This trip to Southern California's Catalina Island doesn't even compare with the last one I did 25 years ago. That time I made the mistake that many do of just walking around Avalon, shopping and eating, spending the night and then leaving. But while Avalon is a delightful place and time spent here is worthwhile, it's not sufficient to fully savor all that Catalina Island offers.
Avalon is a tourist town, but it retains a great deal of charm and authenticity with its colorful homes and shops, a Spanish-style bell tower on the hillside that chimes on the quarter-hour, and the artificial but delightful sand "beach" that provides sunbathers a choice between the calm bay water on one side and the restaurants, bars and shops on the other. The scene resembles an Impressionist's canvas with stark-white boats spread across the bay framed by multicolored houses clinging to the encircling khaki hillsides.
Upon arrival, I felt a pervasive energy as golf carts buzzed in every direction (a necessity since traditional vehicles are severely restricted) and people walked, jogged or biked along the waterfront. Among the many initial surprises was the fact that the weather was cooler than on the baking mainland and the water was warmer.
As someone who is not fond of highly commercialized destinations, I found Catalina to be nicer than most tourist attractions. It has a special island vibe, more European than Californian. There are no fast-food restaurants, and few buildings are more than three stories tall.
But there's so much more to Catalina Island than just the main town of Avalon. For those who like to hike, bike, swim and explore, Catalina can provide an abundant supply of pleasant surprises and pure exhilaration. My recommendation is to visit the interior of the 35-mile-long island, explore the ocean both above and below water, and -- of course -- enjoy the pleasantries of Avalon.
To get there, there are a couple of ferry-boat companies, but we took the main one, the Catalina Express, that brings most visitors from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. It was a large, comfortable and fast ferry that travels up to 43 mph, so the journey takes a little over an hour. Arrive early to handle parking congestion, and if you are prone to seasickness, some Dramamine (or Bonine) should help with the brief crossing. If it happens to be your birthday, you'll travel for free.
Once there, these are some of the activities we did that got our batteries turbo-charged:
The Nautilus Semi-Submarine Tour is a good way to get acquainted with the spectacular marine preserve. Passengers shoot a "torpedo" of fish food into the water outside their portholes and create a feeding frenzy for the fish. If you don't snorkel or scuba dive, by all means do this.
The Dolphin Quest trip uses a high-speed boat to skim across the waves until someone spots the churning, fin-filled area in which a group of dolphins are feeding. Your heart races when you find yourself in the midst of leaping dolphins and occasional seals cavorting in the water all around you, sometimes just a few feet away. My favorite scene involved the bottlenose dolphins that delighted in surfing and leaping in our boat's 3-foot wake.
The Lover's Cove marine preserve, only half a mile from town, is a world-class snorkeling spot. This underwater fantasyland begins amazingly close to shore, and within a few feet you are suddenly surrounded by a swarm of largish fish with unlikely names such as Senoritas, Halfmoons, Garibaldi and Blacksmiths. You won't forget your first encounter with the brilliant orange pug-nosed Garibaldi fish guarding their territory amid the waving golden kelp fronds. Less than 50 feet from shore you'll find an area thickly carpeted with at least a dozen types of sea plants whose range of sizes, textures and colors (gold/reddish/purple/green/beige) create a scene that is truly breathtaking. A scuba diver near the famous Casino dive spot told me that Jacques Cousteau placed Catalina among the top 10 dive spots in the world.
The Jeep Ecotour provided by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns 88 percent of the island, shows you what the rest of Catalina Island looks like. If you've never been outside Avalon before, hop aboard this five-passenger Jeep with its naturalist guide and get up-close and personal with bison, native foxes, birds, beaches and tantalizing beach trails. Bison herds are a famous attraction; the 150 bison are remnants of the ones brought to the island in 1924 for a film in which, ironically, the bison never appeared. The Zip Line Tour offers five zips over two hours, with the added benefit of your guide's intermittent explanations about the island's human and natural history.
The kayaking tour from Descanso Beach provides the opportunity to get eye to eye with dolphins as they seek their next fish snack.
Other options are parasailing, camping, hiking, and renting a bike, motorboat or your own golf cart. Don't forget to tour the Casino and Museum, and hike up to the botanical gardens. Try to set aside time to swim, snorkel, sunbathe and snack at Descanso Beach. It's a delightful place, and the snorkeling off the north end of the beach is fantastic.
Restaurants and accommodations here will satisfy any budget requirements, whether modest or unconstrained. If you rent a place with a kitchen, there's a nice little supermarket with normal mainland prices. We tried two restaurants, the Bluewater Avalon and the Avalon Grille. Both were deluxe venues, and while the Bluewater Avalon had the better bayside seating (along with good food), the Avalon Grille had an elegant ambience and great food.
Set aside at least three days and two nights to spend here. The key to having a memorable and exciting vacation is to try a variety of the tours offered. Enjoy Avalon, but allow the island to provide you with those special experiences you'll always remember. WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.catalinachamber.com
Catalina Express ferry and tour-planning information: www.catalinaexpress.com
Luxury vacation condos with Catalina Island Vacations Rentals: www.catalinavacations.com or 310-510-2276. Our condo was deluxe, with a fabulous view.
The Pavilion Hotel has been newly upgraded and offers free wine and cheese each evening and breakfast every morning. The attractive location faces the bay: www.visitcatalinaisland.com or 310-510-2500.
Nautilus Semi-Submarine Tour: www.catalinaadventuretours.com or 877-510-2888.
Bluewater Avalon Restaurant: www.bluewateravalon.com or 310-510-3474
Avalon Grill: www.visitcatalinaisland.com or 310-510-7494
Catalina Island Museum: www.catalinamuseum.org
For Jeep Eco Tours, hiking, Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Gardens: www.catalinaconservancy.org or 310-510-2595
Dolphin Quest and Behind the Scenes Casino Tour: www.visitcatalinaisland.com or 310-510-8687
Kayak Tour with Descanso Beach Ocean Sports: www.kayakcatalinaisland.com or 310-510-1226
Zipline Eco Tour: www.visitcatalinaisland.com
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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