Paradise Revisited

Catalina Island retains its unique character while giving visitors fresh reasons to return

A new Catalina attraction: the Avalon Grille.

A Jeep that hasn’t seen a canvas top in years and sporting an authentic rust patina rumbles by as bicyclists pedal up and away from the waterfront, toward the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens that lie just past Hermit’s Gulch—one of many campgrounds on the island, but the only one serving the tiny main town of Avalon. A worn sticker from the Buffalo Nickel—a locals joint outside Avalon at the helipad—hugs what’s left of Jeep’s bumper as it speeds by, its sun-weathered driver one of the 3,000 year-round residents of Avalon. Meanwhile, back in town, the upscale new M Restaurant, opened in February and overlooking the town’s small-boat harbor, serves Modern American cuisine to weekenders, focusing on farm-fresh, locally sourced organic fare—quite removed from the buffalo burgers, burritos and pizza menus of many Avalon eateries.

Santa Catalina Island is, for the first time in a long time, updating itself. That’s big news in Avalon, which for more than 100 years has been a quintessential SoCal beach town. The most Mediterranean of North American islands in climate and ecology, Catalina has always been blissfully decades behind the California mainland, thanks in part to its physical isolation, but more a result of the complementary missions of the Santa Catalina Island Co. (its primary commercial developer) and the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization created in 1972 and promptly deeded 88 percent of the island by the Wrigley family.

Balancing responsibilities to preserve the island’s character and protect its interior from development, while maintaining its ability to attract visitors, the Conservancy and the Santa Catalina Island Co. (whose unfortunate acronym is SCICo) have always erred on the conservative side, putting Catalina in a nostalgic holding pattern that remains a significant part of its appeal.

If you go to Catalina …

    The SandTrap (at the golf course, 310-510-2505) and the Casino Dock Cafe (310-510-2755) offer tasty, inexpensive grub, while the Marlin Club (310-510-0044) is a dive bar for divers.
    Aside from the new M (310-510-1278), enjoy Villa Portofino (310-510-2009) for tasty Italian and wine.
    C.C. Gallagher Café (310-510-1278) offers espresso, wine by the glass, a deli case of fresh cheese plates and outdoor seating. Is this Italy, perhaps?
    Backcountry biking and hiking require permits ( so if you are without them,
    try the adventurous half-day Cape Canyon tour in a 12-passenger
    modified Mercedes Unimog
    The words “modern boutique hotel” never existed on Catalina until the Aurora showed up:

But given the lingering effects of 9/11 and the recession on tourism, SCICo this year invested $11 million into reinvigorating the Avalon area—not much dough for Las Vegas, but a boatload for a tiny place like Avalon. That investment has in turn prompted small businesses to do the same. The result is a Catalina Island that still looks and feels like Catalina, while offering a few fresh reasons to visit.

The island’s plentiful outdoor activities (hiking, biking, camping, water sports) have been boosted by the Zip Line Eco Tour, which at nearly a mile in total length is the longest zip line in California. Zip liners descend 600 feet in elevation at up to 45 mph, ending at the newly improved Descanso Beach Club, a private beach where guests can enjoy cocktails and live music while sunning. Descanso’s amenities—kayak and paddle board rentals, seaside massages, grass volleyball and an outdoor bar and restaurant featuring service on the sand—now include fire rings on the shore, and an area of fancy cabanas and chaise lounges for rent. No worries, though; for a $2 fee, you can still score a spot on the sand for your towel, and access to all the aforementioned goodies.

Back in town, SCICo’s $11 million further reveals itself with a wonderful renovation of the mid-century beachside Pavilion Hotel (which now greets guests with lanai rooms and a wine bar), and the brand-new Avalon Grille, a comfortable indoor-outdoor American pub ’n’ grub overlooking the harbor at the landfall end of the Green Pleasure Pier.

By now, most people taking a summer vacation already have them planned or completed. But for those of you who haven’t, or are seeking a laid-back, long weekend getaway, Catalina Island might be just the place—especially since SoCal’s notorious period of clouds and morning fog known as June Gloom has only recently started to lift.

There is something magical about leaving your car behind and boarding a boat to a new destination, even if that destination is a mere 22 miles from Long Beach or Dana Point. Even better that it be Catalina, since, despite all the updates, the island thankfully remains the kind of laid-back paradise where you can wear your “nice shorts” to even the fanciest new restaurant and still feel like you belong.