Catalina Island, Every Two Years

Unassuming yet invigorating, Catalina Island is a 1-hour ferry ride from Southern California

Avalon Harbor on Catalina
Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island.

A white-uniformed Catalina Express crewmember hops off the double-deck ferry onto the Dana Point dock. She nonchalantly announces that there’s been a water main break on Catalina Island. Consequently, all the restaurants there are currently closed.

It’s a Friday, approaching noon under a cloudless Southern California sky. Omnipresent May Gray has been wiped clear by a heroic June sun. Water main break? My family and I perform a synchronized shrug. This news will not avert our focus during a dockside lunch of BLTs and poke tacos at Waterman’s Harbor restaurant.

It was an easy, hour-plus drive north from San Diego to get to the Dana Point ferry landing (one of four Los Angeles-area departure points for Catalina). I’ve safely stowed the car in the designated parking lot. My wife, her son and my daughter have our bags packed for the 22-mile ferry ride that will deliver us on a long-planned, much-needed weekend getaway.

Minutes after the ferry clears Dana Cove we’re bumping across the Pacific Ocean. Then this thought occurs: What will happen to our 7 p.m. reservation tonight at the Avalon Grille? There are no updates available aboard the ferry about when the restaurants might re-open. Optimistically, I choose to believe they’ll be back in business before we even get to Catalina. Who’s up for a ferry Bloody Mary?

Avalon's Crescent Avenue
Avalon’s Crescent Avenue

Back Again on Catalina Island

Jules and I honeymooned on Catalina two years ago. We fell deeper in love with each other while becoming enamored with this warm-and-fuzzy little island. So here we are back with our college-age kids, my daughter, Chandler, 21, and her son, Jack, 19.

A pair of small villages are the main draws on Catalina (which is part of Los Angeles County and falls within the Long Beach school district). Two Harbors is the rustic northern spot where you go to camp; Avalon is the one-square-mile tourist destination on the southeast side of the island.

The ferry chug-chug-chugs up to the Cabrillo Mole in the Avalon Harbor. We disembark and participate in a haphazard baggage retrieval process best described as…a clusterjam. Then, it’s a scenic, 10-minute walk along Crescent Avenue. Avalon’s harborside main drag is colorfully enlivened by restaurants, storefronts and, count ‘em, three ice cream parlors. Note: Taxis service exists on the island but most locals ride golf carts; there’s a 15-year wait list to have a car shipped here.

Hotel Catalina
Hotel Catalina

We’re booked at Hotel Catalina, a white-and-blue-trimmed Victorian building with wicker rocking chairs on the front porch. We zeroed in on one of the hotel’s family cottages—ours includes two bedrooms separated by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom.

“Welcome—and maybe you’ve heard that the restaurants are all closed by order of the city,” is our greeting in the Hotel Catalina lobby. The good news: The sewage lines have been restored, meaning the bathrooms are working. Unfortunately, our 7 p.m. restaurant reservation is in limbo, at best.

There are, fortunately, two Vons supermarkets in tiny Catalina. The bigger one is a couple blocks from the hotel. Since the property includes a barbecue grill, set up on a fenced-in patio near the hot tub, we immediately make plans to cook an al fresco dinner.

Vons’ tight aisles are jammed. We secure steaks for the guys; salad, asparagus and corn on the cob for everybody. Back at the hotel, we’re first to arrive and set up food prep at the patio grill. Not long after we fire up, a couple arrives with bratwursts. Then another pair of new neighbors shows up with a rack of pork spare ribs. The let’s-make-the-best-of-it camaraderie is palpable.

Shortly after a fantastic makeshift dinner, I pass through the hotel lobby. It’s 7:45 p.m., and the desk clerk reports that the water main is fixed. He says it’s doubtful any eateries will open tonight, but breakfast tomorrow at either Original Jack’s Country Kitchen or Pancake Cottage is once again on the table. Back at the hotel patio, we celebrate this good news by cooking up perfectly melted s’mores on the workhorse hotel grill that was, on this night, a saving grace.

Ziplining Descanso Canyon
Ziplining Descanso Canyon

Ziplines and beach clubs

On the honeymoon visit, Jules and filled a day with a zipline excursion followed by an afternoon of sun worship on chaise loungers at Descanso Beach Club. This go-round, the kids zipline while we wait for them on those comfy white recliners lined up on pristine, white sand.

The Zip Line Eco Tour begins 600 feet up Descanso Canyon. Five separate ziplines zigzag down the canyon—sometimes at 30 miles per hour—with the last one ending at a wooden tower just a short walk from the beach club. If you’ve zipped through a Costa Rican rainforest you won’t be challenged here. But it’s a gorgeous, two-hour excursion that will get your adrenaline pumping. And the tour guides are helpful and funny, without being condescending or overly snarky.

Service at the Descanso Beach Club is impeccable. It’s the island’s lap of luxury, with food and beverages available for order from our loungers. A DJ fills the air with oldies and not-so-oldies in the afternoon. Note: If you plan to visit the beach and get in the ocean, go for it, but bring some sort of water shoes to navigate across the rocky beach.

The Avalon Grille Experience

Avalon Grille
Avalon Grille

Saturday night, we take another stab at fine dining at Avalon Grille. We call and there are no reservations available, so we walk in, hoping to get on the wait list. The restaurant is half empty, but the hostess informs us there is no wait list. Then I play the sympathy card: “Y’know, we had a reservation last night but with the water line break…” *bats eyes innocently*

She nods, sighs and seats us immediately at an indoor four-top.

Many regard Avalon Grille as the nicest restaurant in town. You certainly don’t have to dress up for dinner anywhere on Catalina—including Avalon Grille—but this is the one place a snappy sports coat might not seem out of place (still, don’t bother). The eatery is set on Crescent Avenue, with a lively central bar area, high ceilings, and large windows that open onto the bay.

The andouille-and-lobster linguine (with poached egg in a creamy king oyster mushroom sauce over squid ink linguine) and Pacific seabass (served with shiitake mushroom and cilantro-tinged basmati rice, and a tempura nori crisp) are highlights that grace our table.

We also eat up the charm exuded by our server. Travis earnestly laments that we missed our previous night’s reservation. He apologizes profusely. Then he regales us with a story about how the Grille did open late last night, right after the city declared the water line was safe for drinking. Travis happened to be close by to the restaurant when a manager made the call to open the doors. The regular staff had scattered, so Travis says he worked elbow-to-elbow with a cadre of non-employee islanders who showed up just to pitch in.

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The view from above and behind Avalon
The view from above and behind Avalon

Really seeing Catalina Island

Travis’ tale epitomizes why we’re committed to come back to visit Catalina every couple of years. Avalon isn’t a scene; it may be the least-affected tourist spot within Greater L.A. County. It’s truly a small town that relies on visitor dollars, but unlike some destinations (Jamaica comes to mind) guests aren’t looked down on as necessary evils. Catalina’s service industry employees, to my eye, are laid-back to the max but truly welcoming.

Granted, not everything in town is self-evident. For example, at first, we’d considered renting a golf cart to get around, then balked at the $45 per hour price. Sunday morning, the Pancake Cottage door host tells us to walk out to the green harbor pier and ask the Chamber of Commerce for advice on last-minute things to do. The Chamber lady encourages us to take the hour-long, self-guided golf cart tour. We do a double take. There’s a whole tour route? Those carts aren’t confined to Crescent Avenue and its downtown side streets? Sign us up, though there’s little time to spare.

We ascend Mt. Ada in a four-seat golf cart. We circle out past the helicopter landing and see a chopper steer in for a landing. We pause at the top of the mountain for pictures of the harbor and the iconic Catalina Casino. We pass the august Mt. Ada bed-and-breakfast—a mansion once owned by gum magnate and Chicago Cubs majority owner William Wrigley Jr. (the Wrigley family currently runs the Catalina Island Conservancy).

Painting Avalon Harbor
Painting Avalon Harbor

Driving in the open-aired cart we observe a deer cavorting near a condo complex; we take pause at a somber pet cemetery; jaunt past Wrigley Botanical Garden; smile at the semi-glampy Hermit Gulch campground; and reminisce at the top-of-the-canyon jumping-off point for the zipline tour.

Just about an hour later we’re boarding the ferry, homeward bound for the California mainland. Yes, Catalina, we’ll be back. It’s possible to take an accurate pulse of this island in just one weekend. But I’m sure our next getaway here will include unannounced, unscheduled, yet-to-be experienced irregular heartbeats. J&J


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