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Travel Feature Catalina Island

March 15, 2019 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

Catalina Island: 26 Miles Across the Sea by Roderick Eime, editor of Adventure Cruise Guide

“Twenty-six miles across the sea Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me Santa Catalina, the island of romance A tropical heaven out in the ocean”

When the Four Preps famous song hit the charts in 1958, no-one thought to actually check the measurement. It was just a song after all. So they were four miles out, no one seemed to care and the song has become an anthem for the eclectic paradise 22.3 measured miles from Long Beach.

However you look at it, Santa Catalina Island (or just Catalina) is certainly one of the more unusual cruise ship ports. It has a casino where gambling is banned, a herd of bison left behind after a film was shot, almost no cars and was a secret training base in WWII. The main town, Avalon has a Third Street but no First or Second Streets, the Post Office doesn’t deliver the mail and the local cabs deliver for Avalon’s pizzerias.

Contemporary postcard showing Avalon with classic steamers, SS Catalina and SS Avalon c.1930

Archaeologists reckon Catalina’s been inhabited for about 7000 years, but by the early 19th Century, the native Pimungans had died out or dispersed and the Spanish moved in, renaming it Santa Catalina in 1602. Smugglers, hunters, miners and ranchers ruled in waves until the 20th Century when Hollywood and the California glitterati took over, building the quaint holiday village that persists today.

Located 22 miles (35km) offshore from Long Beach, one million tourists each year travel by ferry from the ports at Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point and it’s a regular and popular stop for several cruise lines. Carnival Paradise brings 2000 visitors every Tuesday and there are also occasional visits by Celebrity Millennium. Next year sees Carnival Inspiration and Celebrity Century. HAL’s Amsterdam and The World are also slated.

Cinema history: Palms planted for the 1935 epic, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ at Little Harbor (RE)

The little town of just over 3000 residents is like its own time-warp movie set and the island has a strong connection with Hollywood too. It’s been the setting for over 200 movies and associated with names like Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Doris Day, Natalie Wood (who drowned) and Phil Hartman (who was murdered), while top name musicians Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Harry James and Benny Goodman regularly played at the casino.

And while Catalina’s Bird Park was once one of America’s biggest with 8000 species in 500 cages covering 4ha, it was scaled down during WWII when the island was a troop base; and finally closed in 1966.

Frankie from Avalon, the maestro of swing dancing (RE)

In fact, one of the beaches at Little Harbor was where the MGM art department built an entire Tahitian village for the 1935 big budget production of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and planted specially imported palm trees and tropical grass. It is somewhat surreal to wander the paths once walked by Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.

Little Harbor was also once home to the Pimu Tongva people for some 8000 years until the Spanish landed in 1542 and things went steadily downhill for them until only scattered genetic traces now exist.

From 1924 until 1975, the stalwart steamer, SS Catalina ran a regular service which included carrying 800,000 servicemen to and from the island during WWII. For many years she ran parallel to the 1891-built SS Avalon and the two made a fine pair of stately vessels. Sadly, what was left of the SS Avalon sank in 1964 after a fire and the SS Catalina followed her demise in 2010 when the remains of her abandoned hull was cut up for scrap.

Whether transported by the modern fast ferries or by cruise ship, most visitors will happily wander the streets, stopping by any of the 30-something cafes and bars – like the circa-1946 Marlin Bar, complete with period décor. The more active can cycle, swim, play golf or go on the wildlife eco-tour. For the aquatic guests there is sea kayaking, snorkelling or fishing plus there is even scuba diving with Scuba Luv for serious divers keen to explore the fascinating kelp beds just off the wall at the casino or one of the several wrecks such as the mysterious Ningpo, a former Chinese slaver and smuggling ship reputedly 200 years old when she went down.

Greetings card

For visitors looking for something to do a few days before or after a cruise, there are quality hotels like the superb Avalon Hotel or newly renovated Pavilion Hotel plus a host of B&Bs to choose from. A stay of a few days will allow anyone to really explore this unusual location and maybe take part in, or observe one of the upcoming events like the marathon or triathlon, fishing tournament, Halloween parade or Jazz festival. The fascinating museum is always paying tribute to the many celebrities who passed through this tiny island sanctuary.

For full details on Catalina Island, see the official site: www.catalinachamber.com

Roderick Eime: www.travography.com

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