Exploring the Island by air, sea and land.
By Randall Tierney
My son, Shane, has always been my favorite travel buddy. He is 19 now, but he was once one of those toddlers who could drive their parents nuts with the word “why.” I answered as much as I could, however, when he eventually realized that I couldn’t keep up, he scaled back on asking me. These days, he doesn’t just want to hear the answer; he wants to “know” it in the most active, physical way allowed. Since I am unable to read a novel, sunbathe or sleep in when I visit a new place, Shane and I pair up well, and we’re off on an immersive adventure for knowledge wherever we go. Activities are high on our list of what makes a great trip, and that’s why we like Catalina.
The island is a 22-mile-long, 8-mile-wide natural classroom for young and old inquiring minds, set 22 miles off of the coast of Southern California. It is one of eight in the Channel Islands chain, which also includes—from northwest to southeast—San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas and San Clemente.
Above the Island
We hopped over from Long Beach to the island via helicopter on one of the small and swift six-seater crafts from the Island Express fleet. Lifting off from the tip of Terminal Island in Long Beach—near the cruise ships and the Queen Mary—and gently touching down on the island of Catalina just northeast of the town of Avalon is an exhilarating experience, and few rides could provide as much awesome scenery in one 15-minute trip. Josh Bagge, our friendly pilot who does anywhere from 10 to 12 trips a day, invited Shane to ride shotgun, and he answered every question on the way. Props for that. It’s easy to get spoiled traveling this way, except that it’s $250 per person to fly round-trip. It’s not for every budget—and not for larger groups—but the only other option is the two-hour boat ride that is also not for everybody—especially if you are prone to getting seasick. Island Express also offers scenic flights around the island. www.islandexpress.com
Once on the island, we dropped off our bags at the Pavilion Hotel and rushed over to Shane’s zip line appointment. Launched in 2010, the Zip Line Eco Tour ($125 per person) is a two-hour long thrill ride, made interesting by the guides who explain the flora, fauna and history of the area you are flying through. Zip liners travel three-fourths of a mile over five separate lines, zigzagging across scenic Descanso Canyon, with the blue Pacific beyond while suspended 300 feet above the canyon floor. You can hit 40 mph on the longest stretch, which is 1,100 feet.
While Shane zipped through the canyon above, I hung out at the Descanso Beach Club, sipping a beer with my toes in the sand. The club, developed by the Catalina Island Company, is a resort-like center for shoreline activity, drinking and dining, located past the iconic casino building on the north side of Avalon. There is nice, powdery sand in the area, but it doesn’t stretch down to the water and you have to pick your way through the rocks to get there. It’s worth it because the water in this cove is clear and calm—great for a dip between umbrella drinks. In fact, all of the water off Catalina’s coastline has seen a huge improvement in quality this past year, according to Heal the Bay. Since 2012, $5.7 million was spent on repairing broken sewage lines that fouled the water and kept Avalon Bay a mainstay on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list (12 of the last 14 years). In the latest report, however, the areas around Avalon scored high enough to take Avalon Bay off of the Beach Bummer list. During my visit, there were a few hearty souls in the chilly surf at the Descanso Beach Club, which also offers kayaks, paddle boards, SNUBA and Sea Trek—that odd, bell-helmet, sea-floor walking experience that makes you feel like you are Sandy the Squirrel in a Sponge Bob episode.
I got to the final zip line landing in time to watch Shane zoom in, showing spectacular form, a huge grin and eyes as big as (flying) saucers. “I was super excited,” said Shane, “But had butterflies in my stomach. After the first jump, I felt comfortable.” Between the chopper and this, he had spent more of his morning in the air than on the ground, and he had worked up an appetite. We both felt more grounded after a buffalo burger and fries on the pier while the gulls watched us, looking for an opening to steal some of our lunch. We saved our fries, but we would later witness one of the birds swoop in and steal a slice of prosciutto from a table at the Pavilion Hotel patio without a thank you, within inches of an astonished mother and her toddler. Recently, local business owners got tired of the birds’ antics and their droppings, and temporarily brought in a falconer to scare them away. Personally, I think the gulls add to the sights and sounds of the island. Just watch your fries and prosciutto and you’ll be fine.
In the Water
On day two, we were ready to explore the water and the marine life offshore with Dolphin Quest, a guided tour on a speedy, RIB craft (rigid inflatable boat), piloted by a man who has a nose for dolphins. It’s a one-hour ride, but ours felt longer because the pilot found a huge pod of common dolphins within minutes after we left the harbor. We sped along in the middle of what seemed like thousands of them, darting around the front of the boat (bow riding). A dozen sea lions followed them, knowing the dolphins would lead them to a feast, and sure enough, we were soon in the middle of a fish boil that became lunch for the dolphins, sea lions, a few cormorants and about 20 brown pelicans. The pilot killed the motor and we watched the feeding frenzy. The pelicans dove into the water and surfaced with their pouches wriggling with fish. Dolphins, we learned, surround and “herd” schools of fish into a tight circle, so members of the pod can take turns darting through the middle to feed. With the outboard motors silent, the sound of the frenzy came forth, the slapping of the birds dive-bombing, the forced air from the dolphin’s blowholes. Dolphin Quest is $42 per person.
After dolphins, humans are the second most fascinating species to observe on the island, and there is no better spot for people watching than from the patio at the Pavilion Hotel, which borders the main beachwalk just south of the pier. Every visitor who comes to the island has to walk past the Pavilion patio, and they go by in waves after they disembark from the passenger ferries or one of the huge cruise ships. During our stay, the high-end Celebrity X luxury cruise ship stopped by on its way to Alaska. The next day, the demographic of the visitors changed completely when the Celebrity ship left and a Carnival cruise party ship unloaded. Silk sundresses changed to polyester Bermuda shorts, and leather monogrammed luggage became vinyl American tourister. Most visitors who come to Catalina never venture from the sidewalks, shops and restaurants along Avalon, and they miss out on the untouched interior of the island that remains just the way it looked to the Tongva Indians who first inhabited the island 7,000 years ago—except for one thing: the bison. The beast looks like it should be native to Catalina, as it munches on the tall grass, but they were brought in for a movie shoot in 1924. It was a silent film version of the Zane Grey novel, “The Vanishing American.” They were left on the island after the filming and have been here since. Ironically, the footage with the bison ended up on the cutting room floor. Since then, their numbers reached 600, but the current population is 150. Bison make up the highlight of the East End Eco Hummer Tour, and if you are lucky, you might get a glimpse of the tiny Catalina Fox, which is endemic (i.e. not brought in by a movie crew). Shane and I were fortunate enough to see both. As you ride on this massive 12-seater Hummer, you wonder exactly what is “eco” (ecological) about it, because the hulking crawler must get about 2 mpg, until the driver explains that it runs on a combination of diesel fuel and used fryer oil from the Chinese restaurant in town. The two-hour tour takes you to 1,500 feet above sea level, where you can see a large portion of the undeveloped Catalina—nearly 42,000 acres. The tour is $76 for adults and $68 for children.