The Catalina Express ferry is the way one gets from the mainland to Catalina Island and back, unless you’re one of the lucky people that just sails to the island and anchors off-shore at the marina. Or, one of the very lucky people that take a 10-minute trip by helicopter, saving 50 minutes of the hour-long voyage by ferry. Since our California winter vacation was 16 days long, we didn’t exactly pack light. I can just picture the fear in our pilot’s face as we approached, tugging our matching blue behemoth suitcases and wheeling along a carry-on to boot! We thought it better to stick with the ferry!
Catalina had been on our bucket list for years, the island’s glamorous mystique a powerful draw, fueled by the films of our youth portraying “the good life” in California and on the island. I adore Doris Day and still covet her wardrobe of matching dresses, coats, hats and gloves. As it happens, it once again was a movie that spurred our interest in spending time on the island, not at a hotel in Avalon proper (the largest city on the island), but a mile or so out of town at Hamilton Cove. It’s a large complex of individually-owned villas situated in its own private cove that boasts a pool, gym, tennis, croquet, a 9-hole putting course and a private beach.
I was thinly slicing buttery golden potatoes and leeks on my mandolin for a gratin while watching a Hallmark movie with Patty Duke and Shelley Long, you might know the one. Well, anyway, they live year-round on the island and that got us to thinking once again about spending some time at a condo where we could “live like the natives” for a few days.
This is a reoccurring theme for The Traveling Wolves (that’s our trip advisor handle, after the wolf mascot of the golf/ski resort where we live in WNC). We love to spend time in a small resort community like Catalina Island this winter or at Friday Harbor, WA last spring, which just happens to be on another island.
We revel in mingling with the residents at the little indie grocers, the mingling a necessity due to the extremely narrow aisles crammed with everything they think that the community might need. I was actually really surprised that Catalina’s grocery store was a Vonn’s, albeit a very small version of the chain’s standard store layout. Vonn’s aren’t in NC, but we had seen lots of them traveling up to Long Beach from Palm Springs earlier in this trip. You can read about our adventures in Palm Springs, at We Ditched The Snow, Onward To Palm Springs!, or catch up with us in Long Beach, at Did Lucy & Ricky Take the Long, Long Trailer to Long Beach? (Vonn’s was just completing a beautiful and much larger store during our visit in December 2018)
OMG… we’re huffing, (SCRAPE) and we’re puffing, (CLUNK) and then some more huffing ensues (CRASH). We should have suspected something when we read the check-in information for our villa a few days before while sipping a tipple on the balcony of our room in Long Beach. It stated: “Make sure to ask your taxi driver to drop you off at the top of Bldg. 3 upon arrival and to pick you up at the bottom of the stairway upon departure.” What? We didn’t give it another thought. But we should have. Maybe not though, as dread really sucks, especially on vacation.
It turns out the instructions were to deal with the STEPS, lots and lots of steps, about 160 of them from top to bottom. You can see from the pic that the complex is built into the hills and are basically in a vertical arrangement. That road way down there, that’s where the villa’s golf cart was parked…
So, we’re dragging our bags down the steps, checking out the unit numbers as we hit each new landing. Rest at each level was mandatory, as those big bad blues weighed in at 45 lbs. each! It turns out our unit was exactly in the middle of the building, being practically equidistant and therefore, always a long ascent or decent no matter which direction we went.
Later that night after hitting the grocery store for our first few meals worth of supplies, we sat on the balcony enjoying the sunset while feasting on a whole branzino. I roasted it in white wine and fresh oregano, livened up with a final squirt of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. A large handful of tiny purple-majesty potatoes, a few baby cippolini onions and some cleaned and halved miniature artichokes tossed with olive oil and S&P thrown into the roasting pan rounded out our repast. An earlier stop at Ben’s Bakery provided our late evening dessert under the stars, listening to the crashing waves on an otherwise silent winter night. A far cry from the 15 inches of snow we dug out of just 10 days before, it seemed like a lifetime ago. Yeah, this is the good life all right.
A really cool thing about Catalina is that the island doesn’t allow residents to bring a car to the island until they’ve lived their 18 years, and then, only by petition. Wild fact, Catalina Island is part of Los Angeles County, who would have thought? So everyone is driving gas-powered golf carts or a version of a car that’s even smaller than a smart car, who knew they even existed? Talk about tiny! At 6’2”, H.H. cringed every time we passed one on the street.
We rented a villa that came with its own golf cart, so we were ready to cruise around the island like the natives. Now, let me set the scene for you. So, you have the locals zipping around trying to live their daily lives. Add to that a bunch of tourists from the cruise ship that docked at Long Beach that day. And now, the Traveling Wolves, just trying to get around and enjoy the island’s many offerings. A perilous equation at best. On our first day we nearly got clocked by a pimped-out cart sporting a massive skull and flames as we turned onto the main drag to grocery shop. We quickly learned that you really need to pay attention, enjoying the sights inside the bustling little downtown area can be dangerous to your health!
Turns out this little island paradise wouldn’t have been such a bustling celebrity hide-out for the likes of John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin or Betty Grable without William Wrigley Jr.’s dream to make the island a vacation wonderland back in the 1920’s.
We enjoyed a few hours exploring the history, local artists, art and architecture of the island captured within the walls of the Catalina Island Museum one morning before our lunch reservations at noon. H.H. and I were looking forward to a luxurious multi-course prix fixe luncheon at Mt. Ada, which is the former Wrigley family summer cottage (not by my standards, but no one’s asking me). Stay with me, I’ll tell you all about it a bit later. First, let me tell you some of the cool history of Santa Catalina Island, Nan-style!
The island boasts a colorful past starting way back in the mid-1850’s when a trio of otter hunters set off a short-lived gold rush when they boasted of finding a vein on the island. A few discouraged 49ers decided to give the island a try and a small-scale gold rush ensued. The hopeful prospectors never had any significant finds, and the mining operations fizzled out completely within a few years when the federal government ordered everyone off the island during the Civil War.
In the 1860’s much of the island’s uninhabitable areas were populated by sheep and cattle, with their herders amoungst the islands most revered citizens. Later I’ll tell you about our adventure into the wild parts of the inner island, but suffice it to say that every inlet where there is any kind of settlement (religious camps, eco-study centers, etc.) it is named after one of these illustrious sheep herders. We thought it was a little strange, but when an island only has a dozen or so permanent residents, I guess you can name a place anything you want. Who’s going to stop you when you carry a big ole stick? Sammy Howakowa Inlet it is then! (I just made that name up, so don’t go trying to Google it, okay?)
In the late 1800’s Catalina Island started to attract the attention of the mainland, the rapidly growing Los Angeles community situated just 20 miles away by boat. Ferries began bringing pleasure seekers across the channel to Avalon Bay for day trips to enjoy the water and sunbathing or to do some fishing along the island’s rugged coastline.
The island enjoys a colorful past filled with widespread fires, Hollywood films, an extinct clay tile industry, an OSS presence during the war (the forerunners of Navy Seals) and was one of the spring training facilities for the Chicago Cubs for many years while Wrigley owned the ball club.
William Wrigley built a Victorian summer getaway for his wife Ada perched high on a cliff providing fabulous views of Avalon Bay and the island from the wraparound porch. During the years the Wrigleys spent time on the island, Mt. Ada’s guests included numerous dignitaries and high-profile personalities who were equally captivated by Santa Catalina’s natural beauty and sporting opportunities.
Since Mrs. Wrigley’s death, the house changed ownership many times and is currently a bed and breakfast boutique hotel offering six guestrooms appointed to reflect the age and style of the Victorian structure. The hotel is open to non-guests several afternoons each week when they offer a prix-fix luncheon, which H.H. and I decided was a must during our stay on the island.
We drove our cart up the steep hill approaching the massive house with much anticipation, having read about the house’s history prior to our arrival. We came a few minutes early to spend some time taking copious amounts of pictures of the house’s exterior and the fabulous views of the bay afforded by the elevation.
The December afternoon was a bit chilly, so we chose not to dine with the crowd on the balcony and instead sat at a table in the bay window of the adjacent dining room. The space was one of the house’s rooms that still maintains its original moldings, paneling and light fixtures. The dining room was charming and cozy but still gave us a wonderful view while we ate.
Oh, and we drank, ate, and drank some more, thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere and view for over two hours. All beverages are included in the three-course prix-fix menu, so we enjoyed several glasses of wine during our stay. Both H.H. and I devoured the white wine braised clams with a pile of crostini, keeping us busy while we waited for our beef short rib and pan-roasted sea bass entrees.
My sea bass came with a lovely rendition of mac & cheese, liberally spiked with chunks of lobster tail. The surprise was the lobster demi-glace puddled under my hefty piece of fish which gave the sea bass a depth of flavor unlike I’d tasted before. It was an inspired choice by the hotel’s chef, one of which I wholeheartedly approve.
H.H.’s short ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender with an earthy sauce made from the garlic-mushroom braising liquid and served with a trio of creatively prepared vegetables. We were pleased that we’d made the trek up the hill, Mt. Ada’s charm and style truly is a sight to be seen and experienced up close and personal.
H.H. and I are always up for a bit of an adventure, and taking a Hummer expedition into the island’s back country to see the vast areas of uninhabitable land, the Airport in the Sky, their famous bison herd and perhaps a bald eagle sounded good to us.
Since it was December, we were dressed warm, but apparently not warm enough! The Hummer was an open-air multi-level vehicle with seating for 13 guests and two staff. There were only seven passengers, so we scored (that turned out to be a highly debatable term) two seats in the top row. H.H. noted that there were blankets in nets strung along the backs of the bench seating and thought it was a nice touch.
Little did we know that we’d be climbing in elevation at a rapid rate and the temperature would drop almost 20 degrees within the first 15 minutes of the tour. Even we mountain folk thought it was cold, after all, this is supposed to be sunny California, right? Needless to say I spent the entire drive swaddled in three blankets, including the one draped over my head. I have a selfie, but you’ll never see it…
The ride was not what you would describe as relaxing, as what they call “roads” in this part of the island is more of a suggestion of what a road might look like, rather than an actual continuous flattened area stretching from one place to the next. No, these “roads” were more like a series of huge pits and gullys, (too big to be called mere potholes) occasionally connected by a slim slice of rusty, clay-colored earth beneath the hummer’s wide tires.
This made for a buckin’ bronco kind of ride, with all 105 pounds of Nan bouncing to and fro and H.H. desperately trying to keep my airborne body from bounding right off the vehicle. We could see now that choosing the top row with no other guests might have been an error in judgement. Hindsight is 20-20, right?
Needless to say, as anyone who has been on a bus tour knows, you are pretty much expected to sit in the same seat the entire time. We should have changed seats after our visit to the Airport in the Sky, but you know how it goes, we did indeed climb back into the top row for the harrowing trip back into town. Otherwise, you know, the seat assignment police might come and get us in their big black SUVs.
The island’s interior is dominated by cacti and scrub oak, the latter of which provided the main ingredient for the acorn stew that kept the sheep herders fed while tending their wooly charges. As we ascended the road out of town we were struck by the row of eucalyptus trees lining the roadway, their thick trunks mostly devoid of bark, which laid in piles on the ground.
Hundreds of round holes were pierced into the trunks, but not in some haphazard manner. They were perfectly round, in perfect rows that stretched around the entire trunk. It was as if the woodpeckers used tiny measuring tapes to figure out where each hole should go. It was a little freaky. I guess that’s where that phrase comes from, “freak of nature”, only I usually use it in the context of my hair on a humid day in Miami!
Our guide told us the trees were imported from Australia especially for their deep root systems which help keep the soil intact and the road erosion at the cliff’s edge to a minimum. One dominating theme on the island is the extreme eight-year drought they are experiencing and the residents’ active attempts to save water in their daily lives. We just happened to be on the island just after one of the infrequent rainfalls, so we were able to enjoy some greenery that is usually a no-show in December.
The Catalina Island Conservancy is charged with the job of protecting and maintaining the island’s interior areas which is home to varied wildlife such as several types of island fox, bald eagles and believe it or not, the American Bison. Catalina boasts a size-controlled herd of bison that came to the island by very unconventional means.
Back in 1925, Hollywood came to the island to film Zane Grey’s “The Vanishing American” and brought with it 14 bison to lend authenticity to the western’s scenes. It wasn’t an easy task to get them onto the island, and the ironic thing is that all the scenes that had bison in them ended up on the editing room floor.
But why, you ask, are they the most beloved residents of Catalina Island to this day? Well, the film company built a holding pen to house the animals while on the island. Turns out, Hollywood crews aren’t cowboys and the bison escaped before the filming even ended. Like I said, the only cowboys in Hollywood were on the big screen and rounding up the herd in the rugged terrain was not an idea they loved.
The movie company asked William Wrigley if they could possibly leave the animals on the island. He gave them a resounding “yes” and vowed to take care of the herd and make them a part of the island. Today the Conservancy maintains the population at a maximum of 150 head in order to keep the herd well fed by the island’s natural food sources. As you can see in the picture, the bison are happy campers on their island paradise.
The Wrigley family still has a presence on the island and maintain a lovely home in Avalon proper. A Wrigley decendant, Alison, and her husband, vintner Geoff Rusack are expanding their island vineyard to include new acreage and a tourist facility with a tasting room and buggy rides to nearby picnic spots.
The vineyard is located at the former Wrigley Ranch, Escondito, or “Hidden Ranch” that functioned as a full-scale ranching operation for many years. After each harvest, the ranch would put on a harvest festival for the locals and entertained them with the 25 Arabian horses which lived on the ranch. Oh, those were the days folks, the Wrigleys knew how to throw a party!
Our group was fortunate enough to see an eagle perched not too far from us on a lone tree, but he obviously was camera shy as not one of us got a shot of him. We also saw an indigenous island fox with rusty red and black fur trotting up a hill nearby. The island is home to the Santa Catalina fox, which can be any combination of brown, black or red.
Catalina Island used to have quite a population of sea otters, but when the area’s supply of abalone was depleted, the otters moved on. The island no long has a shark problem either, as the sea otters were their main dietary source. Sad to see the sea otters gone, but the sharks, not so much!
We stopped at several photo opportunities, but the main attraction was the Airport in the Sky. The island’s only airport occupies a 1,602-foot-tall mountaintop at the center of the island, about 10 miles from Avalon. The airport’s runway was formed by blasting two adjacent mountains and then taking the rubble to fill in the gap between the two. Let’s talk American ingenuity here you guys!
The airport features a nature center and is a short hike from the Trans-Catalina Trail. During the summer Catalina is a haven for hikers and those wishing to camp in the island’s interior areas. The airport has a cute little restaurant and gift shop to grab a bite or souvenir. The Traveling Wolves have been taking home “poor man’s art” in the form of magnets from everywhere we go for years now and we’re on our second framed magnetic board!
We were able to see the herd of bison on the way in and out of the inner island and they seemed quite happy in their protected environment. They truly are the kings of Catalina Island. We’d seen plenty of bison in our travels, and just love a nice bison roast with a red wine-pomegranate sauce when the weather turns cold. Maybe some truffled mashed potatoes…
Needless to say, the ride back out of Cape Canyon was just as harrowing, cold and a real hoot! Yes, our 50-something year old bones were complaining the next day, but it was surely worth every bump and bounce along the way.
We skipped an airport snack in favor of checking out one of the local seafood joints in town later before we headed back out to Hamilton Cove for the evening. I know three miles doesn’t sound like much, but in a golf cart with only a thin layer of vinyl between you and the chilly wind, it’s a long, long drive to the villa. There are a number of restaurants to choose from, but we headed to The Lobster Trap, recommended by a couple who shared a taxi with us from the ferry. They’ve lived on Catalina for over 30 years and know every nook and cranny on the island.
Despite it being a weekday at 3pm, the place was hoppin’. As seasoned travelers who are always on the prowl for fabulous food, we know that you go where the locals go if you want a great meal. With a quick look around, we knew we’d made a good choice. Once we were seated next to the 15 ft. Bayliner that occupied a corner of the restaurant and I had hung my Coach purse on the boat engine’s propeller (I figured that’s why they parked the boat there in the first place, right?) we dove into the menu.
I did mention that this was a “joint”, so we weren’t put off by the straight-forward menu items and no-frills presentation we’d seen at other tables. If the seafood was fresh, perfectly cooked and brought to our table nice and hot with clarified butter, I was going to be very happy indeed. All that fresh air had made me ravenous.
So, I just realized the reference to clarified butter might need some “clarifying”. Oh, come on, you can give me that one, it was a little bit funny, no? Clarified butter is melted butter that has had the milk solids removed to produce a clear liquid. Unfortunately, it’s hit or miss at seafood restaurants, even the chains, if they clarify their butter for dipping purposes. Once I saw the very reasonable prices on the menu, my expectations for the translucent butter dipper dropped considerably. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, been there, done that, but it would be nice.
Both H.H. and I enjoyed oyster shooters for a starter, their briny chilled liquor helping them slide down our gullets with considerable pleasure. Although we’re usually purists when it comes to the raw bivalves, sometimes we’ll give them a squirt of lemon, and maybe, just maybe some freshly ground horseradish. But we couldn’t resist the addictive cocktail sauce that came along side the shooters in little white paper cups. The thick concoction was both spicy and hot, with a slightly smoky finish that came from smoked jalapeno. We were off to a good start!
As we hadn’t had a fresh seafood meal besides our lovely branzino yet, we couldn’t decide on what to order, so we ended up getting an assortment that included lobster, Dungeness crab, shrimp and halibut. We were in deep sea bliss throughout the meal. Our plates were accompanied by a choice of potato and coleslaw or a house salad. I enjoyed the slaw well enough, but I’m a tough judge, as I just happen to make an award-winning version myself. I almost forgot to tell you that they indeed had clarified butter, but you had to ask for it, like only a local would know to do.
The Catalina Island Casino is an iconic focal point of the island since it opened in May 1929. It was built in the Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival styles and is quite magnificent both inside and out. In the Italian language, “casino” means gathering place, rather than a gambling establishment. And it is a very much a gathering place, as it houses a full size theater on the main level and a ballroom and promenade on the upper floor.
Regally perched on the shores of Avalon Bay, the casino was the first circular building of its time, and could also boast the first theater equipped to show “talkies”. Hollywood executives, the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and the Goldwyn and Mayer duo would frequently arrive at the island by yacht to preview their latest films.
The Avalon Theater is truly a work of art in itself, having been painted by John Gabriel Beckman with murals depicting underwater scenes, using copious amounts of sterling silver and gold-leaf accents. Truly stunning, the whole theater featured a full size screen and the original pipe organ.
The facade had also been painted with his murals, but they have since been replaced with replications of Beckman’s designs created in Catalina-style pottery tiles. (Remember I told you the island used to have a small clay tile industry.) All the various woods used in the main level lobby are amazing, the most predominant being walnut in the form of stunning wood paneling.
This theater is actually insulated so that moviegoers would not hear the band or the crowd of dancers foxtrotting their way into the night. The ballroom can accommodate 3,000 dancers, with a vintage full-service bar and raised tables and seating set up around the perimeter of the room.
A fabulous ballroom to begin with, it was completely restored a few years ago keeping its original romantic rose-hued walls and Tiffany chandeliers. The patrons could take a break from the dance floor by taking a stroll along the Romance Promenade, which is an open-air balcony that encircles the building. Yes, it was very romantic indeed, as we took the night tour so we could see the place all lit up, especially as it was for the Christmas holidays.
Throughout the last century, the Catalina Casino has featured A-list entertainers, Broadway productions and first-run movies. In fact, the theater still shows first-run movies and hosts most of Catalina’s major indoor events. You can even book the venue for your wedding!
The Traveling Wolves can now cross Santa Catalina Island off our bucket-list, and think that you should consider putting it on yours!
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