Catalina is a gem of an island situated a forty minute ferry ride off the coast of Long Beach, which is a twenty minute drive just south of Los Angeles. Long Beach harbour, where you catch the ferry to Catalina Island, is also where the Queen Mary rests, one of the grandest and most famous of all ocean liners from the past.
There, if you like, you can stay as a hotel guest or grab a meal or a drink at one of the many period ballrooms, bars and restaurants. The coast of California is famous for whale watching and, as I found out much to my surprise, this part of the Pacific is teeming with schools of dolphins. It is extremely common, but nevertheless always an incredible sight to see these acrobatic creatures leaping in and out of the water with boundless energy as they cruise alongside the modern, clean and comfortable ferry.
Stare across the harbour and you won’t fail to notice one of the most elegant Art Deco buildings, the largest Swing ballroom in the United States, rising up like Camelot from the sea.
The first thing the visitor to Catalina will notice and will not expect to find so close off the coast of one of the world’s largest cities is the crystal clear water, teeming with colourful fish, which you see as soon as you step onto the gangplank to disembark from the ferry boat. The next thing the visitor will probably notice are the curious ‘Captain Nemo’ looking, glass bottomed submarines, which were designed on the island especially for tourists to observe the abundant marine life beneath the ocean.
Back in the era of prohibition, large cruise ships would take Swing dancers from the mainland to 24-hour dance parties in Catalina, where at the time there was a huge perspex tube spanning the length of the waterfront through which the revellers would have to walk to cover the kilometre or so distance to the ballroom situated on the other side of the bay. Beneath the ballroom, which is elevated on the second floor, lies one of the grandest and most historical Art Deco cinemas in America, where visitors to the island can still catch a movie.
Apart from a relaxed feel, with a profusion of golf carts buzzing around – not to mention a number of amazing golf courses, the visitor will notice the immaculately restored classic ‘golden era’ Americana buses which take tourists on tours into the heartland of the island, along tight country roads and through big vistas to Catalina Airport, on the other side of the island, which is actually more like an aerodrome or an old Casablanca era set.
Owned privately for generations by the Wrigley family – the owners of the chewing gum brand – the family has been instrumental in preserving Catalina’s wild nature and in limiting development on the island. Although the council members are now democratically elected, the mayor of the island is usually one of the Wrigley family.
The island itself is a nature reserve and has a unique history, feel and character, in part because – and this is the next thing you’ll notice – there are practically no cars on the island, only golf carts and there are a lot of them, which you can rent by the day or the hour. The island also has a great aviation history, being the place where McDonnell Douglas built the famous flying boats.
When I visited the island it was to propose a charity event to benefit some of the animals injured or lost in natural disaster. The event was to be a mixture of a fly-in, an around the island golf cart Gumball rally and a celebrity golf tournament, to benefit animals who had been injured or lost in the hurricanes which had been plaguing North America recently.
The Wrigleys were fascinated by the proposal, but we never went as far as finding sponsors for the various teams, which would be one person and an animal, say a dog or an iguana or a cat, who would fly in with a celebrity pilot and accompany them through the around the island Gumball golf cart rally and amateur celebrity golf events of the competition.
Where to Stay
On the island you can find any number of reasonable hotels and pensions along the harbour front which will set you back no more than the average mainland motel for a night’s stay. However, if you can afford it and want to experience the real Catalina, you can rent a small villa or an apartment for $250 plus dollars a night – which, split between a few friends, is also not too expensive.
A notable contingent on the island is the thriving community of artists, who have moved there to escape the rat race and the frenetic ‘Freeway’ pace and arguably superficial existence in Hollywood.
Among the group of artists and painters I met while visiting the island was none other than the famous 60s rhythm and blues band leader, Spencer Davis, who shot to fame when a very young Stevie Windwood took over lead vocals and keyboard duties to round out the Spencer Davis Group sound, on tracks like ‘Gimme Some Loving’. Spencer, who seemed happy, fit and healthy, talked freely about how ‘that band’ – meaning Traffic – ‘stole’ his singer and about Windwood’s genius; how the young Stevie would absorb some new sound, style or instrument to which Spencer had introduced him and then, within a few months, would have transformed it into something fresh and personal, but evocative of what he’d been newly exposed to.
Although there are no longer the 24 hour cruise liner trips to dance parties on the island – as interesting an idea as that might be – once a year the island does host the Catalina Jazz Trax festival in October, using various outdoor stages as well as the grand ballroom and the harbour as focal points for the festival, where people come in by ferry and also more stylishly float in and moor private boats in the harbour. Apart from swimming, scuba diving, sailing and hiking, kayaking is a popular way to explore the water, scenery and cliffs off the near shore.
Catalina is also the place where much of the stylised and classic cult 60s TV show, The Fugitive, was filmed and has a long history of movie production and collaboration with Hollywood, from where horses and buffalo were imported to shoot cowboy films.
There are now herds of wild horses and buffaloes that roam the more than 80 percent of the island which is protected as a nature reserve.
Article by Charley Weber
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