When George Shatto, who owned Catalina Island in the late 19th century, was looking to name the isle's main town, he ingeniously suggested Shatto City. His sister-in-law, who was reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King, thankfully intervened. "Why not 'Avalon'?" she asked. Avalon, after all, was the name of paradise in Arthurian legend.
Few places in the continental United States come as close to earning the moniker as Catalina. Located just 22 miles—no matter what the Four Preps may have sung—off the coast of California, the island is renowned for its Mediterranean climate and turquoise waters. Even though it is technically part of Los Angeles County, Catalina is not L.A. Avalon, the only sizeable town (population 3,500), has so little traffic that a line of three cars constitutes a backup. There's so little crime that the judge works only once a week. And the lifestyle here is so laid-back that the fiercest competition is for a spot on the beach.
Of course, locals are quick to point out, that sort of behavior occurs only in late summer when the weekend population swells to 10,000. The rest of the year is decidedly mellower.
Everything in Avalon, which is nestled into a hillside like a Greek fishing village, is about the water. Avalon Bay waters are so clear and teeming with marine life that locals call it "Southern California's largest aquarium," which may explain why a number of divers, snorkelers, kayakers, and fishermen are drawn here. And why the semisubmersible sub tour that is run by Catalina Adventure Tours and that plunges visitors into the heart of the "aquarium" is one of the most popular attractions on the island.
Perhaps the lure of this town, though, is that there's nothing around it. It's cushioned from the rest of civilization not only by water but also by rugged hills, bald eagle habitats, and ranges where, yes, the buffalo roam. While Avalon bustles with human activity, 86 percent of Catalina is wild, having been deeded to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy in 1975 by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame.
William Wrigley Jr. was so enamored of the island that he bought it in 1919 after visiting just once, and turned it into a glamorous resort destination that attracted such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Charlie Chaplin. Mutiny on the Bounty and The Ten Commandments, along with myriad other films, were shot here. But it was the 1925 film The Vanishing American that left the most lasting legacy—14 American bison. The herd has grown to 200. To see them—along with the island's interior—try a Jeep Eco-Tour.
Wrigley also brought the Chicago Cubs, which he owned. They came to the island every year from 1921 to '51 (the war years excepted) for spring training. He built the team a swank hacienda-style clubhouse that today houses the Catalina Country Club, featuring the island's finest dining.
It was Wrigley's Casino, opened in 1929, that drew the greatest crowds. A 12-story art deco masterpiece, the round Casino juts out on a jetty. Its top floor, graced by a Tiffany chandelier, houses the country's largest circular ballroom. You can all but feel the joint hopping to the big bands that once played here, like those of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. The fun hasn't stopped. Every June, the ballroom hosts a four-day swing camp, and in fall a jazz festival.
It's hard to imagine anything more fun and retro, though, than the Silent Film Festival that takes place in the Casino's theater every June. That setting, covered in mythically themed art deco murals, is so stunning that it's still a favorite among Hollywood types, some of whom hold their weddings here.
Savvy Catalina brides, however, probably arrive with caterers in tow. Sure, the candied apples (dripping in chocolate, marshmallows, and nuts) at candy maker Lloyd's of Avalon are to die for, but Catalina's rather pedestrian menus tend to favor burgers, pizza, and breaded fish. Armstrong's Seafood and the Catalina Country Club, with its elegant dining patio, are a cut above the rest, but the island is not a hotbed of innovative California cuisine.
Hardly anyone in Catalina seems bothered by this, least of all the locals. Who needs prosciutto-wrapped figs on a bed of arugula, after all, when you already live in paradise?
The best times to visit Catalina are in September or October, when the crowds die down, and during midweek, when hotels offer lower rates.
By boat Catalina Express, from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana
Point. (800) 618-5533, www.CatalinaExpress.com.
By helicopter Island Express Helicopter Service, from Long Beach and San Pedro boat terminals. (800) 228-2566, www.islandexpress.com.
By shuttle Karmel Shuttle from LAX or John Wayne Airport to boat terminals. (888) 995-7433, www.karmel.com.
Accommodations (in Avalon)
The Inn at Mt. Ada Catalina's most luxurious inn. The former Wrigley mansion, set on a hilltop. Rates $340-$640. (310) 510-2030, www.catalina.com/mtada.
Hotel Metropole a stylish in-town hotel, with fireplaces and DVD players in many rooms. Rates $159-$419. (800) 300-8528,
Glenmore Plaza Hotel rooms are basic, but it's a historic building near the beach. Rates $125-$495. (800) 422-8254, www.glenmorehotel.com.
Catalina Country Club 1 Country Club Dr. Entrées $25 to $35.
Armstrong's Fish Market and Seafood Restaurant, 306 Crescent Ave. Entrées $11 to
$21. (310) 510-0113.
C.C. Gallagher 523 Crescent Ave. A café-store featuring gourmet teas, coffees,
soups, and salads. (310) 510-1278.
Semisubmersible Tour Catalina Adventure Tours, adults, $30, children ages 3-11,
$15. (310) 510-2888, www.catalinaadventuretours.com/cat/nautilus.html.
Jeep Eco-Tours Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. A three-hour tour of Catalina's interior. $98 a person. (310) 510-2595, www.catalina.com/jeeptours.