Times Like These: Why Catalina is the Dave Grohl of Island Getaways

The author's favorite Pacific escape will rock your world--even in the winter

Rock-n-roll getaway: The rebel monkey wallpaper in the lobby bathroom at the Hotel Atwater on Catalina Island.

We’re on Catalina Island for a winter getaway.

Along with a warm sweater, knit hat and an umbrella, Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller: Tales of Life & Music is in my travel backpack.

The author asserts Catalina is the Dave Grohl of island getaways.

You could say Catalina is the Dave Grohl of island getaways.

Here’s why.

Neither should require introduction or explanation. Both are endearingly transcendent and their preeminence is easy to take for granted.

The shaggy-haired, gifted-but-unassuming Grohl has twice been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. First as drummer for grunge phenom Nirvana. More recently as founder/front man for mega alt-rock band Foo Fighters.

Grohl doesn’t seek out center stage, but when the spotlight finds him, he delivers. Songs like “Times Like These” and “Best of You” are intoxicating and hypnotic.     

Catalina is also endearingly transcendent. The coastal city of Avalon is a magical port of call, often taken for granted. The entire island’s bays and mountains are intoxicating and hypnotic.

This proximal paradise is just 23 miles off the Southern California coast. It’s ostensible you could look past Catalina when scanning the Pacific Ocean for more exotic options.

Like Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters on a dive bar juke box.

Getting to Catalina

Arriving in the Catalina Island harbor.

Two common responses I get when raving about Catalina: 1. “I’ve heard about that place and always wanted to go!” 2. I haven’t been to Catalina in years and forgot how fun it is!”

My travel plans firmly call for return trips at least every other year. Late in 2021, I gathered a family posse to celebrate pre-Christmas on a wintery version of Catalina.

Santa Catalina Island (its official name) is part of the Channel Islands and is lasso-ed into Los Angeles County. There’s no commercial airline service to Catalina. The island’s single-runway Airport in the Sky is only open to private aircraft.

Helicopter service is available from the California mainland. Cruise ships also occasionally anchor nearby and shuttle day-trippers ashore.

Most visitors arrive by ferry. There are departure points in Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach and Dana Point.

All three times I’ve traveled to Catalina have been by Catalina Express out of Dana Point. It’s a little more than an hour’s drive from San Diego to Dana Point. The ferry ride is less than an hour-and-a-half.

The process is simple: Show up at the Catalina Express office and check in. Drive your car to the designated parking lot. Grab a snack at Dana Wharf and get in line to board the ferry (seating’s first-come-first-serve). Always celebrate the trip onboard with a ferry Bloody Mary.

Note: The voyage can be as rocky as the opening song at a Foo Fighters concert. Don’t take the lid off your ferry Bloody Mary.

Getting to know Catalina

A view looking down into Avalon.

My wife and I honeymooned on Catalina in 2016. We fell deeper in love with each other while we both found a place in our hearts for the port city of Avalon. Traveling here is just so convenient. The town is quaint and walkable. Occasionally it’s bustling, but more often it’s Mayberry-esque.

For a Mayberry-by-the-Sea, the dining scene is full of options. Avalon’s high-end restaurant on the Crescent Avenue main drag is Avalon Grille. The eatery’s Pacific seabass—served with shiitake mushrooms, cilantro-tinged basmati rice and a tempura nori crisp—remains imprinted on the hard drive of my palate.

On a perfect day of noshing, you could: Put down a fluffy stack at Pancake Cottage. Get seated in The Cave Room at Luau Larry’s and sip a sweet Buffalo Milk cocktail (vodka, Kahlua, Crème de Cacao and fresh bananas). Dine at the popular Lobster Trap, where most of the menu offerings are sea-to-plate.

In 2018, my wife and I brought our college-age kids to the island. We all experienced the adrenaline high of the Zip Line Eco Tour. It’s a series of five ziplines (one maxes out at 30 miles per hour) that zigzag down a lush canyon.

Descanso Beach Club is at the base of that zipline course. Conveniently, you can rent lounge chairs and sun on a sandy beach here.

Pro note: The sand fades way to a rocky shoreline and sea bottom. If you want to frolic in the cold ocean water, bring a pair of seafaring shoes.

The beach club is serviced by a top-tier team of servers. And the air fills with tunes spun by a DJ. I may have even heard Dave Grohl croon “Big Me” as I faded into an afternoon nap.

Catalina in the Winter

Crescent Avenue, the main drag in Avalon.

Here we are for Catalina in the Winter of 2021.

Two days before Christmas, we’re gathered in the open, airy lobby of Hotel Atwater. This century-old property recently renovated all 95 of its rooms and suites. They call the décor “Island Deco.” It’s casually elegant.

Note: Catalina elegance rarely exceeds the level of Tommy Bahama.

Five of us are travelling together: My wife and I, her son, my daughter and my daughter’s boyfriend. Tonight’s agenda: a gift exchange followed by a fancy family dinner.

Again, Catalina fancy is a relative term that registers abstrusely above Outback and well below Wolfgang Puck’s CUT.

During the Catalina Express ferry ride over, we defined the unique parameters of our two-pronged gift exchange. First, we’ll pick names out of a hat. Each person has to buy a heartfelt gift for that one person.

Second, everybody is tasked to buy one White Elephant gift. We’ll draw numbers to determine the picking order. This is a game, incidentally, that I’ve seen deteriorate into a bare-knuckled holiday encounter.

Everybody’s onboard. We get two hours to scour Catalina retail shops for both presents.

The heartfelt gifts all connect. The Hotel Atwater fills with our laughter and is illuminated with joy. (Thank you, Chet’s Hardware, for stocking homemade, apple pie-scented candles.)

The White Elephant throwdown—in which you can “steal” a gift from another recipient—is a hysterical combination of thievery and mind games and Catalina giftshop knickknacks.

We buoyantly spill out onto Crescent Avenue afterward, hungry for what Steve’s Steakhouse has to offer. Rib-eye steaks and catch-of-the-day halibut for everybody.

Everything I Learned About Catalina…

Our crew stays warm during a coffee break on the Eco Tour.

The next day’s highly anticipated adventure is a naturalist-led Eco Tour up into the mountainous interior of Catalina.

These tours are run by the Catalina Island Conservancy. The nonprofit—by the will of late island owner and gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.—oversees 90 percent of the island. The Conservancy’s efforts have kept the landscape unspoiled for decades.

Our customized ride is a nine-seat, open-air Tundra. Cruising up steep dirt roads with the wind in our faces is chill-inducing. A light mist is falling. It’s bracing, and threatens to last for the duration of our two-hour tour.

I fear it could dampen our group’s joie de vivre.

While it rains on our one-car parade. I ask myself: “What would Dave Grohl do?” Well, Dave Grohl once shattered his ankle when he fell off a concert stage. He wrapped up his broken bones, swigged a bottle of Crown Royal and delivered an epic performance.

Our experience is not a medical emergency, and far from a washout. In the end, a little adversity makes retelling our tour story all the better. And, I feel like all the important facts I now know about Catalina were word-of-god announcements that came over the Tundra loudspeaker.

Our guide and driver, Shaun, is a third-generation islander. He informs us that: Up until 1951, the Chicago Cubs (owned by Wrigley) held spring training on Catalina…there’s a 22-year wait list to have a car delivered to residents…locals are very happy about the new Vons supermarket.

His repartee spins wonderfully back and forth between historical: Marilyn Monroe lived on the island for a year…and folksy: The dating pool is sparse when the population is 4,000 and there are only 50 kids in your grade at school.

The Best Stories

The view from the top, on the interior of Catalina Island. (Photo by Kevin Googins.)

While Shaun navigates muddy roads and steep inclines, he regales us about the fascinating history of the island’s headlining fauna: foxes and bison.

Catalina Island originally lacked terrestrial life. Likely, a Native American brought a fox back from the mainland centuries ago. In 1999, unfortunately, all but a few hundred of a 1,500 population of foxes were wiped out by disease.

Yikes. Shaun says wildlife biologist deduced that a racoon with a virulent strain of canine distemper—that had stowed aboard a visiting boat—swam to shore and infected most of the foxes.

Subsequently, the foxes went on the endangered species list. After seven short years, though, a captive breeding program and a successful vaccination program got the island foxes off the endangered species. 

Where the Bison Roam?

Ta-da! Catalina’s Airport in the Sky.

Seven miles inland and at an altitude of 1,600 feet above sea level, Shaun stops the Tundra at the Airport in the Sky. We enter the living rim-sized terminal and order coffee and hot chocolates.

Our group is warmed by the beverages and enlightened by the foxy drama that played out in nature. Shaun gets us back on the trail and has an engaging tale left about the island’s unlikely herd of American bison.  

More than a dozen bison were brought to Catalina in the 1920s. They were imported to be extras in the movie adaptation of a novel by the renown Western writer Zane Grey. So why don’t you see any bison in The Vanishing American?

Apparently, they couldn’t take direction well. The bulls wouldn’t stampede when the script called for it. All the bison scenes were cut.

After the production, it proved to be costly and unwieldy to round up the huge mammals and return them to the mainland. The small herd—all males—was essentially abandoned.

The Wrigley family hit on the idea to turn the bison into a tourist attraction. They imported a dozen females and a breeding program began.

Decades ago, the number of bison rose as high as 600. That was too large for the small island—and dangerous for tourists when bison roamed into the streets of Avalon.

A contraception program was imposed that thinned the herd. Whoops. It worked too well. Shaun says conservationists are once again looking to boost the fertility rate.

Anecdotally, I can vouch for the current scarcity. We didn’t see a single bison on our Eco Tour.

Sure, the rain and cold zapped our energy levels—but if there was an option to extend the adventure, we would have found adrenaline reserves and screamed for an encore. (Yes, like at a Foo Fighters concert.)

If You Go

The memory-filled Hotel Atwater lobby.

Take your family and loved ones to the island. I recommend Catalina Express for getting there; check out their winter Boat & Hotel packages, good through March 25…Hotel Atwater is a great choice for a place to stay because it’s remodeled, is a good deal and is right near the center of the city…Sushi lovers, grab a table at NDMK Fish House…Want to get away from the “hubbub” of Avalon and eat where the locals dine? Look up Buffalo Nickel, located near the helicopter landing pad. The seafood is ocean-to-table. Their shuttle will pick you up and take you back to town.  J&J

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