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 south of Los Angeles. Long Beach harbour, where you catch the ferry to Catalina Island, is also where the Queen Mary rests, the most famous of all ocean liners from the past.
There 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 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.
Look 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, like Camelot rising up 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. The next thing the visitor will probably notice are the curious glass bottomed submarines, which were designed on the island especially for tourists to observe the abundant marine life beneath.
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 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 heart of the island, along tight country roads and via big vistas to the other side of the island, to Catalina Airport 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 natural world 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 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.
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 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 Winwood took over lead vocals and keyboard duties to round out the Spencer Davis Group sound on tracks like Gimme Some Lovin’. Spencer, who seemed happy, fit and healthy, talked freely about how ‘that band’ – meaning Traffic – ‘stole’ his singer and about Winwood’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 still 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 JazzTrax 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 either by ferry or, 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 buffalo that roam the more than 80 percent of the island which is protected as a nature reserve.
Article by Charley Weber
I’ve travelled widely, lived and worked mostly in the U.S.A. and Turkey, but also in Europe and the U.K. If you are interested in visiting any of the unusual destinations we write about, like Catalina, LAX is the best airport; for a fly-drive tour of the Northwest book a flight to San Francisco International. To book with One Travel click the above travel bookings link.
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