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.
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 minutesmuch easier to visualize than 26 miles.
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.
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.
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.
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 fieldbuffalo? 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).”
“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 fishthe 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.
In addition to the bison, eagles, and the grey fox, Catalina Island is home to wild boar, feral pigs, goats, deer, rabbits, and rattlesnakes.
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.
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.
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 yearsclassics 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.