To Southern Californians, Santa Catalina Island is what Nantucket is to the East Coast and Mackinac is to Great Lakers. This Mediterranean-like island only 26 miles offshore, an easy half-day run from hundreds of marinas, has attracted boaters for decades.
Their enthusiasm is due in no small part to the fact that California’s rocky and inhospitable coast offers few other cruising destinations. Unlike East Coast yachtsmen, who can choose among hundreds of coves and harbors, California skippers are confronted with forbidding shores punctuated by glossy marinas. Alternative choices include the outer Channel Islands, where the wind and sea conditions are often rotten, the anchorages small and dicey.
Catalina, with a 21-mile-long bulk, is a welcoming haven. Though the windward side faces crashing Pacific swells that haven’t felt shallow water since the Aleutians, the leeward side is usually calm and tranquil. The weather is generally benign, with the exception of the Santana winds that blow in the fall. They can quickly turn the usually placid lee side of the island into a rage of breaking seas, so pay careful attention to weather reports.
There is a romance to Catalina that is palpable the moment you step ashore at Avalon, the social and political hub named after King Arthur’s final resting place. Walk the worn planks of the 1909 Pleasure Pier, turn right along the waterfront and you’ll be following in the footsteps of John Wayne, whose Wild Goose was an Avalon regular, and Bogey and Bacall, who would bring their Santana on non-filming weekends.
Catalina was claimed by Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542, just 50 years after Columbus found the continent. After statehood, Catalina passed through many owners until William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum magnate, acquired a controlling interest in 1919. He promptly brought his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, to Avalon for spring training. For the next 26 years, Catalina was a regular feature on national sports pages.
The island’s most prominent landmark, the Moorish-style Casino, was finished in 1929 and is somewhat ill-named, since it never allowed gambling. It does, however, have a ballroom that can host 3,000 dancers on a floor of exotic, inlaid woods. Radio broadcasts of the ’30s, beamed “from the beautiful Casino on Catalina Island, brought the sounds of Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Jimmy Dorsey and other big bands to a waiting nation. Today, the Casino is used as a movie theater and party space.
World War II halted the party atmosphere, and Catalina quickly became a training camp. The U.S. Coast Guard trained recruits, the Signal Corps manned radar posts to protect Los Angeles, and the OSS, later to become the CIA, practiced with cloaks and daggers at a former prep school.
After the war, life on Catalina returned to normal, and yachtsmen and tourists now swell the Avalon population of 2,000 to more than 10,000 on summer weekends. Tales of Riviera weather and clear waters first spun by Chicago Cubs sportswriters are true: The average summer day temperature of 76 degrees, and the winter average of 63 degrees make the island cooler in summer and warmer in winter than the mainland.
Near the east end of the island, Avalon sprawls upward from the waterfront like a Mediterranean village. While the town can be covered easily on foot, most visitors rent an electric golf cart (cars are limited on Catalina) to enjoy the quiet, scenic roads.
Before you get behind the wheel, be sure to buy one of Catalina’s famous chocolate-covered bananas on a stick from an eatery facing the water. Another popular local delicacy is saltwater taffy, pulled in long ribbons in a host of flavors.
The famed Catalina steamer and the squadron of amphibian flying boats that once delivered tourists and supplies are long gone, replaced by sleek, high-speed catamaran ferries. A vintage glass-bottom boat provides a dry version of snorkeling for tourists, and a yellow submarine is a more recent addition. If you want to scuba dive or snorkel, head out to the underwater park at Casino Point.
Near the Casino, visit the museum and take a walking tour of the art deco ballroom. As you head back to town, look up on the hill for the pueblo-style building where writer Zane Grey once wrote westerns such as “Riders of the Purple Sage. Grey was also an avid sportfisherman, and his home is now a hotel filled with memorabilia.
Wherever you walk in Avalon, you’ll see brightly colored tiles, a reminder of the ceramic industry that once flourished on the island. Now highly collectible, the tiles include one panel on the waterfront commemorating Glenn Martin and the world’s first over-water flight from Newport to Catalina in 1912.
Golfers can head up Avalon Canyon, where Southern California’s oldest golf course (1894) is open for public play. Baseball fans will find a plaque on the course commemorating the former Cubs field; the Country Club was once the Cubs locker room.
Since all of the island outside Avalon is a conservancy, the best way to see it is on one of several bus tours that allows a glimpse of the herds of buffalo, one of the island’s oddities. Brought over in 1924 during the filming of Grey’s “Vanishing American, they proved too difficult to catch. The herd simply remained and thrived.
The biggest problem you’re likely to encounter is finding a mooring. They fill up quickly on busy weekends and are on a first-come, first-served basis. On arriving at Avalon, stand by the harbor entrance for a mooring assignment from the harbor patrol boat. You can anchor outside the breakwater west of the Casino, but plan on a depth of 150 feet.
Also keep in mind that Avalon is a no-discharge area. Garbage is picked up daily during the summer, and generators must be shut down from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Shore boats serve Avalon and nearby harbors. They monitor VHF channel 9, or you can wave them down as they pass.
When it comes to dining in Avalon, start on the deck of the Busy Bee overlooking the harbor, where the Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict are flawless. A close second is Sally’s Waffle Shop, on Crescent Avenue and often packed with locals. When your cook stages a dinner walk-out, the El Galleon has steaks grilled to perfection.
As twilight settles over Avalon, it’s easy to think you’re in another time. When big band music is floating across the moored yachts, you almost wonder if Zane Grey is tapping out another horse opera high above the harbor, or if Bogart is slipping into a tuxedo aboard his yacht for an evening ashore with the lovely Ms. Bacall.
It’s just the romance of Santa Catalina Island.