It's Veterans Day, it's sunny, it's in the 80's, and I'm twenty-six miles across the sea...

Well, actually, I'm 19.2 miles across the sea - nearest point of land to nearest point of land. Or about 23 miles across the sea - from the Long Beach terminal to Avalon Harbor. Or 21 miles across the sea - had I left from San Pedro. In fact, the only place Santa Catalina is "26 miles across the sea" is if you're at Newport Beach - so who knows why that distance got picked for the song...

What with my normal weekends, and the addition of the Veterans Day holiday, I had a four day "vacation" the first part of November and the weather was glorious for it. The week before it was cold, cloudy, and occasionally rainy, but this week SoCal was basking in a Santa Ana heatwave of clear blue skies and 80-90 degree temps. So I decided to do something I had never ever done before - visit Santa Catalina Island.

(note to Ooties: This isn't quite as bad as the cliche' New Yorker who's never visited the Statue of Liberty, but it's darn close...)

Thus, at the depressingly early Monday morning hour of 6:30, I'm waiting dockside at the Long Beach "Catalina Express" terminal for the first boat of the day, camera in hand so I can play tourist until the 7 pm last boat of the day leaves for the return trip. The boat looks like more of an oversized cabin-cruiser than anything else, but it holds about a hundred at a time (though there was only about twenty for this trip). At about 6:45 (a little late) we board the boat and they cast-off fifteen minutes later.

The crossing took a smidge over an hour and the sea was dead-smooth the whole way. I spent most of the time outside on the upper deck so that I could watch the scenery in spite of the fact that the twenty-five knot "breeze" made it a bit crisp. About half-way across, the mountains of Catalina began to pull into view. Santa Catalina's a fairly bit island - as offshore islands go. It's twenty-one miles long, nine across the widest point, and would be football-shaped if it didn't pinch down to less than half a mile at Two Harbors, about six miles east of the western-most point of the island. The steep brown hillsides continued to rise and soon we were slowing down for the approach to Avalon Harbor.

Trust me here, you've all seen Avalon Harbor. A small cove with the town of Avalon surrounding it, hundreds (usually) of small boats at anchor in it, and the big Deco cylinder of the Casino guarding the entrance. It (and the rest of the island) has been used for everything from the original Mutiny on the Bounty to The Glass Bottom Boat (that boat is still operating, BTW), to a (fortunately) short-lived TV show called Avalon (how creative...).

The boat pulls up to the dock and I get off on what is the only island I've ever been on that you couldn't drive to (okay, so for Bowen Island in BC you had to do that driving via a ferry, I still had my car with me there).

Avalon is a nice little town, even if it is 95% dependent on tourists. It kinda reminds me of a miniaturized (very, there's only 3,000 permanent residents and it covers but a square mile...) San Francisco - it's got that kinda architectural mix. You know: Beach-town clapboard, gingerbread Victorian, and - because this is California - a smattering of mock adobe, all packed tightly together (because there isn't much room) and climbing the hillsides. At this time of the morning, many of the shops weren't open yet, so I began as stroll up the canyon to the Wrigley Memorial.

First thing you notice is that Avalon is a city of golfcarts. In keeping with its "miniaturized" status, while the rest of Southern California has the family car, here, it's the family golfcart (with a small smattering of trucks, for those who need to drive beyond Avalon). Many of the houses have little golfcart-sized garages, the underground parking at the few apartments is filled with golfcarts, if you want to rent a vehicle for your stay in Avalon it's a golfcart and, personally, I'd never seen golfcarts with license-plates before, but darn it, there they were.

The town sits at the mouth of Avalon Canyon. The island's only three miles or so wide here at the eastern end and the canyon almost completely crosses it. Two miles up-canyon from the harbor sits the botanical gardens and the Wrigley Memorial. Along with the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, and lots of gum, William Wrigley owned almost all of Santa Catalina (in fact, the Cubs used to do spring training there, at yet another Wrigley Field). Well, after his death in the 1932, his wife Ada decided he needed a nice memorial, so they trekked up canyon far enough (and high enough) that they could look out over Avalon Harbor, and built him one. It's actually quite a nice little pile of Deco concrete, I must say.

After lunch, I went on the "Skyline Tour" bus that went from Avalon ten miles inland to Catalina's airstrip "The Airport in the Sky" (it's on top of a mountain at about 1,600 feet, so this is slightly hyperbolic) to see some of the rest of Catalina. You see, about 90% of the island is a nature reserve. Avalon and the even smaller townlett (150 people) of Two Harbors are pretty much it for habitation on the island, and once you past the gate out of Avalon on the tour, the island is much like it used to be, hundred of years ago.

Or would be, if it weren't for the darn buffalo (and goats and pigs - but they're trying to get rid of those).

Catalina is somewhat famous for its buffalo herd - but they are quite non-native. Let's go back to 1924, and a movie company is filming The Vanishing American out on the island. They brought some buffalo as props, and when the movie was done, Wrigley said, oh, what the heck, there's only twelve of them, just leave 'em there.

By the 1960's there were 1,500 of the furry little buggers.

These days they try to keep the herd down to around 350 (they ship the extras off to Montana), but you see quite a few of them on the tour anyway.

The tour itself is very interesting - if somewhat nerve-wracking. The road - basically a paved stage-coach route, which was also there for tourists - is steep, narrow (it's theoretically two-way, but you have to pass people going the other way in just the right spots) and gives new meaning to the word "twisty." The "bus" is actually one of those tractor-trailer buses, primarily because that's the only way it could possibly make some of the corners (it's pretty much jackknifed half the time). It takes about an hour to get to the Airport in the Sky, then we had a fifteen minute break, and finally the return trip. I wanted to go on the much longer "Inland Motor Tour" trip (which goes clear to Little Harbor, on the windward side of the island), but the only run of the day left at 9 am and I didn't know that. Maybe next time.

Returning to Avalon, I spent the rest of the day walking from one end to the other, (from Hamilton Cove to Pebbly Beach) taking pictures, and generally mucking about doing touristy things (though I completely avoided buying any souvenirs). I think I put in about ten to twelve miles hiking.

Finally, I was well and truly touristed out, and headed back to the docks to wait for the return ship. An hour later, and I was pulling out of the harbor, heading for home.


Maps & Images from
Catalina Island Visitors Guide
©1996 Chris Harrison