Catalina Island lies 22 mi/35 km off the Southern California coast, but it feels like a world away. Just the name conjures images of the quaint seaside village of Avalon, picture-perfect harbors and sandy beaches. Catalina is everything that Los Angeles is not—small-scale, nostalgic and slow-paced—and therein lies its charm.
Visitors often compare the island's compact town of Avalon with Amalfi, Italy, or a resort town on France's Cote d'Azur. Perhaps it's those rocky palisades rising from the sea that suggest a Mediterranean locale. Or maybe it's the tiled fountain, quaint storefronts and the Moorish-style casino. Foreign visitors have been known to ask local shopkeepers whether they accept U.S. currency. In all, the island promises a delightful departure from urban inconveniences—the more so because Catalina, alone in Southern California, disdains the automobile.
Catalina Island is one of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. The island is 22 mi/35 km long by 8 mi/13 km at its widest point (0.5 mi/1 km wide at its narrowest point). The irregular coastline is dotted with coves, beaches and vertical shoreline bluffs. The interior of the island is covered with valleys and 2,000-ft-/620-m-high peaks. Avalon, the only city on the island, is the hub of activities and nightlife. Catalina Island can be accessed by boat from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point and Newport Beach. Helicopter service is available from Long Beach and San Pedro.
Catalina Island has been inhabited by human beings for more than 7,000 years. Different groups of migrating Native Americans have lived on the island. When the first Europeans "discovered" the island, the people living there called themselves Pimungans (or Pimuvit) and the island was called Pimu. They paddled their way around the area's waters on wooden canoes to trade since very little grew on this semiarid island.
The Pimungans had their first encounter with Europeans on 7 October 1542, when they greeted the Spanish galleon of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. However, it was the second Spanish expedition of explorer Sebastian Viscaino that would give the island its name. He spotted the island on 24 November 1602, the eve of St. Catherine's Day, and named the island Santa Catalina.
After the Spanish colonization of California, European diseases, for which the Pimungans had little immunization, nearly wiped out the island's population. By the mid-1820s, the few Pimungans who remained moved to the mainland and joined other Native American groups in the area of the Mission San Gabriel.
In 1846, the last Mexican governor of California gave the then-uninhabited Catalina Island to its first American owner, Thomas Robbins, just four days before the U.S. invaded the then-Mexican-controlled California.
The island changed hands several times before a majority interest was acquired by William Wrigley Jr., of chewing-gum fame, in 1919. Wrigley made the island his second passion—the Chicago Cubs baseball team was already his first. He quickly moved to intertwine the two by bringing the Cubs to Catalina for spring training. For most of the next 30 years, the Cubs returned annually to Avalon. (The baseball field on the island was built to match the dimensions of Chicago's Wrigley Field). Wrigley envisioned developing the island as a major vacation destination. The idea never jelled, although the island was popular with wealthy Californians and Hollywood movie stars.
In 1972, members of the Wrigley family established the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the island. By 1975, the Wrigley family deeded 42,135 acres/17,050 hectares to the conservancy. The organization now stewards about 88% of the island, including virtually all of the coastline. Its goal is to protect, restore and preserve the natural state of the island. Since it began, the conservancy has helped revive the Catalina fox, a species found only on the island. Its numbers have rebounded from 100 to more than 1,800. The organization has also restored the habitats of the bald eagle, Beechey ground squirrel and the five bat species on the island.
Hundreds of films, commercials and television shows have been shot on the island. One of those films was responsible for the introduction of North American Bison to the island. Many believe they were brought for the filming of The Vanishing American (1925), although film historians do not recognize any scenes shot on Catalina Island. Perhaps those scenes never made it into the final cut. Regardless, the bison have been roaming the island since December 1924.
The laid-back atmosphere on Catalina is favorable for just relaxing and enjoying the tranquil environment, especially in the off-season. The best ways to get around the island are by foot, bike, golf cart or shuttle bus. Take along some comfortable shoes, as most attractions are within walking distance.
Don't miss Two Harbors, located on the island's windward side 18 mi/29 km west of Avalon. This village features an isthmus on one side and Catalina Harbor on the other. A hike to the top of the cliffs will give visitors a rewarding view of both sides of the island.
The atmosphere on Catalina Island is laid-back and relaxed, and most of the late-night activities mimic that pattern. One of the most popular evening activities is a romantic stroll along Avalon Bay. Those who need a little more action can head to a nightclub or a piano bar.
Almost anywhere you eat, you will be assured of an ocean view and friendly service in a casual setting. Plenty of restaurants and cafes line Crescent Avenue, where moderately priced specialties range from fish tacos and hamburgers to the catch of the day. (To help you decide, menus of area restaurants are posted along Crescent Avenue.)
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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