Unlike Washington, Maine, Massachusetts and the Carolinas, California isn’t exactly famous for rugged, removed island destinations … well, unless you count Alcatraz.
However, in Los Angeles County, another secluded, history-rich island, Santa Catalina Island, is attracting a new generation of visitors and not necessarily the same ones interested in snapping photos of cell 14D. While Alcatraz offers an “Inescapable Experience,” Santa Catalina, or simply Catalina, is the kind of place that visitors, increasingly of the eco-tourism variety, have longed to escape to.
Although Catalina can be reached by helicopter, seaplane or private boat, most guests arrive via an hourlong ferry ride originating from one of several ports in the L.A. and Orange County areas including Long Beach. Stepping onto the nearly 48,000-acre island for the first time can be jarring. Although located only 22 miles south-southwest of L.A., Catalina is a completely different world. It’s a world where cars are restricted; American bison and a host of animals, some endemic, roam the island’s undisturbed backcountry; the beaches found on the island’s 50 miles of coastline can legitimately be called “pristine”; and where a nature conservancy, The Catalina Island Conservancy, presides over much of the island. Toto … we’re not in SoCal anymore.
By land …
For visitors expecting the fast-paced, smog-tinged glitz and glam that prevails on the “mainland,” Catalina will most likely prove to be not very exciting. And that’s a good thing.
The island’s main outpost, the tourist town of Avalon, is cute and by cute we mean small. Only one square mile and home to about 4,000 golf cart-driving denizens (there’s a years-long wait list for residents looking to bring a car to the island), Avalon has its share of eateries and hotels. However, the real draw of Catalina exists on the 42,000 acres of undeveloped land outside of town administered by the Catalina Island Conservancy (a unique conservancy/private ownership arrangement that’s similar to the one in place on another one of MNN’s favorite island destinations, Georgia’s Little St. Simons Island).
Founded in 1972 by the former owners of Catalina, the Wrigley Family (yes, that Wrigley Family), the Conservancy oversees 88 percent of the island’s land with a mission to “be the responsible steward of its [the island’s] lands through a balance of conservation, education and recreation.” On Conservancy land, guests will encounter five no-frills campsites, various hiking and biking trails including the new 37.2-mile Trans-Catalina Trail, a native plant nursery, a mountaintop airport/nature center, a historic lodge and a host of critters including the endemic, endangered Catalina Island fox, the also-endangered bald eagle, the native Catalina Beechey ground squirrel and the aforementioned American bison, which was introduced to the island during a 1924 film shoot of the “Vanishing American.”
If hiking and biking the island’s interior holds limited appeal, the Conservancy also hosts Eco Jeep Tours, both chartered and non-chartered, throughout the island’s 200-mile-long network of back roads. And for thrill-seekers to experience the island from a completely different perspective, there’s the Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour a two-hour (!), five-leg sky-high adventure that’s technically outside of the Conservancy gates. It’s operated by the Santa Catalina Island Co., an organization that owns 10 percent of the island, mostly in and around Avalon and the village of Two Harbors.
Or by sea …
Given that Catalina is an island, the crystalline waters surrounding it hold just as much allure – if not more – than its ruggedly dramatic interior. Catalina’s marine life is diverse and abundant thanks to a Galapagos-esque confluence of currents and a stringent marine protection program. This, naturally, makes it a top destination for snorkelers and scuba divers – the waters were ranked the “World’s Healthiest Marine Environment by Scuba Diving magazine – looking to come face to face with colorful garibaldi, giant sea bass, moray eels and bat rays or journey through Lovers Cove Undersea Gardens or Casino Point Marine Park, an underwater park filled with shipwrecks and dense kelp forests.
A new underwater attraction on Catalina is The Catalina Sea Trek Undersea Adventure, where one can amble along a seafloor trail through a kelp forest thanks to specially engineered “undersea helmets.” Even though this new experience is geared toward adventurers of all stripes, even those who can’t swim, those who would rather stay (mostly) above the water can still experience Catalina’s marine life by setting sail on a semi-submersible vessel. And then there are the island’s famed glass bottom boat tours for those who would rather stay completely over water.
For those looking to get truly intimate with Catalina’s local fish population while staying above water in the comfort of a chartered boat, the waters around the island are renowned for sports fishing. Marlin, swordfish and barracuda are three popular catches. In fact, the island is home to America’s oldest big-game fishing club, The Catalina Tuna Club (1898).
While Catalina’s ecological splendors are vast and most prefer to experience them by hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, camping, diving and zip-lining, it’s always nice to enjoy a little civilization, right? As mentioned, the town of Avalon is petite but not without charm. The town’s crown jewel and de facto gathering spot is the Catalina Casino, an iconic Art Deco structure built by William Wrigley Jr. in 1929 as a waterfront dance hall. Currently the Casino houses a movie theatre, museum and the world’s largest circular ballroom.
Lodgings in Avalon, while focused more on romance and family friendliness than sustainability, include the newly refurbished Pavilion Hotel, the award-winning Avalon Hotel, and numerous B&Bs. On the edibles front, the menu at the upscale M Restaurant at Hotel Metropole emphasizes seasonal, local and organic ingredients, while health- and budget-conscious eaters can grab gluten-free pizzas, falafel with homemade hummus and organic beers at Café Metropole, also located in the Metropole Market Place complex. Other popular Avalon dining options include the Descano Beach Club (also the hub for many of Catalina’s outdoor activities) and The Catalina Country Club, home to the Chicago Cubs’ spring training camp from 1921 to 1951.
The great escape
Despite its close proximity to Los Angeles, Catalina is not at risk of being consumed by it (although the island does have its fair share of Hollywood lore). Thanks to conservation efforts initiated by the descendants of a chewing gum magnate, Catalina will be forever safe from overdevelopment, ecological destruction and Disney-fication. However, as 2007’s 4,000-acre wildfire accidentally sparked by a subcontractor proved, Catalina isn’t completely immune to the effects of human activity. Santa Catalina Island, despite being a different world when compared to most of mainland Los Angeles County, is still part of our world. Escape while you can.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.