Hidden Treasures: Car-free carefree Catalina
Before William Randolph Hearst transformed a remote family campsite into a private Gothic Dreamcastle, before Walt Disney transformed an orange plantation into a fairy-tale theme park, there was Santa Catalina Island. In the 1920’s it was mostly scrub, used occasionally as the setting for Western movies. (Leftover bison still roam the interior). Then William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate had a vision. He bought Catalina Island and created an art-deco enclave , added the west’s first professional baseball team as an attraction, (the Wrigley – owned Chicago Cubs came across the country for their spring training), and invited the public to come. . The island is open to anyone who can get there, by ferry, by private boat, by plane, or you can, as the Four Preps famously sung, “swim with just some water wings and my guitar.”
Wrigley wasn’t the first to build a resort on Santa Catalina Island, but he had the money to buy out his predecessor after a fire leveled half of the main town of Shatto (named for the previous owner). He renamed and recreated the town as Avalon, started up a ceramic factory with produced the omni-present tiles and ceramics which set the theme of the town, and crowned the effort by building the Casino (“gathering place” in Italian). The Casino includes a theatre whose decor was designed by the same artist who created Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It also includes a ballroom with the largest hardwood dance floor in the US. THe whole thing is circular in shape and topped with a tiny little cupola which formerly housed a beacon guiding boats into the harbor. I’ve never seen another building remotely like it.
In the 20’s and 30’s Santa Catalina was a getaway haven for Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Humbphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Wayne. Winston Churchill came here to fish for marlin. During the war Errol Flynn sailed here and was arrested for indecent behavior. Norma Jean Dougherty lived here with her merchant marine husband Jim, years before she became Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood drowned here. The little Catalina Island museum is full of cinema history,
Access to Wrigley’s island is by ferry, helicopter, or private plane. There are almost no cars on the island. Transportation is mainly by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. The resort area included a lot of what you might see in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba diving, although the beaches are skimpy and the water is chilly. Outside of the resort area of Avalon, the island is a nature preserve, harboring kit foxes, bald eagles, and the afore-mentioned buffalo. Hiking, camping and biking in the back country is by permit. Jeep tours are available, but pricey ($72/person for a 6 hour tour.)
So, you ‘d like to visit Tuscany but you hate long plane flights? You can experience the picturesque village of Avalon clinging to the steep hillsides of Catalina. You love the desert atmosphere and beach vibe of Cabo San Lucas but your passport has expired? Hike the back country of Catalina and take in the 360 degree views of ocean and harbor from the heights of the island. You just want to get away, bask in the sun, and eat great food? Avalon has lots of sunshine and chaise lounges for basking, plus excellent food from fish tacos on the pier to high-end California Fusion at the Avalon Grill.
What are you waiting for?