5 Ways to Explore Catalina Island

by Sandra Scott

I like the 1950s song by The Four Preps that popularized Catalina Island, and knew that Catalina was just “Twenty-six miles across the sea.” So when I was in southern California, I took the one-hour boat ride to the island, where I spent several days. The island, most of which is owned by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame, has retained its charm, with no high-rise buildings and a limit on the number of cars.  I have to agree with the islanders who like to say, “it is like no other place on earth.”

Credit: Sandra Scott

Credit: Sandra Scott

Gather at the Gathering Place

The first building to come into view when approaching the island is the casino — but the Catalina Casino is not a gambling site. The word casino means “gathering place.” At the behest of William Wrigley, Jr., 500 workers laboured around the clock for 14 months to complete the building. The first level is a movie theatre while the topmost level is the world’s largest circular ballroom with great views from the wraparound balcony.

Slow Down and Soak Up the Sun

The best way to get acquainted with the main town of Avalon is to walk along the waterfront from the ferry docks to the casino. Take it slow — you’re on island time. There are places to rent bikes and golf carts for those who want to go farther afield. If you want to soak up the sun, there are several beaches right in town, but the best is Descanso Beach beyond the casino. It’s a privately owned beach that is open to the public.

Credit: Sandra Scott

Credit: Sandra Scott

Pay Your Respects to Norma Jean

To learn about the history and nature of Catalina, take a bus tour with Catalina Adventure Tours to see the city and also the backcountry. Marilyn Monroe (when she was still Norma Jean) and author Zane Grey both called the island home for a while. Outside the town of Avalon there are canyons, scenic coastlines and unspoiled countryside where the American bison roam free.

Become One with Nature

On a two-hour tour with Catalina Nature Tours I saw dolphins, sea lions, seals and bald eagles.  I learned the difference between sea lions and harbour seals (harbour seals have no external ear flaps). The sea lions barked their welcome as they basked on the rocks and played in the water.

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

Go Under the Sea

Aboard the yellow submarine the USS Nautilus — which is actually a semi-submersible boat — I had porthole views of the forest of Giant kelp as the Nautilus exited the harbour. When the vessel arrived in Lovers Cove Marine Preserve, the fish showed up — hundreds of them. Most plentiful were opaleye, identified by a white spot on their black backs. Interspersed among the opaleye were bright orange garibaldi fish, which is the California state fish and thus protected.