By Greg Aragon
Catalina is not just an island paradise; it’s a very close island paradise, which makes it a perfect day or weekend getaway for Southern California residents. In fact, at only 24 miles across the sea from Long Beach, the place can be reached by boat in one hour. With this in mind, a friend and I recently escaped to the island for a memorable getaway.
Our journey began in downtown Long Beach, where we picked up tickets from Catalina Express (www.catalinaexpress.com) and boarded one of the company’s sleek, catamaran-styled vessels for the journey across the Catalina Channel.
Featuring comfortable indoor and outdoor seating, lots of big windows and a full bar and snack shop, the boat makes for a fun trip. Highlights of the crossing include great views of the legendary Queen Mary; the giant, white geodesic cruise ship dome (former home to the Howard Hughes “Spruce Goose”); and schools of playful dolphins following alongside.
When we reached the city of Avalon, the captain anchored in the harbor, which was full of colorful boats and yachts, and schools of bright orange Garibaldi – the California state fish – swimming in the clear water. From here we walked to our room at the Pavilion Hotel.
Located steps from the beach, the Pavilion Hotel boasts 72 tastefully-appointed rooms and suites, many with direct access to a central courtyard, where beautifully landscaped tropical gardens and comfy chaise lounges provide an ideal spot to relax and get in that “island mood.”
Our room featured cheerful marine colors, two queen beds, and opened to a beautiful garden courtyard, where each morning staff presents a free continental breakfast overlooking the ocean. The breakfast features tasty items such as apple wood smoked bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, fruit juice and coffee. At night, the hotel offers a complimentary wine and cheese reception in the courtyard beside a cozy fire.
After unpacking I walked five minutes to the island’s historic Casino for the “Behind the Scenes Casino Tour.” This attraction, led by Catalina Island Company, takes guests back to a time when hundreds of people would sail to the island each week to see and hear big bands with the likes of Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Gene Autry and other greats play on one of the biggest wooden dance floors the world had yet seen.
Leaving the tour I walked around the circular casino building, encountering a myriad of scuba divers, taking advantage of one of the country’s best dive sights. I then found a small outdoor café serving fish and chips on the wooden pier. While dining I enjoyed a cool ocean breeze and watched yachts sway in the harbor and people walk along on the beach.
I concluded the evening with a beer and a little karaoke at The Galleon restaurant and bar. In the morning I enjoyed breakfast on the Pavilion lawn and then lounged on the sand with my toes in the water.
After breakfast I boarded a bus for the Inland Expedition tour, an exciting 31-mile expedition through Catalina’s pristine wilderness. The tour follows the island’s original 19th-century stagecoach route and navigates through a native plant nursery, a bald eagle habitat and traverses the secluded backside of Catalina, for endless views of unspoiled shoreline.
The expedition also passes the favorite grazing spots of Catalina bison. On our tour we spotted a family of wild buffaloes eating grass on the roadside. The animals were left here after a movie shoot in the 1950’s and today number more than 100.
Catalina Express offers trips to Catalina from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Regular adult fares to Long Beach are $36.75 one way and $73.50 round trip. For more information, visit www.catalinaexpress.com. For more info on staying at the Pavilion Hotel or visiting Catalina Island, go to: www.CatalinaChamber.com.