Avalon, Catalina Island, California. Photo: Jeffrey Diamond

A short ferry ride from Southern California, Catalina Island is a trip back in time to halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s.

“From the beautiful Casino Ballroom overlooking Avalon Bay on Catalina Island, we bring you the music of Glen Miller,” crooned a radio announcer in 1934. The harbor front town of Avalon looks much as it did when Miller’s big band played in the seaside dance pavilion, a landmark Art Deco, a Moorish-style rotunda with a red tile roof. Their tresses flowing like seagrass, mermaids swim and a Spanish galleon sails across the vibrantly painted tile murals of the casino, which was never a gambling hall, and is still an entertainment center.

Daytrippers and Weekenders

To get to the island, visitors take ferries (catalinaexpress.com) from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point or Marina Del Rey. Segways, golf carts and touring vans comprise the transport, as autos are off-limits to visitors and residents. Day-trippers and weekenders cluster in Avalon, the main tourist town, lounging on the beaches and sailing, kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving in the dazzling-clear waters and kelp beds offshore. A few hardy souls catch shuttles to campgrounds on the far side of the island, and adventurers sign on for sightseeing cruises, and bus tours into the hills.

Avalon Casino, in a pleasantly warm and beautifully sunny summer week. Photo: Everett Carrico/Flickr

Beneath glass-bottomed boats and the windows of the lemon-yellow Sea mobile Submersible, marine creatures are on parade in Lover’s Cove, from spiny lobsters to bat rays, pink scorpion fish and fluorescent-orange Garibaldi. The occasional curious sea lion presses its face against the glass.

The one-square-mile town of about 3,000 looks lost in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Flamboyant Spanish Revival-themed architecture sports tile roofs, white stucco archways, fancy iron balconies, fountains, towers, turrets, and the island’s signature ceramic tiles, brightly painted with fish and tropical birds.

Beyond the shops, eating places and hotels at the harbor’s edge, narrow side streets are lined with brightly-painted clapboard vacation cottages and a few Victorian-era houses. A marine-influenced climate encourages luxuriant Mediterranean gardens, banana palms, bird of paradise, pink and red hibiscus and waves of magenta bougainvillea.

Catalina Island History

In the 1920s, the chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr. purchased most of the island and built a golf course and the Georgian colonial-style Saint Catherine Hotel, which is today the Inn on Mount Ada. Planted originally by Wrigley’s wife, Ada, in 1935, the Wrigley Botanical Garden displays California native species, in particular, eight endemics, including the rare Catalina ironwood that grows naturally only on the island.

Another vintage lodging, the Native American-style Pueblo Hotel was once the home of Zane Grey, a famous author of Western novels who spent his later years here. The hotel rooms are named for his books, such as Lone Star Ranger and Riders of the Purple Sage. Grey wrote of Catalina, “Sea and mountain! Breeze and roar of surf! A place to rest, dream, sleep. I could write here and be at peace.”

Exploring Catalina

The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy manages 88% of the island, a wild world of broad valleys, isolated coves, 2,000-foot peaks, and near-vertical shoreline palisades. Tour buses bump along a narrow, winding, clifftop road with heart-stopping views down canyons and across the Pacific. At the ‘airport in the sky’, at 1,600 feet in elevation, the café terrace makes a good platform from which to spot deer, antelope, bison and the occasional Catalina fox. The resident bison herd, now numbering about 250, was left here after the filming of a 1924 movie, The Vanishing American (IMDB), adapted from a book by Zane Grey.

Across the middle of the island, a half-mile-wide isthmus has sheltered harbors on each side. At Two Harbors, which has a palm-fringed beach, a restaurant and a pier, about eighty people may get off a tour boat once or twice a day, and yet, sharing the place with just a handful of campers and pleasure craft sailors, they enjoy solitude as they explore walking paths into the hills.

Catalina Island Sunset. Photo: Kathy Fries

Heading Home

When the sightseeing cruises return to Avalon after dark, passengers marvel at thousands of flying fish that can be seen near the shoreline at night. The crew of the classic 1924 open-deck wooden sightseeing boat, the “Blanche W,” thrills passengers by using 40-million candlepower searchlights to attract the silvery fish as they soar as high as thirty feet out of the water, skimming over the surface like silver bullets ––a spectacular show.

Back in Avalon, as lights twinkle off on the sailboats moored in the harbor, and the 1925 Chimes Tower tolls on the quarter hour, the streets are empty of the tourists who flocked into town off cruise ships and ferries, and flocked back out again at the end of the day, leaving the townspeople and a few dreamy souls who couldn’t bear to leave the island of romance.