If 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.
The 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.
But 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.
The 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.
But 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.
The 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.
Because 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…
Los 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.
Lunch 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.
Back 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.
So 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.
As 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.