Geographically speaking, cheery little Catalina is an obvious choice for a weekend getaway from the Southland, but its sometimes colorful past can put the kibosh on vacation plans. Fortunately, decades of playing host to a steady stream of weekend partiers and binge drinkers has left the island nowhere to go but up. Today, a much-needed change is afoot on this 76-square-mile Channel Island, and a restorative getaway is now a reality.
Sure, downtown Avalon—one of just two towns on the island—still bustles like any harbor town. Foghorns blare, seagulls swarm unoccupied outdoor tables, and a nonstop stream of ferries passes like clockwork behind rows of colorful yachts bobbing in the harbor. Low-price retail shops hawking T-shirts and key chains are palpable reminders of the island’s past, but tucked amongst them are a growing number of upscale coffee houses, wine bars, and the odd organic sandwich shop.
But it’s Catalina’s unique ecology that is finally paying dividends for the island. With 54 miles of pristine shoreline and an undeveloped, rugged interior, Catalina is home to dozens of unique species, from the Catalina Island Fox to St. Catherine’s Lace. Its unique clear, cold-water marine environment and giant kelp forests are almost otherworldly, earning it top ratings as a scuba diving destination. And its backcountry, once on the verge of ruin from a cascade of ecologically disastrous projects including cattle operations, mining, and the introduction of invasive nonnative species, is finally feeling the results of decades of ecological restoration. Spearheading the effort has been the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organized in 1972 to act as steward for all but a sliver of the island through conservation, education, and recreation.
In concert with the Conservancy’s efforts, the Santa Catalina Island Company and private outfitters are pumping capitol into island properties and eco-adventures, many of which are based at the Descanso Beach Club. Here, activities range from heart-stopping zip lining across canyons and ravines to SNUBA diving (a hybrid between snorkeling and scuba) ecologically unique kelp beds and enjoying an oceanside massage. In embracing its uniqueness, it turns out the island is attracting a new type of visitor: one coming to relax, restore, and unwind—and leave a smaller carbon footprint. “We took the Extreme Backcountry Adventure and it was great,” said Dane and Marlena Woodbury, a couple from Anchorage, Alaska who’d come to Catalina to celebrate their wedding anniversary. “Our guide knew everything about the island.”
Nowadays, getting there is less grueling. What used to take several hours by bouncing, diesel-belching ferry is now a speedy hour-long affair. For the perpetually motion-wary, a blissfully brief ten-minute ride on an Island Express Helicopter (islandexpress.com) gets you to Lovers Cove before you can say kelp bed, and early enough to grab a cup of joe and French toast at the popular Pancake Cottage.
On a recent spring getaway I opt for speed. By the time the helicopter rises to its final altitude, the island’s profile already comes into view. Fog being minimal, a day at the beach trumps a jeep eco-tour and I beat it over to snap up a lounge chair and umbrella at the Descanso Beach Club, smack in the little cove William Wrigley referred to as “the most beautiful place I’ve seen.” Like Avalon’s three main beaches, the “club” is located in a public area, but its somewhat hidden position just around the corner from the iconic Casino and genial servers bearing monstrously portioned nachos and tropical drinks makes it feel downright private. Spring for the chandelier-lit cabana fitted with table, chairs, and two additional towel-draped chaises dappled with wild iris and you’ll wonder what took you so long to get here. To my way of thinking, it’s arguably the closest version of Capri I’ll find in Southern California, with the added benefit that I don’t have to whip out my rusty French.
Finding a place to stay isn’t much of a chore. Amongst the more than twenty hotels, from B&Bs to family-friendly and luxe, the Pavilion is a standout. Centrally located on Crescent Avenue, the mid-century modern, courtyard-style property is an easy five-minute stroll from the ferries and close enough to walk to everything. A generous continental breakfast of cappuccino, fresh fruit, sliced meats, and pastries is hosted daily in one of two buildings at the front of the property. With comfy couches and a birds-eye view of the harbor, the hotel’s public spaces are nap-worthy, particularly in the afternoon before the popular afternoon wine and cheese bar gets going.
Less than a minute’s stroll away is the Avalon Grille, a recently renovated bistro-style restaurant with regional American dishes. The eatery is also the exclusive distributor of Catalina’s new wine, released publicly for the first time this year. Starting small, Alison Wrigley—the great-granddaughter of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley—and her husband, Geoff Rusack, have been growing grapes since 2007 on El Rancho Escondido, previously an Arabian horse ranch established by Alison’s family in 1931. Wrigley and Rusack, the owners of Rusack Vineyards in Santa Ynez, harvested the grapes on Catalina and airlifted them back to their winery for processing. The first public release of just 100 cases has produced extraordinary Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. And while the hundred-dollar-plus price point for a bottle may make your job drop, the wine is stirring a buzz in the viticulture community.
To be sure, the island’s new focus on holistic health, ecology, and adventure feels downright salubrious, and more in tune with the natural wonder that is Catalina. By summer, the empty, white buoys dotting the quiet harbor will be full of yachts and small pleasure boats, and the servers at Descanso won’t have time to linger. But chances are I’ll be back, as Catalina seems to have finally found its magic bullet.