Louise Speaks: I have been to Catalina many times, and it is still one of my favorite places. However, Thelma had never been there, so we decided to take a cruise where Catalina was a destination stop. I’ll give more details of the cruise and how we ended up in Catalina today when I blog about the cruise, but today it’s all about Catalina Island. Santa Catalina Island, often called Catalina Island, or just Catalina, is a rocky island off the coast of California. The island is 22 miles long and 8 miles across at its greatest width. The island is located about 26 miles south-southwest of Los Angeles, California. There is actually a song that says how far across from LA the Island is. Catalina is part of Los Angeles County so even when you go to Catalina Island, you are still in California.
Catalina’s total population in the 2010 census was 4,096 people, 90 percent of whom live in the island’s only incorporated city, Avalon. The second center of population is the village of Two Harbors, which is on the other side of the island. Catalina basically consists of one main street with shops and hotels. The neighborhoods go a few streets up the hill. When we took one of our excursions our tour guide told us the reason he lives on Catalina was because of the school district. He said the school was so small that every parent knew every child and that was important to him. He also shared how expensive it was to live on Catalina Island, if you could find a place to live. Most available rentals are used as vacation rentals, but finding a place to live full time is difficult. Apparently our tour guide had a very small apartment that cost well over $1,000 a month. We don’t know how small or how much over a thousand, but he made us feel that is was expensive even by California standards.
Catalina has a history of who owned the island, but that is just history. Fast forwarding how it came to being we can go back to when the sons of Phineas Banning bought the island in 1891 from the estate of James Lick. The Banning brothers fulfilled dreams of making Avalon a resort community with the construction of numerous tourist facilities. On November 29, 1915, a fire burned half of Avalon’s buildings, including six hotels and several clubs. In the face of huge debt related to the fire and the subsequent decline in tourism due to World War I , the Banning brothers were forced to sell the island in shares in 1919. One of the main investors to purchase shares from the Bannings was chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. In 1919, Wrigley bought out nearly every share-holder until he owned controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. Wrigley invested millions in needed infrastructure and attractions to the island, including the construction of the Catalina Casino which opened on May 29, 1929. Wrigley also sought to bring publicity to the island through events and spectacles. Starting in 1921, the Chicago Cubs, also owned by Wrigley, used the island for the team’s spring training. The Cubs continued to use the island for spring training until 1951, except during the war years of 1942 to 1945. On our city tour, we were actually able to go by that original ball field where the cubs played. Following the death of Wrigley, Jr. in 1932, control of the Santa Catalina Island Company passed down to his son, Phillip K. Wrigley, who continued his father’s work improving the infrastructure of the island.
Close to one million people travel to Catalina Island every year, though the total numbers in any given year varies depending on economic conditions. That has increased over the years, but it was always a tourist attraction. Actress Natalie Wood drowned in the waters near the settlement of Two Harbors under questionable circumstances over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 1981. Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, were vacationing aboard their motor yacht, Splendour, along with their guest. In 2011, thirty years after the actress’ death, the case was reopened, partially due to public statements made by the captain of the Splendour.
In May 2007, Catalina experienced the 2007 Avalon Fire. Largely due to the assistance of 200 Los Angeles County fire fighters transported by U.S. Marine Corps helicopters and U.S Navy hovercraft, only a few structures were destroyed, yet 4,750 acres of wild land burned. In May 2011, another wild fire started near the Isthmus Yacht Club on Two Harbors and was fought by 120 firefighters transported by barge from Los Angeles. It was extinguished the next day after burning 117 acres. As we took our city tour we were shown buildings that had been destroyed by the fire and ones that weren’t touch.
Catalina is still a tourist destination. You can only get there by boat or helicopter. Cruise ships stop here but because of the shallow waters, ships dock off shore and we must take a tender to land. Many tourist attractions are things like the Glass Bottom Boat tour, the reefs and shipwrecks of the area, and scuba diving and snorkeling are popular in the clear water. Lover’s Cove, to the east of Avalon, and Descanso Beach, to the west of the Casino, are popular places to dive. The Avalon Underwater Dive Park was the first non-profit underwater park in the United States. Parasailing and zip lining are now also offered. Bus tours are given of the interior of the Island. We were on Catalina for the day, arriving at 8:00 a.m. and not having to be back at the ship until 4:00 p.m. With that time line, we were able to book two separate excursions. As our first tour was to begin, we noticed the 1952 bus pull up. Never did we think a bus could be so cool. I had been on this bus with my mother, and it was an amazing memory.
Our first excursion was a city tour. It was one that I thought we would get a chance to see the island and find out the history of Catalina. Our tour bus was from 1952 and it made us feel like we were definitely back in time. It’s never really warm in Catalina so the fact that the bus had no air conditioning didn’t bother us one bit. Our first stop was The Wrigley Memorial and The Botanical Garden. The bus stopped at the gate and as we walked thru the gardens. For most people on the bus they were amazed at the desert plants, for us, being from Arizona, we were like…umm there are a bunch of cactus here…looks like our back yard. The cactus were not in bloom, so those who didn’t know cactus have no idea how beautiful these plants can be when in bloom but we do. The botanic garden covers 38 acres near the town of Avalon. The garden places a special emphasis on California island endemic plants, that is plants that grow naturally. At any rate, the weather was nice and you have to walk through the garden to get to the Wrigley Memorial.
The Wrigley Memorial is in honor of William Wrigley Jr. who bought most of Catalina Island in 1919 with proceeds from his chewing gum empire. When he died on January 26, 1932, at age 70, he was interred near his Catalina home, in a tower in the botanical gardens. The tower stands 130 feet high and is primarily built with local materials. With its commanding view of Avalon Bay, the Wrigley Memorial is the centerpiece of the Botanical Garden. It was built in 1933-34 with the goal of using as much Catalina materials as possible. Quarried Catalina stones can be seen in the reinforced concrete construction. The facade having been sandblasted to hide the cement and highlight the native crushed stones. The blue flagstone rock on the ramps and terraces comes from Little Harbor, on Catalina’s “back” side. The red roof tiles and all the colorful handmade glazed tiles used for finishings came from the Catalina Pottery plant, which was in operation from 1927 to 1937. The marble inside the tower was quarried in Georgia. You must climb many many stairs to get to the 130 foot tower. Once to the top, the climbing of all these steps is definitely worth it. Wrigley’s body has since been moved, but his original grave memorial marker still adorns the tower site.
From here we drove around the town of Avalon on this old 1952 bus. The streets seemed so narrow, and with parking a premium, cars park on the street. So now with the narrow streets and cars on each side, it was a wonder we made it. Our tour guide took us to the highest point of Avalon. From here we could see the casino below, our cruise ship and Mt. Alda, the original Wrigley Mansion. Mt. Alda is in Patricia’s book “1000 Places To See Before You die”. Mt. Alda was named after Wrigley’s wife and sits 350 feet above town. The view of town is indescribable. This is the reason Wrigley chose this site to build his home. Mt. Alda is currently a bed and breakfast but in the past you could actually tour the mansion. Listed on the National Register of the Historic Places, this classic 1921 inn was once home to the Wrigley family. Mt Ada offers 6 rooms, each with it’s own bath, many amenities, and breathtaking views. Guests enjoy complimentary breakfast, lunch and evening wine & hors d’oeuvre reception, complimentary butler’s pastry available throughout the day, complimentary golf cart to use during the stay, complimentary private van pick up from the airport, heliport or boat terminal and much more. This is by far the most spectacular place to stay on the island. There are ways to get to the Inn without staying here such as participating in one of the afternoon lunches offered.
The Casino, is probably the most well known and most recognizable building on the island. It is the most visible landmark in Avalon Bay, when approaching it from the mainland. The casino was actually never a gambling establishment. It was more or less used as a gathering spot. A place for celebrities from the Los Angeles area to come and dance and hear every famous big band from the 30s and 40s. On May 29, 1929, the new Catalina Casino was completed under the direction of Wrigley at a cost of 2 million dollars. Its design, is in the Art Deco style. With a height equal to a 12-story building, it was built to serve as a theatre on the main floor and a ballroom and promenade on the upper level. Movie Stars frequently came by yacht to the Casino to preview their newest cinema productions. The large building now contains a movie theatre, a ballroom, island art and a history museum. It also serves as the island’s civil defense shelter, large enough to accommodate Catalina’s entire year-round population. Within its walls is stored enough food and water for all Avalon’s residents for two weeks.
Our last excursion of the day was to take the Glass Bottom Boat tour. Catalina is full of vegetation so that creates a great habitat for fish, Of course the guide drops food so the fish gather in schools so that we can look through the bottom of the boat to see the different species. Santa Catalina Island is famous for crystal clear water and glass bottom boats, a perfect combination for fun and discovery. These large, comfortable vessels bring the undersea world right to you. During the trip we visited Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, where colorful fish and marine plants thrive among the kelp forests.
As you can see, this was a full day. We even had time to have fish and chips at the local lobster trap. There is usually a fish and chip place on the pier, but this is Tuesday and in February so not prime season. I just love coming here. I’ve been here on just a day trip, I’ve been here for weekend getaways, and I’ve been here as a cruise destination stop. One of my fondest memories is that I took my mom here for the day, and she always said it was her most favorite trip. If you ever have the chance, you must experience Catalina Island. They have catamaran boats that leave from several California ports and it’s about an hour and a half boat ride across the pacific to Catalina…or you can take a cruise that stops here and enjoy the day like we did.