Catalina Island is not huge; some twenty two miles long and eight miles wide at the most, it is only slightly larger than Bermuda. But, unlike that famous island, it sits snugly near the shore, just twenty-two miles away from the massive urban sprawl of Los Angeles. From its waterfront, the twinkling coastal lights of California are plainly visible at night.
Yet beyond that mutual proximity, mainland and island seem to have very little in common. For Catalina Island feels a million miles removed from Los Angeles in terms of tone, style and substance. The island’s capital, Avalon, hosts around ninety per cent of Catalina Island’s total of around 4,100 inhabitants. With its stout, brightly coloured trawlers chugging gamely out into the Pacific each day and it’s squadrons of wheeling, screeching sea birds, it feels more like a part of New England than Surf City.
For sure, it also has a kind of smiley, slightly soporific vibe. The island is chocolate box pretty, with Avalon itself clustered around the fringes of a sultry, sinuous bay backed up by tracts of lush, languid greenery. A long promenade, studded with beautiful, tile framed benches, meanders down to the big, circular theatre cum casino that was built here in the thirties, and which is still the island’s most outstanding architectural highlight to this day.
Houses in winding lines are framed by tracts of oleander as they tumble down towards a slim, dusky sliver of a beach, and a series of rickety piers thronged by clapboard bars, shops and restaurants, with huge, louvered shutters that allow marvellous views of the matchless Pacific sunsets. As you’d expect, the local seafood is sublime. Washed down with a cold beer, it is reason enough to head out there on it’s own.
At night, the cocktail bars are low key, with piano players and martinis at sunset, just as it has been here for decades. For Avalon is a bit like a Californian Brigadoon, frozen in time and legend. Here, the lines between past and present seem to be blurred in a way I have never seen anywhere else. It is twenty two miles from shore, and a million more from contemporary California reality.
The harbour is studded with fleets of yachts, especially in the summertime. Just off the northern coast of Catalina, the actress Natalie Wood fell overboard from a yacht while staying with her partner, Robert Wagner, in hugely controversial circumstances that have never been fully explained. Sadly, this remains Catalina Island’s sole true claim to fame.
Catalina is a wonderful, enchanting place to visit for two or three days, to savour and appreciate the almost total disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern living. But those two or three days will probably be enough for most non residents. After that, I suspect many will be fighting the urge to swim back to the mainland.
Especially if you are going to be in Los Angeles for any amount of time, then a couple of days spent on Catalina would make for a nice change of pace with the pretension, pollution and hideously overcrowded highways of the City Of Angels. For, while Catalina itself may not be quite Heaven, there is certainly something compelling, charming and surreal about it.
Definitely worth a visit.