By David DeVoss
Beach communities are supposed to be places to go in summer. So why visit Santa Catalina Island at the onset of winter when it’s too cold to swim and clouds often blanket the resort town of Avalon? Because in the off season Southern California’s favorite weekend escape offers gourmet restaurants without crowds, colorful bars where it’s actually possible to meet people and talk and hotels glad to provide deep discounts since only 30% of the town’s 1,051 hotel rooms and vacation rentals are occupied.
Santa Catalina is remote yet surprisingly accessible. The 74-sq mile island is only an hour away by ferry from Los Angeles and Orange counties. For seniors and empty-nesters whose travel no longer is tied to school holidays, Catalina in the off-season is one of California’s best bargains. During summer when hotel occupancy soars to 90% on weekends, Avalon’s stores and boutiques are packed with raucous vacationers. But in Winter it’s possible to amble along the harbor front’s Crescent Avenue unjostled, peek into stores happy to knock a few bucks off the list price and enjoy the mellow vibe of a community that relies on golf carts for transportation.
“Because summer is a non-stop party that never stops, there’s always a long line of people waiting to rent golf carts,” says Sandra Machado, manager of Catalina Island Golf Carts. “I love the off season because everybody’s relaxed and we have time to talk to guests. There are no lines, no pressure and nice people can get extra time on a cart at no added cost.”
Avalon is not a fancy city with expensive resorts. Progressive chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought the island in 1919 with the intention of making it the Spring Training home for his Chicago Cubs and a vacation destination for working people. Catalina, he said, would be a place where every man who bought a stick of Juicy Fruit gum could bring his family for an affordable beach vacation. Wrigley had the money to finance his dream. Because most of Avalon burned in 1915 he was able to buy the entire 21-mile long island for less than $3 million four years later.
26 Miles (Santa Catalina)
Twenty-six miles across the sea. Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me.
Santa Catalina, the island of romance. Romance, romance, romance.
Water all around it everywhere. Tropical trees and the salty air.
But for me the thing that’s a-waitin’ there, romance.
Forty kilometers in a leaky old boat. Any old thing that’ll stay afloat.
When we arrive we’ll all promote romance, romance, romance.
The Four Preps 1958
Despite its proletarian roots, Avalon became an overnight favorite of Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn, who often sailed his yacht to the island to hunt wild boar. In the years before international jet travel, Catalina was used for location shooting. Eight Tahitian villages were built along its 54 miles of coastline for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. Later, Hollywood brought in a small herd of buffalo to film a Zane Gray western. Unfortunately, the film’s producer didn’t know how difficult it could be to capture and return bison to their native prairie. So, today, descendants from that first herd still wander the island’s interior.
Avalon’s most famous visitors, however, were the Chicago Cubs, who held Spring Training there from 1921 to 1951. Though the field where they played was repurposed long ago, a Cubs shrine, of sorts, still exists inside Lolo Saldana’s barber shop just off Sumner Ave. in the Island Plaza.
Born in Avalon, Saldana, 91, still cuts hair. But his shop functions more as a Cubs museum. “I watched the Cubs when I was a kid,” he volunteers while shaving my neck with a straight razor. “I still have a bat that was used in the 1945 World Series against Detroit.”
Saldana’s memories are interrupted periodically by the arrival of picture-taking tourists and locals who take seats along the wall and await their turn to gossip.
But Lolo is not ready to yield the floor. “Ernie Banks sat in that very chair,” he says to a visitor from Wisconsin with a wave of the razor. “Offered to teach me how to hit, but I told him I already knew how. So then Ernie smiles and says, ‘but you’ve never been schooled by somebody who’s hit 500 home runs.'”
Avalon is a full service community with a tiny population of 4,000 more than a third of which live off the island. Architecturally, it’s an imperfect blend of Cape Cod and California Colonial; a Cabot Cove for the Pacific Rim. One of Catalina’s most distinctive features, aside from the rolling mountain peaks and valleys that cover 88% of the island, is its star-filled night sky. In Los Angeles and San Diego it’s difficult to see beyond the moon because of glaring ambient light. But on Santa Catalina the heavens reveal their celestial beauty.
The best person to show you the stars is Kathleen Carlisle, who escorts small groups of visitors at dusk to an outcrop next to the old Wrigley Mansion to look at constellations and star clusters. The star gazing occurs while listening to a compelling astronomy lesson featuring Copernicus, Aristotle and Galileo that is less an academic discourse than a history of how ancient societies used the stars to explain the mysteries of the earth.
The 26-miles separating Avalon from the mainland keep the night sky dark, but it also makes everything you buy in Avalon expensive. Gasoline is over $7 a gallon here. Most of the items in the local supermarket cost at least $1 more than they would in Los Angeles. Logistics are a constant concern. No people in America appreciate Amazon Prime more than the citizens of Avalon.
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Getting to Catalina
Catalina has a tiny airport perched atop a 1,602-ft. mountain that serves buffalo burgers in the coffee shop. But the cheapest, fastest and most comfortable way to get to the island is by ferry. Catalina Express has 30 departures a day to Avalon from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. Trips on the high-speed catamarans take about one hour from San Pedro and Long Beach where secure parking costs $19 a day. Book online at or call (800) 995-4386.
Getting Around on Catalina
Only long-time permanent residents of Catalina can own cars. Visitors walk or drive golf carts. Three offices – two on Crescent Ave and one near the boat terminal – rent carts for $70 an hour with a $75 deposit. In summer, carts must be returned after two hours. During off-season a two-hour rental often is rewarded with a third hour free.
Places to stay
The Pavilion Hotel
at 513 Crescent Ave. offers relaxing views of the beach from a central courtyard terrace where a complimentary wine & cheese happy hour starting at 4:30 pm. is provided.
The Avalon Hotel a few steps up from Crescent on Whittley Ave. offers a two-night package starting at $687 that includes two round-trip boat tickets, taxi transfers to and from the ferry plus a continental breakfast in the hotel garden seated between a fire pit and the koi pond.
Aurora Hotel https://www.auroracatalina.com/Located two blocks up from the beach on Marilla Ave., the Aurora isn’t fancy. Off-season rooms start at $199. The hotel’s best feature is a relaxing third floor roof deck. Bring your continental breakfast up from the lobby and start the day with a panoramic view of Avalon Harbor.
For a very special splurge, why not fork over $600 a night and stay at Mt. Ada, https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/lodging/avalon/mt-ada/ on 398 Wrigley Road. Constructed in 1921 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, the home is furnished like it would have been when Wrigley and his son PK lived there during the 30 years the Chicago Cubs used Catalina for spring training.
Restaurants & Bars
The Avalon Grille (https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/dining/avalon/avalon-grille/) at the corner of Crescent and Catalina Avenues is the island’s fanciest restaurant. Meat and seafood entrees range from $37 to $85 but don’t ignore vegan dishes like the Pumpkin Steak Confit.
Located just past the Casino on St. Catherine Way, the Descanso Beach Club (https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/descanso-beach-club/) is the perfect place to enjoy lunch or just relax on the sand.
Luau Larry’s (http://www.luaularrys.com/) is a dive bar. More specifically, a tiki dive bar. Located on Crescent Ave. between the Pavilion Hotel and the Avalon Grille, the bar’s claim to fame is tropical drinks like the Wiki Wacker that pack an unanticipated wallop. You can drink two, but you may regret it.
Old Turner Inn (http://www.oldturnerinn.com/) manager Kathleen Hill Carlisle hosts astronomy parties in the hills above Avalon. Call her at (310) 503-1250 for a reservation. The cost is $65 per adult. Tours leave from Catalina Ave. where the inn is located.
And Don’t Bypass
The Catalina Island Museum on Metropole Ave. It is well worth the $23 admission and features informative signage, historic photos and a well-deserved nod to the Four Preps whose 1958 record, 26 miles (Santa Catalina), established an identity that 60 years on continues to attract people to the island of “romance.”
David DeVoss is editor and senior correspondent of the East-West News Service.