The island may be part of L.A. County, and it looks a lot like the Santa Monica Mountains. But to master Santa Catalina, you need to surrender to it as only an outsider can: by embracing your sight-seeing, thrill-seeking, drink-swilling, photo-snapping inner tourist. It’s not hard. When gum pooh-bah William Wrigley Jr. bought the island in 1919, he vowed to protect his newfound paradise. A nature conservancy received much of the land after his death in 1932, and to this day development is mostly limited to Avalon, the 2.2-square-mile town that clings barnacle-like to the bay. With summer crowds tapering off, Catalina is just the place for a quick getaway; several recent improvements in the area will leave you wondering why you’ve put off visiting all these years.
The hour-long boat ride to Catalina isn’t exactly a luxury cruise, but slipping through 22 miles of ocean in a high-speed catamaran is exotic enough to put you in a vacation frame of mind. Look down when you disembark; those brightly colored creatures finning around the ferry landing are orange garibaldi. From there it’s a quick walk to the 1920s Cal-Med storefronts that line the main drag, Crescent Avenue. Along the way grab breakfast—better than what nearby restaurants are slinging—at the Pancake Cottage (310-510-0726). Since cars are limited on the island, some visitors rent a bike or a gas-powered golf cart or hire a cab, but the $2 town trolley is a cheaper way to roll up the hill to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens (catalina.com/memorial.html), its grand mausoleum staring down on a spread of cactus and endemic plants. After Wrigley died, his estate granted 88 percent of his land to the Catalina Island Conservancy (310-510-2595), which recently completed the 37.2-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.Even for a brief pedal or hike into the wide-open interior, you’re required to obtain a (free) permit from the conservancy; however, most people opt for a tour instead. Glass-bottom boat, semi-submarine, Unimog—whatever your taste, splurge for at least one guided excursion. On the Skyline Drive trek offered by Discovery Tours (310-510-8687), you may not see the island’s storied bison (descendants of film extras from 1924) or its indigenous foxes, but you’re guaranteed an eyeful of surging vistas on the two-or-so-hour round-trip. The curvy 1950s bus is a nice touch.
Soaring 300 feet above a scrub-covered valley on the zip line eco tour (800-626-1496), you may question your judgment at first. But adrenaline seduces even the septuagenarians who zag and zig through the five-leg course, which has been selling out since it debuted in April. Yards away from the zip line staging area is the new Descanso Beach Club (310-510-7410). Refuel with an ahi salad on the patio, or fork over $2 to plop down a towel on the powdery sand and nurse a mai tai while gazing out at snorkelers and kayakers who’ve ventured past the rocky shoreline. There are chaise longues and cabanas ($50 a pair and $125, respectively) as well. Avalon is not a foodie bastion, but tasty salads and pressed sandwiches can be had at C.C. Gallagher (310-510-1278). The café doubles as a gift shop, and across the room is a wee bar for sampling wine, beer, and sake. There’s more swilling to be done at the wine bar of the Pavilion Hotel (800-626-1496). Fresh from a splashy renovation, the butter yellow Pavilion began as a midcentury lodge; nautical without being kitschy, the comfortable, compact rooms open onto a lushly landscaped courtyard with guests sprawled on lounge chairs, looking out at the bobbing yachts.
You can get your wiki wacked, or so the slogan goes, at Luau Larry’s (310-510-1919), a tiki-themed drinking hole. Keep walking east along Crescent to reach the new Avalon Grille (310-510-7494), whose interior blends Restoration Hardware with Tommy Bahama. Juicy and topped with onion rings, the buffalo burger is formidable, while the broth for the steamed mussels is spoonworthy. Farther on you’ll spot people relaxing over smoked salmon sandwiches and gluten-free pizzas on the brick patio beside Café Metropole (310-510-9095). It’s among a bevy of small shops in the courtyard of the vaguely Mediterranean Hotel Metropole (310-510-1884), a reliable option, though some of the basic rooms could use a pick-me-up. M ?restaurant, the hotel’s new restaurant, makes a good braised rabbit tagliatelle. After dinner, keep heading toward Descanso Beach to the Catalina Casino (310-510-7428). Skipped the tour of the landmark? Do the next best thing: Catch a film in the deco movie palace that occupies the lower level. The theater just revamped the sound system, but it’s the gorgeous murals and glittering dome-shaped ceiling that steal the show.
Catalina in 60 Seconds
Getting there: Catalina Express (800-481-3470) takes an hour to reach Avalon from Long Beach and San Pedro. The Marina del Rey Flyer (310-305-7250) takes 90 minutes. Tee time: Built almost 40 years ago, the miniature 18-hole course at Golf Gardens (310-510-1200) tests your skill (and patience) with ramps, curves, obstacles, and more of the usual toyland trappings. Quiet space: Socked away in a pretty Spanish revival shopping cove, El Encanto Courtyard Coffee makes one of the best cups in town.