Port Briefing: Catalina

| August 10, 2004

"Twenty six miles across the sea "Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me "Santa Catalina, the island of "Romance, romance, romance, romance."

Immortalized by the Four Preps tune from the 1950s, Catalina Island continues to woo lovers – and cruisers – year-round. As a stop on four-night Baja cruises offered by Royal Caribbean and Carnival from Long Beach/San Pedro, the town of Avalon offers visitors plenty of ways to enjoy the scenic splendor of the island and relish its temperate Mediterranean climate.

Located 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, the resort destination began as a Mexican land grant. Over the years, Santa Catalina passed among a variety of ranchers and entrepreneurs until chewing gum magnate William Wrigley took controlling interest in 1919. Wrigley saw Catalina as a tourist mecca where visitors could experience the unspoiled splendor of the island. The atmosphere that visitors to Avalon and Catalina enjoy today can be traced back to the policies set in motion by Wrigley. In the mid-1970s, Wrigley's Santa Catalina Island Co. transferred to Los Angeles County 41,000 acres of land primarily for park usage. The one condition was that it remain under the control of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages the bulk of the land today.

Due to that edict, cruisers today experience the charm of Avalon (population about 3,500), and revel in the scenic beauty of the verdant mountains and hillsides that surround the village.

Monarch in port
Passengers aboard RCCL's Monarch of the Seas or Carnival's Ecstasy (or Paradise starting in September 2004) awake to beautiful vistas of the island. Avalon's harbor is not deep enough for cruise ships, so visitors are tendered to Avalon. (Cruise tip: Board the tenders prior to 10 a.m. or later in the afternoon to avoid delays.)

Standing on deck, you'll see many boats and yachts bobbing in the Avalon harbor, but it's the towering Casino that is the most recognized symbol of Catalina. Completed in 1929 by Wrigley, the mammoth structure's Art Deco design harks back to the Big Band era. But the grand hall was not a gambling house. In reality, "Casino" roughly translates from Italian to "gathering place," and up to 6,000 dancers would do just that when bands led by such greats as Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey played there. Today, tours of the building are offered daily for $13.50 for adults and $6.75 for children. Visitors will also see the beautiful Art Deco Avalon Theatre (housed beneath the ballroom), with its fabulous murals by John Gabriel Beckham and 4,500 square feet of black walnut gracing the lobby. The Casino tour entitles participants to free admission to the Catalina Museum alongside the Casino.

But that's not the only tour available. Most excursions are easily booked on your own in town through two local operators – California Adventure Tours and Discovery Tours. Both maintain booths on the Green Pleasure Pier in the center of town. (This is also the pier where Carnival guests disembark from the tenders. RCCL drops its passengers a short walk from town at the ferry landing, where both tour operators also staff excursion kiosks.)

Avalon Harbor
One of the most popular is the hour-long Avalon Scenic Tour, priced at $13.50 for adults and $6.75 for children. Aboard a breezy tram-style bus, visitors wind their way above Avalon while the guide explains the sights. This is a good tour for those with mobility problems.

Another popular diversion is the Inland Motor Tour, a 28-mile trip into the back country. Stops include the Airport-in-the-Sky, as well as forays into the more natural canyon settings where buffalo still roam freely; they were brought to the island as props for the filming of the 1920s movie "The Vanishing American." Scenes from "Mutiny on the Bounty" were also shot around Catalina. Cost of this tour is $49.50 for adults and $24.75 for children. This is nearly a four-hour excursion.

To experience the marine side of Catalina, you can try the glass bottom boat tour, in which you'll view sea life in Lover's Cove. The tour costs $12.75 for adults and $8 for kids, and a special tube allows guests to feed the fish directly. Those wishing to go even deeper can take the Nautilus semi-submersible sub tours of the bay -- $35 for adults and $18 for children – where tourists can shoot food "torpedoes" to entice the fish to come closer.

Manufactured Cottage
Or you can forego an organized excursion and explore on foot through the charming streets of Avalon (many permit no vehicular traffic) to take in the shops, eateries and cocktail lounges along Crescent, or off on side streets. About two blocks from the marina, you'll come across quaint lanes lined with beach cottages boasting a variety of quirky exteriors. Many of the narrower homes – about 20 feet wide -- were manufactured housing brought to the island in the 1920s as weekend retreats.

As you make your way through the streets of Avalon, one sight will be a rarity – the automobile. There is a 15-year waiting list to bring vehicles onto the island, so the primary transport is the omnipresent golf cart. Some permanent residents take great pains to show their individuality, with Rolls Royce-style radiators or sporty paint jobs on their carts.

You can be like the natives by renting a golf cart to tour the island. This is a great way to see the sights of Avalon at your own speed. The largest rental company on the island is Catalina Auto and Bike Rentals, with a kiosk at Crescent and Metropole, just where Crescent opens to vehicular traffic. A four-seat model costs $30 an hour, while a 6-seater runs $45, plus deposit. Only cash or traveler's checks are accepted as payment.

Drivers will get a map of the island with a suggested route that includes:

A brief stop at the Casino. Be sure and see the murals outside the box office.

The Zane Grey home, now known as the Pueblo Hotel, built in 1926 by the author known for his Western novels.

The Chimes Tower, presented as a gift to Avalon by Wrigley's wife, Ada, in the 1920s. Its bells can be heard on the quarter of the hour throughout Avalon.

Catalina Golf Course

The Catalina Golf Course, the oldest west of the Rockies. The 9-hole links provide duffers scenic views of the hillsides and trees. The nearby Catalina Country Club features a plaque in the field, noting this was the site where Wrigley brought his Chicago Cubs for 30 years for spring training.

Bird Park

The former Bird Park. A quick stop here allows visitors to see beautiful examples of artwork completed with Catalina Tile. The nearby aviary – now used as a daycare center and thus sans feathered creatures – was once the dance pavilion along the shore of Avalon before it was moved here.

Wrigley Memorial
Wrigley Botanical Gardens, with examples of native plants on the island. Park here and with the $3 admission for adults (children are free) you can make your way through the fauna up a gentle incline.

Wrigley Memorial, at the end of the Botanical Gardens.
Botanical Gardens
Ada supervised the construction of the striking monument after Wrigley's death in 1932. Built from 1933-1934, the imposing structure boasts a sweeping flagstone staircase, mosaics composed of Catalina tile, and marble sarcophaguses for Wrigley and Ada. Wrigley's entombment site still bears his name; however, he was moved during World War II to Forest Lawn Glendale due to security concerns. Ada was never interred in her sarcophagus, and also rests in Glendale. The walk to the monument is worth the climb for its scenic views down the canyon, out to vistas of the cruise ship lying just off Avalon.

Inn at Mt. Ada
Inn at Mt. Ada, the former Wrigley mansion. The white structure – visible nearly everywhere in Avalon – is now a tony bed and breakfast, but it stands as a reminder of the Wrigley wealth and presence on the island. Tourists reach the area near the entrance to the home by winding back down to town and ascending the hillsides to the left of Avalon. Here, too, visitors may stop for beautiful photo opportunities of Avalon, the harbor and the cruise ship at anchor.

After returning the golf cart, tourists may linger in town for a quick bite or drink. At Vons grocery store on Metropole, one block from Crescent, you can stock up on bottled water or other provisions for the cabin before making your way back to the tender.

Certainly after spending a day in lovely Avalon and watching its beauty as the tender returns to the ship, you will recall the tune again – Catalina is, indeed, the island of romance.

Web site information sites:

www.catalina.com www.catalinaadventuretours.com www.scico.com/html/discovery_tours.html

(Harry Martin is the moderator for the Mexico and Gay/Lesbian message boards for Cruisemates.com.)

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