unimog. Originally built for German military as a supply vehicle, this outback-looking vehicle with its jaunty canopy cover holds 12 people.

A sign near the check-in window reads, “NOTICE TO PASSENGERS - Road to the interior is unpaved, steep, winding, narrow, bumpy & dusty (as well as scenic).” The big advantage to the Unimog is that it can go on roads in the interior where big tour buses can’t.

The open-air Mercedes Unimog takes
12 passengers on a tour of the
mountainous interior of Catalina Island.

“Part of the Canyon Road is still washed out from the rains,” Dave announces. “We’ll do The Loop instead—my favorite road, actually.”

As we leave the plaza, Dave fills us in on some island history and trivia: Discovery Tours is the oldest tour company on the island, dating from 1894 when people traveled by horse-drawn wagon. The City of Avalon covers one square mile and is part of Los Angeles county. There are no home deliveries of mail; everyone has a P.O. box. Catalina Island gets 10 to 15 thousand visitors a day (summer). Six diesel generators provide island electricity. In 1921 Wrigley installed the first one. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy owns a 42,000-acre private reserve, representing 88% of the island.

Narrow winding roads lined with eucalyptus trees snake around steep hillsides. My husband says, “This is a one-gear road.”

Dave looks up to where a hawk glides in the sky. “We’ll climb several hundred feet. In the old days the stagecoach took 2 ½ hours to get to the top.” He says the first interior tour “was a day and a half trip to Two Harbors by stagecoach.”

We reach Middle Ranch Canyon and the ground slopes gently, covered with grasses and wildflowers in bloom. We’re approaching an American Bald Eagle habitat when we spot the big beasts in a nearby field—buffalo? No. Dave educates us that these are North American bison (bison bison). “To say ‘buffalo’ is to confuse them with the Cape or African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer).”

American bison were left on the
island in 1924 after filming the
movie The Vanishing American.

Fourteen head of American bison were brought to Catalina Island by a film company in 1924 for a movie version of The Vanishing American by western author Zane Grey. (Grey lived and wrote many of his books on Catalina Island.) After the film wrapped, the bison were left behind. They did what any animal left to roam a nice place with food and water would do—they multiplied. While the Conservancy has determined the island can support up to 300 head, about 120 are kept on the island today.

“How do you tell if the bull will charge?” Dave asks. “If his head is lowered and his tale is up, he will either charge or discharge. Either way it’s not a pretty sight.” –groan—

The American Bald Eagle habitat is part of a program to restore Southern California’s bald eagles. As a result of DDT being dumped into the sea―which effected the fish—the eagles were nearly exterminated. The effect of the DDT still manifests itself in thin, easily-crushed eagle eggshells. As part of the program, a goose egg is placed in a next and the eagle egg is removed to be hatched in a controlled environment. The baby eaglet is returned to the nest, the goose egg replaced with broken shell pieces. A total of 89 eagles have been successfully released on the island to date. Some leave and have been tracked all the way up into the Dakotas. Seventeen to twenty have remained on the island and there are five nesting pairs.

Next we visit the Catalina grey fox habitat. The largest endemic animal on the island, the grey fox was almost wiped out due to canine distemper. Dog vaccine didn’t work, so in 1999 conservancy researchers trapped some foxes and developed their own special vaccine. “Tachi” didn’t come out of her hole to greet us this day, but Dave was right there with statistics. Of an original grey fox population of approximately 1,100, around 300 now remain on the island after a four-year captive breeding program.

In addition to the bison, eagles, and the grey fox, Catalina Island is home to wild boar, feral pigs, goats, deer, rabbits, and rattlesnakes.

A commemorative tile
marks a 1912 flight
from Newport, California
to Santa Catalina Island.

Back on the road in our Unimog, we are treated to expansive views of green mountains, beach, canyon, and herds of bison as we travel higher, on our way to our lunch stop at the Catalina Airport.

We only meet one other vehicle along the road, a Conservancy truck; it seems we have the entire island to ourselves. “Originally 80% of the island was forested with oak and cottonwood trees,” Dave says. “The pine trees you see are not indigenous.” The air is pungent with the smells of eucalyptus trees, wild sweet peas, and asparagus and blazing yellow scotch bloom bushes.

The highest home overlooking
Avalon Bay is Wrigley Mansion,
now a bed-and-breakfast,
The Inn on Mount Ada.

Dave points out a low bush with silvery leaves. “St. Catherine’s Lace is found only on this island.” He also shows us the majestic Catalina manzanita trees. We pass El Rancho Escondido, a private ranch built by the Wrigleys. Here they successfully raised Arabians for a number of years. It’s still a 650-acre private getaway for the family.

At an elevation of 1,602 feet, we reach the Airport-in-the-Sky. Our one-hour lunch awaits us, and includes choices like Mexican chicken salad or Chipotel Chicken Sandwich on toasted sourdough, served with a soft drink, large cookie, and impressive views. Through rolling, grassy hillsides spotted with cactus and pine trees we descend in mid-afternoon to Avalon.

If you are staying for more than a few days, there are other Avalon landmarks and tours to check out. The Inn at Mount Ada, the former summer home of Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley, is now a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

The Queen Anne-style
Holly Hill House is a Catalina
landmark dating from 1890.

The third oldest house in Avalon is Holly House, a Queen Anne-style cottage on the bluff below the Inn. Although still a private residence, it’s definitely a photo op. Discovery Tours also offers city tours and underwater adventures.

There are plenty of opportunities for dockside dining. We breakfasted at Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret, where Hangover Chili and a Hawaiian Breakfast are specialties. In the evening we checked out Steve’s Steakhouse Bar & Grille―upstairs dining with a view of Avalon harbor.

The storybook island of Santa Catalina feels like stepping back in time, but with all the modern amenities. There’s no escaping the magical knowledge that over 500 films, documentaries, TV programs, and commercials have been filmed here in the past 90 years—classics such as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Treasure Island. We can’t say good-bye to Santa Catalina Island because we know we’ll visit again.

Discovery Tours
Cape Canyon Tour
$89 P.P., limited seats

Catalina Express

I think about all this on our return ferry ride, lulled by the gentle rise and fall of motion, the soft hum of motors and murmur of other passengers. Staring out at the ocean, I’m rewarded by the sight of a leaping dolphin and a buoy crowded with sunning seals.