Catalina's waterfront

Catalina’s waterfront

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.

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

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.

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

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.


ImageIf you’re on a package tour or fly drive to California, you might be in blissful ignorance of an added opportunity to put a bit of added zing into your trip. Why not add on a short, three or four day cruise out of Long Beach down to Ensenada and the gorgeous, chocolate box time capsule that is Catalina Island. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

It was an adventure made better by an overnight, pre- cruise stay on the Queen Mary; that proud, petrified one time monarch of the North Atlantic ocean. My stay was a wonderful experience; but that’s a story for another day.

ImageThe three day Carnival cruise leaves on the Friday, visits Ensenada, and returns on Monday morning. The four day Monday departures follow the same route, but add in Catalina as a first port of call.

Here’s the thing; I think Ensenada is unrelentingly grim. There’s little to see here of merit, and the appalling poverty of many of the locals is simply heartbreaking to experience. Yes, you can shop, and drink margaritas, too. But the flies are the size of stealth bombers, and twice as fast.

There’s a hermetically sealed, faux Mexican village at the cruise terminal. It is off limits to the ordinary locals, and painted in an eye boggling shade of bubonic yellow. For me, that’s pretty much it.

ImageBut Catalina is a creature of a completely different kind.

It sits not far off shore from Los Angeles, but about five decades behind in terms of appearance and ambiance. The stance of the place is breathtaking, and the clapboard houses, fishing fleets and bustling quaysides of the tiny capital, Avalon, will put you straight in mind of New England. You come ashore by tender, and even the short ride across the water is an exhilarating jaunt.

ImageThe coastline unwinds in a series of sinuous, serpentine curves. At the end of Avalon’s waterfront sprawl is a circular, charming theatre from the thirties. It resembles nothing so much as a grand, slightly faded wedding cake; like most of the island, it seems slightly lost in the mists that can blanket the place in a heartbeat.

ImageBut take a slow, gentle walk along to that theatre, and you’ll pass benches framed by beautiful, coloured tile work that looks as if lifted intact from a Lisbon side street. Oleander and hibiscus fringe the edges of a small, dusky bronze beach that shelves almost reluctantly into the sparkling, early morning sweep of the Pacific. Canoes and kayaks are piled up like so much driftwood. This was January, after all.

ImageThe town centre is full of quirky little shops,bars and restaurants set along the main drag. They spill down into the side streets of this pocket sized town. On the opposite side of the road, a gaggle of seagull draped piers jut out into the mostly placid Pacific.

Catalina Island will always be associated with the unfortunate, still controversial death of Natalie Wood on a stormy night on this same, still water. But the town was defined by its past long before that tragic night in 1981.

ImageBecause Catalina feels very like a slice of what I imagine mainland California must have been like in the fifties. People in loud shirts, drinking sunset martinis and dining on fresh caught local fish. Lounge singers  crooning in crowded, smoke suffused waterfront bars in an age before discos. Yachts and fishing smacks bobbing like contented swans in the moonlight…

ImageLos Angeles is just twenty four miles away, yet it feels like an entirely different planet. Catalina seems to be almost unfeasible, adrift in its own time and space. A surf kissed Brigadoon, more apparent than real. And there lies the charm.

ImageLunch was spent in a fantastic, rustic fish restaurant on one of the piers. A forest of eclectic, amazing bric a brac climbed the walls all around me as the noon sun ghosted in through huge, louvered windows. The fish- fresh caught and landed that day- was stupendous, especially washed down with a cold Heineken. The whole thing was a feast for the senses as well as the palate.

ImageBack aboard, I realised that a couple of days in Catalina would probably be a great idea, especially in the summer. Any longer would probably be too much. Not a lot seems to happen. I suspect that the sense of languid charm would wear off after a few days.

ImageSo then we proceeded on down to Ensenada. I took the most sensible option open to someone who has been here before, and stayed on board. Sheer bliss ensued.

ImageAs the ship emptied and the on board vibe slowed to something quite pleasantly agreeable, I simply sagged down into the wonderful little Serenity area that all Carnival ships have. I enjoyed the solace and the sunshine, a lazily thrown together lunch, and some quality hot tub time. By the time our frazzled, sometimes slightly sozzled Mexican adventurers returned on board, my bathrobe and I had bonded quite wonderfully. And yes, I still got some sun.

Recommended? Oh yes. Absolutely.