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Santa Catalina

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Friday, January 2, 2009
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010
"It’s like a touch of the Mediterranean right here in the United States,” says Margaret Davies, a resident of the UK, after her first stay in Catalina Island. And it’s a gem that’s been hidden for too long.

Just a one hour boat ride from Long Beach and easily accessible from LAX, a visit here should not be missed.

The best (and practically, only) way around the island is by golf cart. For some visitors, this is the best part of their holiday and it’s not surprising the golf carts themselves have become Avalon’s number one attraction. Cars are very scarce on the island and there’s actually a 12-15 year waiting list to get a parking sticker, so even the residents buy golf carts. This limits the cars on Catalina Island to around 800 and makes it a very pedestrian-friendly island.

One building you’ll see on your approach to the harbor is the large round Art Deco Casino building — actually Catalina’s most recognizable landmark. The name has nothing to do with gambling but everything to do with the Italian meaning of the word — a place of entertainment. The 12-story building was constructed in 1929 by William Wrigley Jr. and today tours are available. It contains the world’s largest circular ballroom. A great place for a dance you might think, and that’s just what they did with it on May 8, 1940 when 6,200 people danced to the music of Kay Kyser — the largest number of people ever to dance in one place. There’s also a huge cinema open to the public, showing the latest movie (otherwise the building is only open to those on the tour).

Famous names that frequented the island include Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne and Sir Winston Churchill. Tiger Woods was even a visitor here — at the tender age of 4 he played the Catalina Island Golf course, the first golf course in Southern California.

Wrigley Memorial

But one name you’ll hear more than any other is that of Wrigley. The island’s most famous resident was none other than the chewing gum magnate. The family had their home here and the Wrigley Mansion is now a luxury inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having welcomed such guests as the Prince of Wales. Even if you can’t stay there, definitely do visit the Memorial and the botanical gardens. The gardens themselves contain cacti from around the world and several species grow only on this island. You might be surprised to learn that some of the succulents are edible and can even refresh you in an emergency (though of course the specimens in this garden are not meant to be eaten, only admired — thirsty visitors can go get a drink downtown--half an hour walk away!).

The memorial to Wrigley has placards that show how construction was carried out — the red roof tiles came from Wrigley’s own quarry and the majority of the building materials came from the island itself. Over 150,000 feet of lumber was used, with the memorial being started in 1933 and opened to the public in October 1934. Walk right up to the marble tiled arch and look out to the beautiful views over the canyon and bay.

The memorial was dedicated to the man who did so much to preserve the beauty of this island for future generations. Even the recent fire which has blackened a lot of the vegetation around the island still makes you appreciate one of California’s natural assets.

Undersea Adventure

For history below, rather than above, the ocean, check out the Undersea Adventure which goes to Lover’s Cove, Avalon’s marine preserve. The boat doesn’t go underwater per se, but each person has their own window and seat. The boat staff feed the fish and they come right up to your window in droves (or should that be "schools?”) The boat goes through a kelp forest on the way and kelp here can grow up to 2 feet in just one day. It doesn’t have a root system but anchors itself to rocks and the sea bed, absorbing the nutrients it needs from the water. It’s interesting to note that the glass bottom boat which you can still see today, was invented right here in Catalina. Some fish can deposit between 15-80,000 eggs at a time and it’s the males who guard the batch for 2-3 weeks, without eating or sleeping. Don’t be surprised to see a school of mackerel — they travel together in large numbers for safety reasons. And what about sharks I hear you ask? Yes, they do have them. "But one wouldn’t bite you if you put your head in its mouth”, says our ship’s captain. "There hasn’t been a fatal shark attack yet on Catalina Island,” he reassures us.


From dangers below the sea to dangers above it, all species have not had it easy. Take the once-native bald eagles for instance. They’ve not had a good time. They were once found in abundance on the island, but are much scarcer now. In the years between 1947-61, 53 million liters of DDT were dumped into the ocean and the fish became contaminated. So too did the eagles and falcons that fed on them. As a result of the poison, eagle shells were found to crack when the mother sat on them and the unborn chicks became dehydrated and died. Until recently, imitation eggs were put under the mother and the real eggs incubated by humans and hatched. The parent eagles seemed quite happy to nurture the chicks returned to the nest, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.

This Easter, however, saw the third baby eagle hatched naturally in the nest and researchers are concluding that the eagle is finally returning to the island. It’s parents had been raised in San Francisco zoo, a result of eggs having been removed and incubated several years ago.

Up to then, twenty eggs had been removed from the nest, incubated and the hatched chicks returned to the nests, all thanks to the work of the Catalina Island Conservancy. The preservation of eagle eggs was actually started 27 years ago by an undergraduate student called Dave Garcelon. He provided the eagles with nesting places and he and his biologists started taking newly hatched eggs out of the nests, sometimes by dangling from a helicopter, once they noticed the problem of unhatched eggs.

Fines to the tune of $140 million have now been paid by the DDT polluters — the largest ever for environmental crimes (except for the Exxon Valdez oil spill). Without this human assistance, it’s certain that the birds would have disappeared from the island altogether and the bald eagles would no longer call Catalina home. Today, the Conservancy protects the birds, as well as 88 percent of the island. It was started in 1972 by the Wrigley Family.


And when it comes to wild creatures, you don’t get much wilder than the bison you’ll find throughout the island. They’re quite unexpected (and you thought the tourists were all the wild animals you needed to see!) Fourteen of them were originally brought to the island in 1924 for a movie called the Vanishing American, after the book of the same name by Zane Gey, but at the end the crew didn’t know what to do with them, so they left them there! The American might have vanished, but the bison certainly did not. These days they’ve made the island their home but to avoid overpopulation and the problems that that can bring, each year, around 200 are allowed to stay and the rest are sent to a South Dakota Indian reservation where they are used for breeding. The Vanishing American is just one of the movies that’s been filmed here. Others include Rosemary’s Baby, Apollo 13, The Hunt for Red October, and many others.

Island Tours

And you can get a glimpse of what attracted movie-makers to this island by taking an island bus tour. Check out the Skyline Drive Tour --you’ll pass by some of the recently burned areas and learn that 1/10 of the island was affected, about 4,750 acres. This trip takes you to the Airport in the Sky where private planes are flown and which was made by leveling two mountain peaks. You’ll pass some spectacular views of Avalon Bay on the way. You’ll also see what looks like ski slopes but these are actually fire breaks (it hasn’t snowed on the island, according to our coach tour guide, since 1949). The fire was accidentally started by workers on a radio tower who were cutting steel using a blow torch. The legendary spark that started it caused 760 firefighters to fight the resulting blaze for an exhausting four days. Fortunately, none of the wildlife were injured. It seems the animals knew when to get out of the way.


For a great place to stay that’s close to the bus terminal for tours, check out the Hotel Atwood. Suites for families are available and the location is superb at just half a block from the beach. They’ve been taking care of guests here since the Roaring 20s. They offer packages for families that include kayaking, glass bottom boats and mini-golf (our kids did this latter activity four times, they suddenly became competitive with each other and since the course was located across the street, they were able to get there easily). Santa Catalina was formed about 100 million years ago when there was a collision of plates off the coast of Baja California and the island was pushed out of the sea. It was discovered in 1542 by the Spanish sailor Cabrillo (he called it San Salvador after his ship and the name was changed 60 years later to celebrate the Catholic saint, Saint Catherine). The island is said to be traveling at 1 — to 2 inches each year and some joke that it’s on a "slow cruise to San Francisco”. But don’t wait until it gets there, go see it now at it’s beautiful location before it sails away! You won’t be disappointed.

Catalina Island Visitor Information: 310-510-1520
Visitor Information
Hotel Atwood and the Discovery Tours
Catalina Express Karmel Shuttle (from airport to port)
Catalina Conservancy

Tags:  Catalina Conservancy  Catalina Island  Hotel Atwood and the Discovery Tours  Santa Catalina  Sheila O'Connor  Undersea Adventure 

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