If you’ve heard the song “26 Miles Across the Sea,” you already know that Catalina Island is 26 miles from the Southern California mainland. The song also bills this sun-washed getaway as the Island of Romance. Catalina is an island of stunning beaches and memorable sunsets, with a wilderness supporting its own buffalo herd and a charming town that's a throwback to the last century. Romance is definitely on the menu.
The Island Chewing Gum Built
In 1919, William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley Chewing Gum fame bought Catalina Island. He built the Catalina Casino building and a hotel, and began upgrading the infrastructure. Wrigley also owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team and brought them to Catalina for spring training. His mansion is now a decadent bed and breakfast, the Inn on Mt. Ada. The property sits on a hill overlooking Avalon and its curved harbor shoreline. The all-inclusive property even provides a golf cart for each guest room. Private cars are a rarity in Avalon, and many locals get around by golf cart. That’s part of the charm. The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden is nearby, also overlooking Avalon Bay.
Here a Buffalo, There a Buffalo
The American bison, or buffalo, is not native to Catalina Island. The ancestors of the animals that roam the island today were movie extras for the 1924 film, “The Vanishing American.” The prolific animals soon went forth and multiplied, leaving the Catalina Island Conservancy with a population problem. Some animals were rounded up and shipped to the mainland to be auctioned off. Later, roughly 100 animals were shipped to the Great Plains, their home turf. Both were expensive propositions and stressful on people and bison alike. In 2009, the conservancy decided to give each female bison on the island an annual birth control shot. That appears to be working. The other idea the conservancy came up with was shipping all the bison off the island. The locals rebelled, so for now, the birth control program is there to stay.
More Hollywood Connections
Up until World War II, Catalina Island was the go-to place to film movies set in exotic locales. One example -- a film crew turned Catalina Harbor into a Tahitian village for “Mutiny on the Bounty.” This became a trend, because it was less expensive to travel to Catalina to film than to set up shop in the South Pacific. Directors and movie stars loved that they could sail over on their yachts, drop anchor and not be bothered. After World War II, it became easier to travel long distances by plane, but Hollywood still made the cross-channel leap for several productions. Some of the more famous movies filmed in and around Catalina include “Jaws,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Amistad.” Each September, the island hosts the Catalina Film Festival to salute its past and present movie-making adventures.
Where to Stay on Catalina Island
Most hotel accommodations are in the city of Avalon. Of these, many are clustered around Avalon Bay and only a block or two from the water and the Casino. Some, such as the boutique Hotel Metropole, feature decadent suites with ocean views. Others, like the Hermosa Hotel, are Victorian-era properties that have been welcoming guests since the late 1800s. If you prefer to rough it, spend the night at the Hermit Gulch Campground, only 1.5 miles from Avalon. Cabins are also available at Two Harbors, a small town on the west end of the island. This is buffalo country, and these oversized fuzzy cows with the unpredictable personalities often wander into town. Sail your boat over, or rent a kayak and stay at one of the boat-in campsites on the leeward side of Catalina. You’ll have the beach pretty much to yourself.
Finding Your Way to the Island
The fastest way to get to Catalina Island is by air. Island Express Helicopters operates out of San Pedro and Long Beach, and gets you to the island in about 15 minutes. Sky Thrills, a charter company out of Fullerton, offers transport in an open cockpit biplane. The firm also runs an Aerobatic Thrill Ride for those wanting a more roller-coaster-like experience. Ferries out of Long Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro, operated by Catalina Express, take about an hour to make the crossing. The Catalina Flyer operates out of Newport Beach, and the ride is roughly 75 minutes. Chartering a private boat or sailing over on your own are your other options. Once on the island, get around by private taxi, the Avalon Trolley or by renting a golf cart.
- The Inn on Mt Ada: About the Inn
- Santa Catalina Island Company: History
- 89.3 KPCC, Southern California Public Radio: Catalina Island Bison Benefit From Birth Control Efforts
- Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau: Catalina’s Hollywood History
- Santa Catalina Island Company: Hermit Gulch
- Santa Catalina Island Company: Boat-In Camping
- Catalina Island: Transportation by Air
- Catalina Transportation Services: Avalon Trolley
- Photo Credit wpd911/iStock/Getty Images
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