Catalina Island provides a chance to explore nature, enjoy the water

Many Americans over 30 can sing a couple of verses, or at least the hook:

Twenty- six miles across the sea

Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me

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

The Four Preps wrote that song before I was born — it hit No. 2 on the charts in 1957. Most kids back East hadn’t heard of Santa Catalina until “26 Miles” became a hit, but the lyrics worked their way into America’s collective memory, and teens dreamed of navigating those 26 miles.

I didn’t make it there while still a teenager, but my daughter Charlotte did so at 13, joining me for a two-night visit. Others probably do come for romance, as the song suggests, but we were seeking adventure — and we found it. Besides touring the Catalina Casino, we took an inland tour of the island’s remote areas, and a thrilling ride on one of the island’s newest attractions, the Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour.

We arrived on the island’s main town of Avalon late afternoon after a smooth, 90-minute boat ride from the coastal town of Dana Point, Calif., aboard the Catalina Express. Docking was quick and easy, and within 10 minutes we were walking along the boat-filled harbor to the Pavilion Hotel, where we would be staying.

The newly renovated, two-story Pavilion is one of the island’s finest places to stay. It’s small, a 71-room property, yet offers all the modern amenities travelers expect. More importantly, it has the advantage of being in the middle of town near all the shops and restaurants and just steps from Avalon Bay. Most of the rooms surround a lushly vegetated courtyard with cushioned lounge chairs. Ground-level rooms are desired, as each has its own small lanai, with a table and soft comfortable chairs and privacy afforded by palms and other thick vegetation.

Once we got settled and changed our clothes, we headed to the main lobby area for the Pavilion’s evening wine and cheese cocktail hour. This is a popular social gathering and was well attended by both adults and children, mingling and talking about the adventures they’d had that day. They offered wine or nonalcoholic drinks and cheese plates in a comfortable living room setting indoors, which spills out to the outdoor living area. This outdoor area is choice, as you not only have comfortable living-room style seating, but has an open air view to the harbor. If you are feeling a chill, there is also a large fire ring with seating surrounding it.

Catalina’s year round population is only about 3,000-4,000 people, but on a day with lots of visitors, the number may double. While good weather is never guaranteed — it actually snowed here some 60 years ago –average high temperatures in April and May are usually in the high 60s with lows in the mid 50s. Even in summer, average highs are only in the low-to-mid 70s.

Locals seem to favor zipping around town in electric golf carts, which visitors can also easily rent, but most visitors just set out on foot. Walking is preferred because everything is close; the town is only one square mile in size. The entire island is 76 square miles.

Many people are quite satisfied with spending all their time in Avalon, checking out the shops full of beachwear and art, sampling the variety of restaurants, and strolling around, but we had more adventure in mind. On our first full day, we were up early and, after a light breakfast, headed out of our hotel for the 10-minute walk to the Desconso Beach Club. The club, open to the public, is the preferred place to spend the day relaxing by the water. We bypassed the restaurant, bar, kayak rental area, cabanas and sunbathers, having our sights on something a bit different, the Zip Line Eco Tour.

Denny and Jason would be our guides for the morning and outfitted our group of eight with a web harness that encircled each leg and our waists, and would attach to the zip line mechanism. From a logical standpoint, this seemed a very secure and safe arrangement. Emotionally, however, it was hard to get past the realization we would ride the zip line seated on two narrow strips of fabric and a few hundred feet of air.

We were given a safety talk, and then we boarded a shuttle for the 10-minute ride up to the start of the course.

We have experienced the thrill of other zip lines, including one that is billed as the world’s steepest, but this one had some advantages. One of them is that the guides know something about the island’s flora, fauna and history. Long before there were ziplines, more than 100 years ago, they told us, the biggest thrill on Santa Catalina was riding a stagecoach up this same peak and back. It took an hour and a half to reach the summit, but only 20 minutes to go back down, so the 19th-century thrills seemed to be mostly on the downgrade.

Along this old stagecoach route, today, is the jumping-off place for the zipline. With our heads in helmets and our hearts in our mouths, we were launched into space and hurtled down the mountainside, like barnstorming pilots flying just over the treetops, gasping not only at our own speed but spectacular views of the ocean and lushly vegetated canyons.

Unlike the typical zipline ride, this one consists of five consecutive sections. Our guides rode down with us, one flying point and the other coming last, to help us land at the end of each stage, disconnect our harness and hook onto the next stage.

The entire course totals about three-quarters mile in length, one segment being more than 1,000 feet by itself, and at some points, 300 feet above the canyon floor. We didn’t come down the mountain as quickly as those stagecoaches reportedly did, but it was plenty fast enough for me.

After our adventure with gravity and speed, we walked over to the largest and most recognizable landmark on the island, the Catalina Casino. The 12-story art deco building opened in 1929 and has served as the place to go for entertainment ever since. No gambling goes on here. It is so named because the word “casino” in Italian means a “place for entertainment.”

We had signed up to take the behind the scenes casino tour. Our group of about 10 started the tour at the Avalon Theatre. Highlights here were the art deco murals along the walls and the original pipe organ. After this, we headed to an upper floor and visited a couple of the large green rooms where many a celebrity has hung out, including the likes of Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and Bob Hope. Dozens of large photographs from the past line the walls. We also visited the projection room, which still houses the original equipment from 1929.

Our guide saved the best for last, the magnificent ballroom located on the highest level of the building. It has been described as the most beautiful ballroom on earth. It has a 10,000 square-foot circular dance floor with 50-foot ceilings graced by five Tiffany chandeliers. There is also an elevated stage, once used by the big bands of days gone by and still used today. The ballroom can handle a crowd of more than 1,200. Outdoors of the ballroom is a balcony that wraps around the building, affording us with excellent views down to Avalon Bay, Descanso Beach and beyond.

While many come to Catalina to take part in the slew of water activities, such as boating, fishing, kayaking and snorkeling, one of the things that drew us was visiting its natural unspoiled side. The island is primarily undeveloped and the Catalina Island Conservancy, which dedicates itself to its conservation and preservation, stewards 88 percent of the island.

We wanted to see as much of it as we could and signed up for the inland tour, which would take us over about 31 miles through the interior of the island and then over to the windward side through spectacular terrain of peaks, valleys and canyons. After we boarded a restored ’50s bus in town, Freddy, our guide, brought us through town and then started up the steep hill above town. I have to admit this was quite the scary ride with perilous hundreds of feet drop-offs, but we made it safely up and to the interior of the island.

Our route took us through Middle Ranch and then out to the island’s windward side, where we found far-reaching views of the coastline and safe sheltered harbors. Along the way, we saw a few bison here and there. As the story goes, 14 bison were brought to the island in the 1920s for a film. At one time their population grew to more than 500, but now the conservancy tries to keep the herd no bigger than 150-200 bison to limit its impact on the island’s ecosystem. The conservancy was formed in 1972 and took over their management.

The largest endemic mammal here is the Catalina Island fox, a relative of the gray fox that is known to have lived here for more than 4,000 years. These foxes are smaller than other foxes and, indeed, smaller than many house cats, weighing in at only about 4-6 pounds. Ten years ago, there were only an estimated 100 on the island because of an outbreak of canine distemper. Since then, a vaccination program, captive breeding and population monitoring have helped the species recover and now there are close to 1,000. The island is also home to about two dozen bald eagles, including four nesting pairs.

It’s quite difficult to get the required permit to take a car onto Catalina, but you don’t really need one. The town is built for walking, and to experience the wild parts of the island, hiking and mountain biking are much better. An easy-to-get permit from the Island Conservancy allows you to wheel along 40 miles of roads, primarily unpaved, and you will have virtually no competition from motor vehicles on those roads. There are also more than 200 miles of hiking trails on the island, including the newest, the 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Island Trail, which traverses the entire island.

After our inland tour, we rushed back to the Pavilion, grabbed our bags and headed over to the dock for our return to the mainland again on the Catalina Express. We had a smooth return trip as well, and for a while were treated to the sight of a small pod of dolphins — perhaps a dozen — swimming and leaping alongside the boat. We arrived in Dana Point harbor just around sunset.

When visiting Catalina from a point as distant as Las Vegas, it’s logical to spend one night, going or coming, in Dana Point, so that none of the days you spend on the island will be cut short by traveling time. We decided to overnight there on our way back, thus avoiding a sure-to-be boring drive across the Mojave and Southern Sierra at night, when we couldn’t enjoy the scenery. Besides, Dana Point has its own comforts and attractions.

The chief one for is the Ocean Institute. We were unable on this trip to make our schedule coincide with its weekends-only public visiting hours, but during those hours it’s full of rewards, such as the opportunity to take a short voyage as a deckhand on the sailing brig Pilgrim, or take a guided tour to visit the living things in the area’s tidepools.

The Dana Point Marina Inn, where we were staying for the night, was so close to the landing pier that we walked there. Our room sported a balcony, which would be a great place to watch the sunset. We missed that, but later enjoyed a charming view of the harbor at night.

For supper, we walked over to Turk’s Restaurant, where great food is served with an equally delicious view of the harbor. Most of the ships seem to be luxury yachts, but this port is still home to a small commercial fishing fleet and many vessels devoted to sport fishing and whale watching. In fact, one of my favorite days on the Pacific was spent a couple of years ago on a whale-watching excursion out of Dana Point. Early April, by the way, is the shank end of the gray whale migration season, and a little luck could still put you eyeball to eyeball with some of the biggest creatures on the face of the deep.

Contact Deborah Wall at deborabus@aol.com.

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