Santa Catalina Island, often called Catalina Island or just Catalina, is a rock island 35km southwest of Los Angeles. It has long been an escape for Los Angeleans from the smog of the city. The 35km-long and 13km-wide island has quite a history. It was once the place for sea-otter poachers, smugglers and Union soldiers.
It was snapped up by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr in 1919 and he used Catalina as the spring training venue for his Chicago Cubs baseball team. The Wrigley family was passionate about keeping the island pristine and in 1975 donated 88 percent of it to the Catalina Island Conservancy.
There are two towns: Avalon and Two Harbors. Visiting the main town, Avalon, is like stepping back in time. Its architecture, lack of cars and general pace make it a wonderful place to visit. The island's isolation has given it an embargo against chain stores and restaurants. There's also a distinct lack of big-name hotels. The strict building code calls for boutique-style lodgings.
The most popular way to reach the island is on the Catalina Express ferry. They operate 30 craft from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. The high-speed catamarans take around 90 minutes for the pleasant journey.
If you want to live like the locals, rent yourself a golf cart on your visit. Catalina Island is the only place in the US to govern the number of cars on its roads which means most the locals use golf carts as transportation which explains why the driveways are tiny at most homes. Cars are permitted but numbers are limited. At the moment there is a 16-year waiting list.
Casino Ballroom & Theatre
If anything dominates the skyline it's the Casino. "Casino" in the Italian language means a gathering place and that's exactly what this one is. No gambling. Instead the style and romance of Catalina, taking a trip down memory lane to the days of big bands and talking movies were the latest phenomenon. It's another gift from the philanthropic William Wrigley Jr who wanted a dance hall where mainlanders could go and dance the night away to the music of the big band era. They arrived by steamer or sea plane.
The 1929 building has superb art deco murals and a classic 1929 pipe organ in the Avalon Theatre which still shows movies.
It was all restored a few years ago and the beautiful ballroom is a masterpiece of design and a long-standing venue for the world's best musical performers. It has rose-hued walls, an arching 15m ceiling with five Tiffany chandeliers, elevated stage, raised seating areas around the dance floor and a vintage full-service bar.
Every square centimetre of the floor is the original 1929 floor. When you think of all those years of non-stop big band dances, weddings, shows and all sorts of traffic, that's pretty amazing.
Part of the Casino's uniqueness is that was so technologically ahead of its time. Even Radio City in New York used its techniques to achieve acceptable acoustics. Quite apart from providing something beautiful to look at, the murals are painted on battleship mesh canvas and assist in creating the best acoustics.
The Casino hosts most of the island's major indoor events including the annual New Year's Eve celebration and the Catalina Island Jazz Festival.
The waters around Catalina Island are crystal clear, but as beautiful as they are, they are always freezing. Comfortable viewing vessels bring the undersea world right to you. Glass-bottomed boats were actually invented in Catalina by abalone fishermen.
They visit Lovers' Cove Marine Preserve where colourful fish and marine plants thrive among kelp forest, the fastest growing plant on earth. It can grow a couple of centimetres in an hour.
Guests are given a fish finder to help identify fish. As with most of the island, marine life is protected. The garibaldi is the state marine fish and if you catch and keep one there is a US$500 ($545) fine and possible jail time.
Catalina Island's newest boutique hotel is located close to the beach and all that Avalon has to offer. Inspired by Catalina's marine environment, the stylish hotel offers standard rooms or junior suites with ocean and city views, lush bedding, flat-screen televisions and each room has a refrigerator and microwave. Guests enjoy access to common areas like their ocean-view roof deck, the perfect place to take in the view.
It's easy to get a sense of Catalina's laid-back charm when hitting the shops in Avalon. Strolling along the quaint streets you'll find a wide variety of specialty shops and boutiques offering everything from resort-style clothing to unique gifts. Avalon's romantic pedestrian walkway on Crescent Avenue offers breathtaking harbour views which makes for a relaxing shopping experience.
Catalina Island, a one-hour boat trip from Long Beach in Los Angeles.
Catalina Express has return trips costing $72 for adults and $55 for children.
Cartopia Golf Rentals carts cost $40 an hour for a four-person cart. They are open between 9am and 5pm every day.
Casino Tours cost about $21 for adults and $16 for children. They take around 50 minutes. One-hour Behind the Scenes tours are about $33 for adults and $25 for children. Tours include a visit to the Catalina Island Museum. Book through Santa Catalina Island Company.
Glass-bottomed boat tours are about $20 for adults and $15 for children. Tours are 45 minutes long and they run every day between 9am and 5pm.
Aurora Catalina rooms start at $163 a night, including breakfast.
V Australia has flights to Los Angeles from:
- Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane $1279
- Adelaide $1579
- Perth $1879
The fares are available for a limited time only so log on to www.vaustralia.com.au for further details.
For further information
Cartopia Golf Rentals
615 Crescent Avenue
Avalon CA 90704
Ph: +1 310 510 2493
Discovery Tours(Casino tours)
Ph: +1 310 510 8687
Glass Bottomed Boat Tours
137 Marilla Avenue
Avalon CA 90704
Ph: +1 310 510 0454 or +1 800 422 6836
Santa Catalina Island Company
Ph: +1 310 510 2000
Visas: Most Australians do not need a visa, providing they have a machine readable passport with at least six months' validity after the departure day, have a round-trip non-refundable ticket and do not intend to stay longer than 90 days. Australians need to complete a pre-travel authorisation at www.cbp.gov/esta
Electricity: 110V to 115V at 60Hz. Outlets take two parallel, flat prongs. Australian visitors will need a US adapter and converter.
Time zone: California is GMT -8.
Currency: The American dollar.
International dialling code: +1.