Counting Stars on Catalina

Gradually I’ve discovered one of the best things about living in LA is the fact that it’s so easy to escape it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love living in this magically messed up town, because I adore it – probably to a fault. But I’m restless by nature and a change of scenery is always welcome, regardless of how long I’ve stayed or lived somewhere.

One balmy weekend this summer my husband and I decided it was high time to get off the mainland to explore this mysterious mound of land that emerges from the horizon, only when the marine cloud clears enough to view it. Santa Catalina Island, a little bit of paradise, just 30 miles offshore.

A one-hour voyage aboard the Catalina Express from Long Beach, spotting flying fish and a pod of about 20 dolphins playing in our breakwater on the way, we arrived in Avalon. Nothing about this tiny village signals that you’re still in SoCal. The first thing you notice while stepping off the boat is the clear, emerald green water dotted with bright orange Garibaldi fish. The marine life is beautiful and abundant and at first glance, you might think you were in Italy disembarking somewhere along the Amalfi Coast.

You can approach Catalina one of two ways – stay in Avalon, relax, swim, paddleboard, feast on local fish and get hoodwinked into trying Buffalo’s Milk, a boozy local libation. Or, you can venture to the other side of the island and camp at one of the many semi-secluded beaches. For this first visit, we went to chill out.

A lot of sun-seekers opt to line the teeny, tiny manmade beach along Crescent Ave, but the best way to enjoy a day of lounging and swimming in Avalon is to book a few sunbeds at the Descanso Beach Club. There’s also a park that stretches up behind the beach that’s perfect for picnics and a stand selling pre-inflated floaties for five bucks a pop. Just follow the path along the water from the ferry terminal, and depending on your pace, it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.

On the way you’ll pass the historical Catalina Casino. Before you cringe, there are no slot machines or tacky felt tables to be seen. Built in 1929, the grand art deco structure often played host to Hollywood’s elite. It’s said that the movie theatre on the main level was the first to be designed specifically for pictures with sound (talkies). Cecil B. DeMille used to arrive by yacht to screen previews of his films there. You can take a walking tour for $12 to check out the art deco murals inside the theater, visit the museum and venture up to the famous ballroom. Step outside onto the “romance promenade” for breathtaking views of the bay. Why was everything much more glamorous and majestic in those days?

My husband set out for a day of diving with Catalina Scuba Luv while I lounged the afternoon away. He came face-to-face with a few giant bass (300+ pounds!) while encircled by what he describes as what felt like “millions of fish”. Given he’s logged over a hundred dives all over the world, I was surprised when he ranked his dives at Catalina among his best. The environment is so pristine I don’t think I saw a single piece of litter anywhere on the island or in the water. Here’s hoping it stays that way forever. Lover’s Cove is also great for snorkelling and spotting Garibaldis.

If you’re still revelling in the romance of it all, have dinner on the outside terrace at Ristorante Villa Portofino and count the stars, which are much more visible and sparkling compared to the mainland. For more of a party crowd make your way to The Lobster Trap for the aforementioned boozy concoction.

Day trips are totally possible, but spend a few nights if you can. If you’re looking for somewhere central to stay, that’s slightly off the beaten path, climb the bougainvillea-lined Marilla Ave to the Catalina Boat House. The views from the patio are worth the short but steep hike.

While we didn’t run into Will Ferrell or find a fucking Catalina Wine Mixer, we kind of fell in love with the place. We’ll definitely be venturing back soon.

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