Catalina beckons just offshore


The Holly Hill House, a Catalina landmark since 1890, is the third oldest
house in Avalon. (Staff photo by Jerome Orense)

Long Beach: 33 miles.

By Pia Abelgas Orense
Staff Writer

Catalina Island’s town of Avalon, with moored yachts bobbing on its bay and colorful cottages resting on the hills, has been likened to an idyllic Mediterranean port.
Avalon is indeed a romantic, quiet town. There are no big-name stores here, no commercial development, no urban sprawl, no traffic lights. Instead, you get a charming little oasis surrounded by sun-soaked hills and unspoiled countryside. Cars are restricted on the island so residents drive golf carts and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour, contributing to the town’s slow, leisurely pace.
For people who live in the inner cities of Los Angeles County, Avalon is the ideal place for detoxifying — from stress, from urban living, from sensory pollution. A mere 22 miles away from Los Angeles’ ports, the island is the ultimate place to “get away” without really going away.
It takes a little more than an hour by boat to get to the island from San Pedro or Long Beach. High-speed catamarans leave the mainland ports as early as 8 a.m. and the last boat returns at 8 p.m., making it alluring for those who only want to visit for a day. Avalon is only a square mile so a day is enough to experience the town’s charm and beauty.
For first-time visitors, there’s plenty to do and see. You can swim, parasail, snorkel and scuba dive.
Why not rent a kayak or paddle boat; take a glass-bottom boat or submarine tour; or just soak in the sun. Bus tours wind through the town’s streets to the coastline road, which goes up to an elevation of 400 feet to Mount Ada, and down to Avalon Canyon.
When we visited Avalon for a day earlier this summer, we opted out of any of the tours and water activities. Instead we decided to do a lot of walking and a lot of eating.
Our first stop to get in vacation mode was A Touch of Heaven Day Spa at the Metropole Market Place. The spa is tucked in a quiet courtyard next to Hotel Metropole. It’s so small the receptionist’s desk is outside the door under an awning.
The interior can only accommodate two guests at a time, but the room is beautifully decorated and perfectly dim. It’s more cozy than cramped.
The spa offers several therapeutic massages, including reflexology, accupressure and stone therapy. My husband and I signed up for the “Couples Romance,” which was an hour of medium-pressure Swedish massage using aromatic oils. The package cost $180 for 60 minutes and $240 for 90 minutes.
The sound of trickling water and soft music helped us relax but voices from the courtyard a few feet away proved to be a minor distraction.
Metropole Market Place is home to several souvenir shops. A word to the wise: items are more expensive here than in other souvenir shops in town. A sweater, for example, that costs about $15 in a store two blocks away sells for nearly $50 at the Metropole.
There are several dining options in Avalon, with restaurants’ specialties ranging from waffles and burgers to fine dining.
We had lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually, it’s the only one) in town: Mr. Ning’s Chinese Garden on Sumner Street. It’s not on the island’s main street, which is Crescent Avenue, so it is easy to overlook and it seems to be more popular with locals than tourists.
The Schwezan-style cuisine was cheap (average $5 for a plate) and delicious. The friendly staff brought our orders in under five minutes. There’s nothing fancy about the place, but it offers a simple charm.
Later in the afternoon, we had huge scoops of ice cream on freshly baked waffle cones from Big Olaf’s on Crescent Avenue.
After lunch, we took the tram ($2 one-way) from Beacon Street to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden at the top of Avalon Canyon Road. The landmark is a memorial to William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate who invested millions in developing Avalon, while preserving the natural beauty of the island.
The Botanical Garden showcases California native plants, some of which are rare and listed as endangered species.
But the focal point is the 130-foot-tall Wrigley Memorial on top of the canyon. The structure is made of crushed island stones, blue flagstone from the less inhabited side of the island and tiles glazed by hand from the Catalina Pottery plant.
The top of the memorial offers a magnificent view of Avalon Bay and, on a clear day, outlines of beach communities on the mainland.
The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling up and down the streets that branched off Crescent Avenue, the town’s main artery that runs the length of the harbor.
Check out the Catalina Casino, the iconic building that defines most postcards and photos of Catalina Island. The Casino sits on a perch above the harbor, like a queen on her throne.
Its red circular Art Deco dome is the first thing visitors see as their boat enters Avalon Bay. The historic theater on the first floor is the town’s only movie house, running one first-run film on weekend nights. Above the theater is the famed circular ballroom, a popular destination for weddings.
Farther down the road is Descanso Beach, which is perfect for picnics or a quick volleyball game. Maps of Avalon point out South Beach and Middle Beach along the crescent-shaped harbor, but these two are more just small strips of sand than a full-service beach.
Still, the two small beaches and the pier next to them are the perfect spots for staring at the bobbing yachts on the bay and for watching boats carrying tourists entering and leaving the harbor.
Those 22 miles from Los Angeles to Catalina Island can make a world of difference. On a Southland freeway, 22 miles can only take you from one crowded city to another. But that same distance on the ocean can transport you from one crowded mainland to a completely different mindset.
(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2669

Transportation: Catalina Express from Long Beach and San Pedro ($66.50, roundtrip). Catalina Flyer from Newport Beach and Dana Point ($68.50, roundtrip). The boat ride from the Long Beach Downtown Landing to Avalon Bay is about an hour, just enough time to relax and detach yourself mentally from life on the mainland. To get to Downtown Landing, take the 710 Freeway South into Long Beach. Stay to the left and follow signs to downtown and exit Golden Shore Avenue. Turn right at stop right, follow around to terminal on the right. Parking structure is on the left.

Accommodations: From expensive and romantic bed-and-breakfasts (Inn on Mt. St. Ada, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, $360 to $750 per night) to affordable and family-friendly (Hermosa Hotel and Cottages, $55 to $175 per night). Mid-week stays are always cheaper since most hotels require two-night minimums on weekends.

Packages: Most hotels partner with Catalina Express and other service vendors to offer packages that include lodging, boat transportation and sightseeing tours or activities. A sample deal for August: For $691, you get two roundtrip tickets aboard the Catalina Express from Long Beach to Avalon, a two-night weekend stay at Hotel St. Lauren on Beacon Street, two tours (glass bottom boat and a city tour), cab rides to and from the hotel to the boat landing, and daily breakfast (coffee, juice and croissant).

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