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HOLLYWOOD'S MAGIC ISLE
 
(2017 - Winter Issue)

Writer: DONNA S. VIEIRA



“Twenty-six miles across the sea Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me

Santa Catalina, the island of romance Romance, romance, romance . . .

The lyrics of the 1957 golden oldie by the Four Preps played on in my head as we sped across open waters on board the Catalina Express ferry toward the port of Avalon on Catalina Island, California. Once we had settled into our comfortable seats in the Commodore Lounge, a server came to take our order from the bar. Our tickets in the Commodore Lounge entitled us to preferred boarding privileges and a complimentary beverage. Within minutes, our mimosas appeared along with a salty snack. All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the view from our expansive window seats for the hour-long trip.

Covering 194.2 square kilometres, Catalina Island is home to 4,800 residents, about 4,000 of whom live in Avalon on the east coast with the remaining 800 living in the interior and in Two Harbors on the west end. Island residents may own their homes or units, but not the land. The Catalina Island Company owns and leases all real estate (including boat moorings); operates sightseeing tours; owns and operates a campground and a few hotels; runs the only gas station in Avalon; and manages a planning department and corporate offices that keep all its operations going on just 12 per cent of the land.

The remaining 88 per cent of the island is governed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, established in 1972 by the Wrigley and Offield families. Its mandate is to maintain a balance of conservation, education and recreation, which includes ensuring 150 American bison, descendants of the 14 brought in for the motion picture, The Vanishing American (1924), roam free and thrive in a natural environment.

Only 800 cars are allowed on the island at any given time. One lifelong resident confided he’d been on the waiting list since he turned eight. Now in his 30s, he was still waiting for permission to import a car. Electric golf carts are the primary form of motorized transportation in or around Avalon. To venture into the interior, all must apply for a permit whether they are hiking or taking a sightseeing tour.

As we stepped off the ferry, it quickly became evident why the island is a popular escape from the hustle and bustle of Southern California. The atmosphere is laid-back, the air is refreshing and the surrounding waters are as clear as any I have seen anywhere, thanks to the Conservancy’s environmental program.

And, as we were about to find out, the island history is certainly intriguing.

ONE MANS DREAM

In 1919, William Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum fame) purchased the island, sight unseen, from the Banning Brothers for somewhere in the range of US$2 to 3 million. His dream was to create a vacation getaway for the “rank and file” where all entertainment was free. He spent another $2 million building a Casino (Italian for “a gathering place for fun and entertainment”) only to dismantle it six years later in 1927 and rebuild a larger version to accommodate the throngs who travelled by steamship, which he owned, from the mainland to dance in the grand ballroom to the sounds of the popular big bands and jazz bands of the era. From 1934 into the 1950s, North American audiences huddled in their living rooms to listen to the music of Glenn Miller, Jan Garber, Jimmy Dorsey, Kay Kyser and others broadcast live from here over the airwaves on CBS radio. On the Casino’s lower level, the elegant, acoustically perfect Avalon Theatre was the first ever built for the “talkies.” Dominating the Avalon landscape, the iconic building remains the focal point of island entertainment and culture and a behind-the-scenes tour down memory lane is highly recommended.

Catalina Island is also the birthplace of sport fishing. Founded in 1898 by Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, who thought the oceans were overfished then, the Tuna Club of Avalon is the oldest sport-fishing club in the world and a strict catch-and-release program is enforced.

Island tourism was curtailed for a time when, for three years following the Japanese attack on Hawaii, the island was closed off and used by the military to engage in OSS (a precursor to the CIA) secret training.

PLAYGROUND OF THE STARS

An exhibit at the Catalina Island Museum captures the island’s strong connection to Hollywood. Since most of Catalina is conservancy land, it became a great location to shoot movies. In fact, 500 movies, documentaries, films and TV shows have been filmed here—more than anywhere else in the world. Some include The Ten Commandments (1923), Captain Blood (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and more recently, Falling in Love with the Girl Next Door (2006).

In 1943, an unhappily married, 17-year-old Norma Jean Baker resided here with her military husband, James Dougherty, who was stationed on the island. Later, she briefly returned as Marilyn Monroe to recover from a plastic surgery treatment. Other regular visitors included John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Weissmuler, Errol Flynn, Lauren Bacall, Zane Grey and Charlie Chaplin.

But stars and starlets weren’t the only ones to visit these shores. The Wrigleys brought the Chicago Cubs here for spring training between 1921 and 1951 and gave then-journalist Ronald Reagan his big break when he was hired to announce the spring-training games and introduce the big bands performing at the Casino.

DELIGHTFUL EXPERIENCES

Day-caught fish and seafood are the norm here so we indulged at the Bluewater Avalon, housed in what was the previous steamship terminal and part of The Fish House group, also owned by the Wrigley family. More morsels from the sea found their way to our plates at the Avalon Grille where we sampled fresh scallops, clams, black cod, ahi tartare and octopus.

A superb way to explore Catalina’s food culture and learn more about the island’s history is on a Taste of Catalina Tour. Our noontime walking culinary adventure took us to Steve’s Steakhouse, CC Gallagher, Mr. Ning’s Chinese Garden, Bluewater Avalon, Maggie’s Blue Rose Restaurant & Bar and the Catalina Coffee & Cookie Company. The tour company also offers Happy Hour and UFO-themed excursions.

When it comes to accommodation, advance bookings are highly recommended. At the beautiful Portofino Hotel, just a nine-minute walk from the ferry terminal, our spacious living quarters featured a separate bedroom and overlooked the Pacific. Adjacent to it is the Island Spa Catalina where I experienced a magical massage. The spa also features a pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms as well as a dining menu for guests who wish to spend the day here.

Needless to say, we left Catalina Island wishing we had more time to venture beyond Avalon. This island may be small, but it makes a huge impression.

Travel Planner

Operating year-round with a fleet of high-speed ferries departing from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point, Catalina Express offers up to 30 daily departures to the picturesque town of Avalon or the rustic village of Two Harbors. Two classes of service are available: general seating and the Commodore Lounge. For schedules, fares, special promotions and reservations, visit catalinaexpress.com.

More ideas on all there is to see and do on Catalina Island are found at visitcatalinaisland.com.

If you overnight in Long Beach before boarding the Catalina Express, the Queen Mary Hotel (queenmary.com), moored at the Long Beach Port, offers a one-of-a-kind experience. We definitely recommend dining at either restaurant on board.

Note: Actually, Santa Catalina is 22 miles from Long Beach. The songwriter is from Newport Beach, 26 miles from the island.

 
 
 
 
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