It could be one of the many magnetic isles of the Mediterranean, such is Catalina Island’s breathtaking beauty. Here’s why it should be on your California itinerary
“Oh my God. This place is crazy, y’all!” I couldn’t have expressed it better myself, I chuckle, as I stroll past two young women clearly hailing from America’s south, at the ferry terminal of Catalina Island. We have just filed off the ferry after a one-and-a-half-hour voyage from Long Beach in Orange County, California, in which I grossly underestimated the wind chill and found myself gratefully accepting my neighbour’s hoodie mere minutes into the journey.
I had arrived in Anaheim, a city known almost exclusively as the home of Disneyland, the day before, and learned from my travel colleagues in Anaheim that they were very jealous they could not join me on today’s day trip. I had put this down to a charming sense of urban patriotism – after all, I like to talk up the attributes of Sydney, where I live, too, and had only a vague sense of having heard about Catalina Island before. Silly me.
There was a heavy fog cloaking the island as we arrived at Catalina, as the locals call it, but I could still tell something special was about to emerge as we got closer and closer to the port. Now, as I walk along Catalina Island’s harbour front, I am positively floored. I may as well be somewhere on the Mediterranean, with the calm, crystal clear water in front of me and, beyond, adorable colourful houses cascading down the hillside. I am hardly looking where I am walking, so frantically am I digging for my iPhone in my handbag so that I can capture the beauty that is unfolding before my very eyes.
Why have I never heard of Catalina Island? Why have none of my Los Angeles-based friends ever mentioned it, or, even more shocking, ever been to this spectacular place?
A local secret
Catalina Island is located just 35 kilometres off the Southern California coast. The most popular way to get there is aboard the Catalina Express passenger ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point. On arrival at the town of Avalon, where I have found myself, you can simply explore on foot or rent a golf cart or bike, much like the experience offered at the Whitsundays’ lovely Hamilton Island.
My confusion around why this beautiful island is not shouted about from the rooftops is resolved fairly quickly, when I fail to hear a single other Australian accent as I amble around the island – something that is unusual for the Aussie-loving state of California. As it turns out, over 80 per cent of the island’s visitors are sun-bronzed Californians, with only 1.5 per cent hailing from overseas. I seem to have stumbled upon one of the Pacific’s best kept secrets – a holiday trifecta of delicious seclusion, beauty and charm.
Avalon’s yacht-dotted harbour, narrow streets and lolly-coloured waterfront shops and restaurants are an absolute delight, and I fill my camera roll with various angles of the photogenic warterfront and pretty hillside on my way to an interesting, circular building jutting out into the sparkling ocean.
Gather at the Casino
I am booked in for a VIP Backstage Tour at Catalina Island Casino, and on arrival am greeted with another (welcome) surprise: Catalina Island Casino is not a gambling house at all, but a magnificent Art Deco ‘gathering place’, built by chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr.
The 1929 building is the landmark of the island, and our tour guide shares the iconic building’s fascinating history along with tidbits about Catalina Island itself, such as the fact that Marilyn Monroe once called the island home. The island was also brought into the geographical lexicon of households around the world in 1981, when Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood was found to have drowned under suspicious circumstances, while the yacht she owned with husband, Robert Wagner, was anchored off Catalina Island.
The tour begins in the grand lobby, where 4500-square-feet of now-endangered Black Walnut wood lines the walls and ceilings. In the spectacular 1200-seat Avalon Theatre, where films still regularly screen, 25-carat gold leaf stars adorn the roof, while a full stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms allow for stage productions. You can still see the impressive Page theatre pipe organ here, in almost original condition and now worth a small fortune.
The exclusive VIP Backstage tour guides us through areas that were closed to the public for over 70 years, including the projection room, showcasing cutting-edge technology that marked the advent of talking pictures. We explore barely-touched green rooms from another era that were once used by Hollywood legends Errol Flynn and Cary Grant during the golden age of cinema, and we visit Wrigley’s private viewing room.
The pièce de resistance, though, is the famed circular Casino Ballroom, where thousands once twirled to the sounds of Benny Goodman and other star musicians during the days of Big Band music and ballroom dancing. A balcony rings around the entire ballroom, granting visitors spectacular views over the harbour. Naturally, on witnessing these vistas, a cacophony of iPhone shutter sounds ensues.
Stay a while
While many visit Catalina Island on a day trip, there are plenty of accommodation options on the island and I highly recommend staying for a few nights if you have the time. When you’ve explored the charming shops and historic Casino of Avalon, you can venture to the west of the island, where the rustic village of Two Harbors is located, and enjoy some hiking, mountain biking, camping, kayaking, boating, fishing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving.
I have just a few hours on the island, so after visiting Avalon Casino I continue up St. Catherine Way on the five-minute walk to Descano Beach Club. I immediately realise this is the place to while away a sunny afternoon. With its alfresco bar and restaurant with loungers and a petite private beach it is, quite simply, very cool, and I waste no time ordering lunch and a drink at my table right on the beachfront. As I tuck into some fish tacos in the shade and people-watch the families and couples enjoying their summer break, I silently lament not having more time to do the same. This spot takes me back to the serene coves and inlets of the French Riviera, with its deliciously overpriced cocktails, but minus the sardine-packed beach loungers and with a distinctive So Cal slant. You can expect to pay a steep USD $50 to $320 for loungers and cabanas at Descano Beach Club, but, just like those idyllic European beachside retreats, you can’t put a price on paradise.
For more information on Catalina Island, visit lovecatalina.com
I have just a few hours on the island, so after visiting Avalon Casino I continue up St. Catherine Way on the five-minute walk to Descano Beach Club. I immediately realise this is the place to while away a sunny afternoon. With its alfresco bar and restaurant with loungers and a petite private beach it is, quite simply, very cool, and I waste no time ordering lunch and a drink at my table right on the beachfront. As I tuck into some fish tacos in the shade and people-watch the families and couples enjoying their summer break, I silently lament not having more time to do the same. This spot takes me back to the serene coves and inlets of the French Riviera, with its deliciously overpriced private beach loungers and 25 Euro cocktails, but with a So Cal slant. You can expect to pay a steep USD $50 to $320 for loungers and cabanas at Descano Beach Club, but, just like those idyllic European beachside retreats, you can’t put a price on paradise.
Madelin Tomelty was a guest of Visit Anaheim.