View of Catalina Island from Palos Verdes Peninsula.
From the beach towns lining the Pacific Coast Highway, like Santa Monica, Venice, and Palos Verdes, on clear days you can see Catalina Island looming in the distance. For others like me, boat-less and helicopterl-ess Angelenos, it seems like an unreachable place. Unlike Seattle and other cities with islands in their zip code or county proper, Catalina isn’t some place you can conveniently hop a ferry every thirty to forty-five minutes for fifteen dollars or less. Getting to Catalina Island can be expensive and deceptively far.
It is however something I felt like I should experience as a resident of Southern California, especially since has been staring me in the face for so many years. I just had to figure out a way to get there. I went not knowing a whole lot about the island and without a plan on what to do, I had just wanted to figure it out when I got there. I hope this post shows you some options on what to do while there, and with some foresight to go a little more prepared than I was.
The best way to reach the island is by ferries running from places like San Pedro, Dana Point, or Newport Beach. (Where we also did the whale watching in this post) We departed from Marina Del Rey, our closest option at that time to get to Catalina from Los Angeles. Our early morning boat ride to Catalina took an hour and forty-five minutes. For me, and I will get back to that at the end of this post, it was a relaxing and contemplative journey. There is nothing I love more than staring into the expanse of the ocean and feeling so small. It always gives me perspective, which at that time was something I needed at the time I went. We passed flotillas of birds, departing planes from LAX, and were greeted by a Blue Whale who kept us at a safe distance. I sat huddled in my hoodie, a cup of coffee from the ferry’s snack shop as hundreds dolphins welcomed us into Avalon’s yacht filled harbor.
Avalon is a pretty touristy place. The main drag is lined with t-shirt, postcards, and beach shops. It feels a lot like what you can see on Santa Monica Pier or the main streets of Southern California beach towns. We had lunch at a greasy spoon before heading up to the Catalina Island Conservatory to get information on tide pools in the area. We were excited to get to this island before low tide hit that afternoon, especially since Catalina is a popular scuba and marine biology destination. Two Harbors to the north/east has a lot more to offer if you are looking for this, we were disappointed to find out that there were in fact no tide pools in Avalon.
We were directed instead by the staff at the conservancy to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden a couple miles from downtown Avalon. Golf Cart is the preferred method of travel in the area. We didn’t rent one preferring to walk the 30 minutes instead, choking on golf cart fumes along the way.
Walking up to the Wrigley Memorial and seeing its impressive size reminded me a lot of the monuments of victory that line southern Europe in the name of Augustus Caesar, like the Trophy of Augustus in La Turibe France. The memorial is a large and and imposing monument Romanesque in style with California tilework honoring William Wrigley Jr, the chewing gum magnate and one of the first owners of the Chicago Cubs. He bought Catalina Island in 1919 and was responsible for the development of the island. This structure is meant to be impressive and Catalina Island a demonstration of his legacy and financial prowess. What a legacy to have, an island with you interned at its heart and center. (Body since moved after the lands were donated to the public in the 1970s)
Wrigley’s wife Ada planned the garden which I feel is just as impressive. This garden is filled with succulents, cactus, and indigenous plants that can only be found in the Channel Islands like Catalina Mahogany. Recently the garden was granted more acreage, but even before the expansion when I visited there was a lot to photograph and learn about. Look for a Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden only post next.
This is where I felt under prepared. There is a lot of nature on the island if you step outside Avalon’s main drag. There are several hiking trails, like the Garden to Sky trail, that leads from the botanic garden area into the mountain range of the island. Tourist focused jeep excursions bring you farther inland where a herd of abandoned bison roam. They were brought to Catalina in 1924 for a western called the Vanishing American, but the film ran out of money it was too expensive to bring them back.
Part of what Wrigley wanted to do with Catalina Island was to lure young Hollywood and general elite to the island. He spent his first years in Catalina building hotels, infrastructure, and attractions like the round iconic building, the Avalon Casino, which you can see in postcards and countless photographs of the island. Now named the Catalina Casino it has preserved the grand movie theater on its bottom floor and hosts a yearly film festival. Tickets are on sale for this year’s event now which runs from September 28th to October 2nd. I didn’t get a chance to see inside the building, but was really impressed with the tile work with dazzling mermaids and dancing seahorses that frames the doors to theater’s entrance.
Telework on Catalina Casino Cinema
I think all in all our enemy was planning. We didn’t bring proper hiking gear, didn’t know about or had money for the excursions into the island, should have been in Two Harbors, and when we found things we wanted to do it was time to leave.
A little note about seasickness: Sometimes the only way you know you have that condition is to get out on the sea. I don’t, but it seemed to me on the way back to Los Angeles on the 4:30 p.m. ferry a lot of people found out that they were. Do you remember the pie eating contest scene in Stand By Me, well, I lived it mid-ocean. All I could do was look out in the distance and try to unhear what I was hearing for an hour and forty-five minutes. I thought for sure we would run out of baggies. At least the view and sunset over the ocean didn’t disappoint.
We bought a groupon for the Marina Del Rey Flyer-Now Closed– but I noticed that there are a few companies offering the same service from San Pedro, Long Beach, and if you are reading this blog further south, in Dana Point. Also the Catalina Flyer departing from Newport Beach is currently grouponable. Roundtrip fares cost aroundt $70 and are free on your birthday.
Avalon is also one of the stops for the 3-7 day cruises that leave Long Beach or San Pedro en route to the Mexican towns in the Baja Pennisula.
Costs to get into the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden: $7
NEXT UP: THE FLORA OF CATALINA ISLAND