The email arrived today from some friends in San Luis Obispo. They had just returned from their first visit to Santa Catalina Island and wanted to thank me for all my suggestions.
“We had the best time ever!” the email gushed as my friends ticked off the various places in Avalon they had visited during their three-day stay. “We want to go back for sure!”
Everyone needs an escape and we all have our favorite places. My brother recently bought a vacation home at Lake Arrowhead. My other brother made it a point to bring his family down from Seattle to Palm Springs at least once a year.
My friend John and his family share a cabin in Yosemite with another family. For Frank, his escape is a condo at Lake Tahoe. I know still another couple who get away from it all by checking in to the Cambria Pines Lodge for a long weekend.
Exploring new places on vacation is always fun, but there is something comforting about also returning periodically to the familiar. You develop a routine over time, little rituals that may seem silly to the outsider, but they give you pleasure time and again.
For us, that special place has become Catalina Island and the tiny hamlet of Avalon, about an hour by boat from Long Beach. We’ve been going regularly, at least once or twice a year, since 1995 and I don’t ever see that changing.
We’ve gone over for our anniversary, for Thanksgiving, and just to get away. We’ve gone by ourselves, often with friends, usually for three days, sometimes four.
Why Catalina? We always get the question, mostly from California natives who can’t quite figure out the appeal. It’s a place I had wanted to visit for years and we finally made it over there for an anniversary celebration, not quite sure what to expect. Everything about that first visit was magical. I knew we would be back.
The ambitious visitor can be challenged by scuba diving, snorkeling, tennis, golf, and boating. That’s not us. We walk. Up into the hills around Avalon we go, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Out to the Casino and back at least twice a day. For dinner, we’ll walk the mile out to Pebbly Beach and hang with the locals at Buffalo Nickel.
We’ll walk the three miles out to the Wrigley Memorial and the surrounding botanical gardens, or huff and puff our way up to the Wrigley Bell Tower, next to the Zane Grey Hotel, to enjoy the sprawling view of the harbor below.
No visit to Catalina is complete without at least one round of miniature golf on the toughest course I’ve ever played, designed by a retired golf pro. Hole Number 9 is a Par 6.
You can hop a boat up to Two Harbors and explore the countryside or ride out to the Airport in the Sky for lunch and see live buffalo along the way. There is always time for shopping, wandering the little stores along Sumner Avenue, or stopping at one of the restaurants along the water for a margarita break. The Channel House used to be our favorite place to eat, but they’re closed now.
At night, we’ll walk down to the Casino and take in a movie at the art deco-flavored theater modeled after Radio City Music Hall. On Saturday nights, they play the old-fashioned pipe organ before the movie.
It’s not Hawaii, but Catalina will do. Close, but far enough away. Plenty to do. A (relatively) inexpensive way to relax and unwind for a few days. California history literally around the corner.
A few years ago, we were winding up a Thanksgiving visit to the island with another couple. The four of us were walking to the boat that overcast Saturday morning when we decided we wanted one last photo.
The three of stood there, posing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall, lanky man suddenly run up to us and stand in the photo, wrapping his arm around one of my friends. He flashed this broad grin. We all laughed along, wondering who this silly guy was, crashing our photo.
Only then did I look closer at the stranger, instantly recognizing then-state senator Jack O’Connell, grinning broadly. Jack and his family are also regular visitors to Catalina.
Catalina is calling. Get on the boat.
SLO City News (July 2006)