Catalina Island: Our local tropical paradise


Last updated 10/27/2006 at Noon

“Twenty-six miles across the sea

Santa Catalina

is a-waitin’ for me…

Water all around it everywhere,

tropical trees and salty air…”

If Catalina Island had a theme song, this would be it. A group called the Four Preps made this song, “26 Miles,” a hit in 1958, and the people of the island have preserved it. You can find copies of this recording in shops all over the island. I knew the chorus and found myself humming it on my trip “across the sea.”

A Catalina Express boat transported my family and myself from Dana Point Harbor to Catalina at about thirty knots. It’s probably a bit further than twenty-six miles from Dana Point -- the trip took an hour and a half. A pod of about thirty dolphins followed our boat, jumping and frolicking in the wake, as we slowed to enter Avalon Bay. It was an enchanting welcome to an enchanted island.

We stayed at the Metropole Hotel, which was built twenty years ago. The style resembles a fusion of an intimate Côte d’Azur hotel with a Caribbean villa. White is the dominant hue, which is complimented by soft greens, blues and roses. Our room had a partial ocean view as well as a view of a tropical courtyard where palm trees, banana plants and giant bird of paradise abounded. A Spanish-style fountain spouted melodically below our balcony.

Leiana Miller, whose grandfather built the hotel, is proud to be able to carry on the tradition of excellence he established. “It’s been a magical place for our family all these years,” said Leiana. “We are also able to attend to details because we are involved on both a personal and professional level.”

One unique and personal touch is the large postcard photos that adorn the walls of the guest rooms. The vintage postcards were part of the Miller family collection and were enlarged and framed by Leiana’s father.

Although there are many activities on Catalina, it is also an excellent place to retreat and relax with no particular agenda. I sat on the sandstone-hued beach with the sun on my back because, in contrast to our Southern California beaches, Avalon faces east. There were no pounding waves on the Avalon shore, just a gentle swish of the sea. The water near shore is a translucent aquamarine and the visibility was incredible.

A group of about four seagulls congregated around me crying and screeching about something. I wasn’t feeding them, but they were probably hopeful. As I spoke softly to them, each gull cocked its head and looked at me with one eye as if trying to figure out what I was saying. I think I may have discovered a latent “seagull whispering” gift.

The glass bottom boats are a great way to see the marine life if you don’t want to brave the colder temperature of the fall seas. According to our ship’s pilot, glass bottom boat tours originated at Catalina Island in about 1890. Our destination was Lover’s Cove, where we spotted sea lions lazing on the rocks watched by alert cormorants and pelicans.

Because the layer of kelp is thin this time of year, we were able to see intertidal invertebrates such as lobster, abalone, sea urchins and wavy top turban snails. Many types of fish swam under our boat, including bright orange garibaldi, silvery smelt, opal eyes and an occasional sea bass.

Catalina Island is a land of many names. The island was first called Pimu by the natives who, according to Spanish records, called themselves Pimuvit. In 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed on the island and renamed it San Salvador. In 1602 Sebastian Viscaino, also of Spain, christened the island Santa Catalina.

The majority of Pacific yacht clubs share reciprocal privileges, but Catalina Island Yacht Club, chartered in 1893, is exclusive and does not grant reciprocal rights. The historic white and blue wood structure, which resembles a lighthouse, sits on pilings in Avalon Bay. The Avalon Tuna Club, established in 1898, is also housed in an attractive historic building. Both clubs boast members who are of the Hollywood elite.

Catalina Island has been used as a set for many movies since the onset of filmmaking. Classic films such as “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Glass Bottom Boat” were filmed on Catalina, and the filmmakers of more recent movies such as “Waterworld” and “The Hunt for Red October” also used the island as a setting.

The Casino, an Art Deco structure with a bit of Moroccan influence, is Catalina’s most recognizable landmark. The entrance is decorated with ceramic underwater scenes in various shades of muted green. Ribbons of kelp, scattered shells and various fish welcome guests through the massive front doors. The structure was built in 1929 as a dance pavilion and is now used as a movie theatre.

A museum of island history is also housed in the Casino. Several pieces of vintage Catalina Pottery, which was in production from 1927 to 1937, are displayed. Other interesting items, including artifacts from the native Pimuvit people, and items such as logs, binnacles and wheels from sailing ships are attractively presented.

The Casino was built from the love of chewing gum, as was the Wrigley Mansion, built by William Wrigley in 1921. The same family also erected a hillside bell tower in 1925. The bells still ring pleasantly and can be heard throughout Avalon.

Another well-preserved historic building is the Holly Hill House, an 1890 Queen Anne-style structure with a legendary past. It has been said that a man named Peter Gano built it for his fiancée, but the construction dragged on so long that his betrothed married another. Gano was so disturbed by the turn of events that, as long as he lived, women were not allowed to cross the threshold of the home.

Sightseeing on the island is a plethora of opportunity. During land excursions visitors will be able to see where “...the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play...” (The buffalo were brought to the island in 1924 for a film shoot.) Old salts, and even new ones, can choose from a menu of kayak, dive and snorkel tours. However, if you wish to investigate the island on your own, a rented bicycle or golf cart can take you on your own route of exploration.

Sit on the beach with the sun warming your back, do some snorkeling or search for buffalo. Be lured by the cry of seagulls, the salty sea scent or the ocean breeze tussling your hair.

Catalina in the fall is still warm, but not crazily crowded. One visit and you’ll want to return...and you can return...again and again. After all, it’s only “Twenty-six miles across the sea…” — or thereabouts.


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