First Timer’s Guide to Catalina

There’s an old 50’s song by The Four Preps called “26 Miles Across the Sea” about Catalina. The singer croons on about the romance one is sure to discover on the island and about the longing he feels to go. He is a determined young chap—he’ll float by boat, find a pair of magical wings or, if need be, he’ll swim if he has to. He must, and he will, find himself amongst the “tropical trees and the salty air” and once he does… BAM! he will capture it—the “Romance, Romance, Romance.”

Hence, Santa Catalina, the Island of Romance. For many it’s a place to come to have a wedding, to celebrate a honeymoon, or to count another anniversary. (Check out The Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors at www.catalinachamber.com for a list of wedding planners based on the island.) For others it’s a short and easy trip off the mainland… a weekend getaway, or a simple day excursion. The entire island is petite in size (only 22 miles long and 8 miles across, with a total population of 4100 according to the 2010 census). Made up of two tiny villages: Avalon, which 90% of islanders occupy and the even teenier Two Harbors. Both offer that cozy small town vibe that will have you feeling you know everyone on the island in just a matter of days.

While the man in the song got creative with his ways of getting to the island, Catalina these days is much more accessible. Catalina has its own airport aptly called Airport in the Sky, which provides a runway to land small planes be they your own or chartered.

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The most popular mode of transportation to the island however, is via the Catalina Express. The boats launch from three ports: San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point and offer up to 30 scheduled departures per day. They travel about 43 MPH and will have you there in about an hour. (For boat reservations, call 800-429-4601 or book online at www.CatalinaExpress.com.)

The outside upper deck seating is prime, especially in the summertime, and offers spectacular views as you arrive into Avalon Bay. Upgrades include the Commodore Lounge, which features priority boarding, more comfortable seating, and a complimentary beverage. The Captain’s Lounge upgrade is for up to eight passengers and is located on the top deck directly behind the captain and involves an entire bottle of champagne, which is a sure fire way to get the party started if you’re traveling in a small group that wants to get a little silly.

**** SIDE NOTE: The Express offers a “Free Ride on Your Birthday” program, which saves adult passengers up to $76.50 round trip. The fine print is you must pre-register online and travel needs to be on the actual birthday. Additionally there are multiple companies on the island that offer even more birthday deals, such as a free ice cream scoop at Lloyd’s, a free meal at Buffalo Nickel’s and a free bottle of birthday wine if a guest stays at the Avalon Hotel. Keyword: Free. ****

As the ferry pulls up into Avalon Bay, you feel as though you’ve arrived somewhere far more exotic. Bordered by hilly seasides with brightly colored cottages peppering its slopes, it seems you may have been teleported across the world to the Mediterranean. Certainly those are actually the crystal blue waters of Cinque Terre or the yachts of Nice. But alas, it is Catalina Island. That piece of rock you occasionally catch a glimpse of from home on clear days.

A magical island with nearly 90% of its mass still untouched thanks to the Wrigley family of the Wrigley gum dynasty who invested millions to bring popularity and attractions to the island in 1919. 50 years later, to ensure the safety of Catalina’s unique animals, plants, and land, the Wrigley foundation deeded the land to the Catalina Island Conservancy whose mission it is to make sure the wealth of natural and cultural resources remain and development stays minimal. Today, Catalina offers a glimpse into what Southern California must have been like hundreds of years ago when everything was much smaller and a six-story building was considered a skyscraper.

Exiting the boat into Avalon, you’re met with the quintessential beach town experience. Clear blue water sprinkled with bright orange Garibaldi fish, seemingly coming to the surface to greet you a hello. The beachfront walkway stretches from the Catalina Express mooring dock to Descanso Beach, which is about a mile in duration. A beautiful walk along the beachfront path that is the boardwalk, you’re met with quaint tourist shops, restaurants aplenty, and multiple boutique lodges like the Pavilion Hotel.

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Set in the heart of all the action, the Pavilion Hotel is just a stones throw from the sand (14 steps if we’re getting exact) and directly off the boardwalk. Often referred to as the best hotel in Avalon, the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows, beautiful garden courtyard and vast outdoor patio offer a prime place to people watch in comfort and luxury while breathing in the salty ocean air. A favorite perk amongst guests is the happy hour on the patio from 4:30-5:30 each day where they offer an assortment of fine wines and cheeses, and also complimentary European breakfasts each morning—featuring watermelons the staff have already taken the liberty of extracting the seeds from. (Yes, please!) Friends are made; stories are told… this is where the lovesick crooner from the song should be.

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Just a five-minute stroll past the Pavilion Hotel along the boardwalk, passed side streets laden with golf carts that promise to whisk you up the hill for more adventure, you’ll run into The Island Spa. Located in the historic El Encanto building, it’s the island’s first destination resort spa. 15,000 square feet of bliss, it offers rejuvenating treatments, world class locker rooms, a soaking pool and spa, salon, and an outdoor rooftop lounge where it’s perfectly acceptable to walk around (or take a long nap) in nothing but a robe while you overlook the strip below and all the water adventurers.

Get there early and make a day of it… order from the Encanto Café, which is exclusive to spa guests, and enjoy a glass of bubbly while you pick from a variety of menu items designed for the health conscious guest as you await your treatment. The Hot Sand Therapy massage is the only one of its kind offered on the West Coast, and features a bed of warm pristine sand that your body ergonomically positions itself into while the masseuse lathers your body with oils and kneads out all those knots that truly only go away on island time.

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Once you’re thoroughly relaxed and kink-free it’s time for dinner. Located just a few doors down from the Pavilion is the Avalon Grille. Featuring new American cuisine with a seasonal approach, its large windows and outside patio offer a spectacular location to watch the sunset over Avalon Bay. Order a “Sunset Over Avalon” cocktail or the famous “Wrigley Martini,” which pays ode to the Wrigley’s ties with Chicago… and more specifically the Chicago Cubs who used to use Catalina as their practicing grounds for baseball’s annual spring training. An uber attentive staff that caters to your every demand and an after-hours central bar that gets specifically lively on Saturday nights, it’s a place to see and be seen on Catalina and the fun is sure to continue till late. (Also, going here and not ordering the Tuna Tartar should officially be declared a Catalina crime.)

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After a good night’s sleep in your plush bed at the Pavilion, it’s time to put that craft cocktail hangover to the test. Schedule yourself for one of the most popular tours on the island, the Zip Line Eco Tour. Turn left out of the hotel and continue along the Bay’s boardwalk towards the famous Casino Building.

Allow yourself enough time to stop in and admire the legendary landmark, which was once the focal point of the island’s entertainment and culture. Not actually a casino at all, the word derives from the Italian translation, which means “gathering place”. From the mermaid like murals wreathing the exterior to the 16-rank theatre pipe organ inside (one of only 3 in the world) the building is, hands down, the icon of Catalina. Now boasting a ballroom, art gallery, museum and movie theatre the Santa Catalina Island Company offers walking tours that provide guests a unique look into the rich past of both the structure and the island. Each year the celebrated Casino Ballroom plays host to a festive New Years Eve party. (For more information visit www.CatalinaChamber.com/nye.)

When done at the Casino continue along the path until you reach the beautiful cove of the Descanso Beach Club. Follow the trail up into Descanso Canyon and you’ve arrived at the zip line station where outgoing guides will strap you into your harness and give you a run down of what to expect on the course. A bus will carry you and the others in your group to the starting point 600 feet above sea level, high up in the Avalon Hills. The course features 5 zip lines, including one that runs 1,100 lineal feet with unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean. The whole journey takes roughly two hours and your hosts provide interesting information throughout about Catalina’s wildlife and history. By the end of the tour you’ll have roughly 10 new best friends because anyone going through that kind of emotional turmoil together will naturally team up and be BFF’s4L. Those zip lines are high… and they’re fast!!! But it’s possibly the most fun time ever so adding a little fear to your island experience is totally on par.

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For lunch there’s no better place to recuperate than the Descanso Beach Club. The Beach Club Restaurant, located on an expansive deck right on the sand carries a wide selection of great food and beverages such as core Catalina staples, “Buffalo Milk” and the “Descanso Destroyer.” The morning hours start very serene, but as the day goes on, the Club becomes the hottest place to be in town. One of the last private beaches in California with public access it means you can actually imbibe in your adult beverages on the sand, true European style. If you’re in the mood for something sweet try the newly opened Descanso Fresh, which is an ice cream shop that actually features 21 and up ice cream flavors… alas, a true adults playground. Not to mention the snorkeling, kayaking, Sea Trek, and climbing wall. Oh and cabanas with your own personal attendant. It’s an easy place to spend the entire day, trust me.

Recently having undergone a complete remodel with upgraded facilities and high-end amenities, the Descanso Beach Club has quickly become one of the prime event locations in Southern California, year round. And actually, an absolute perfect place for a wedding… (Paging our star-crossed lover from before.)

Which leads us to our ending. Whether you’re on the island looking for love or just some buffalo, whether you’re making promises or sand castles, whether your celebrating milestones or a free birthday cone, Santa Catalina, the Island of Romance, will, without a doubt, deliver.

*As seen on LocaleMagazine.com

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