Santa Catalina Island
By Zuzana Prochazka 33.3879° N, 118.4163° W
Sailing here is like stepping back in time. Just 26 miles off the Southern California Coast, Catalina beckons anyone fed up with the 21st century, mostly unchanged due to a few smart, wealthy people, who we should all thank for their vision and generosity.
Catalina is shaped like a bowling pin and 86 percent of its 76 square miles belongs to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which was set up by the Wrigley family in 1972 and has kept the island pristine and mostly undeveloped. Avalon, Catalina’s only town, occupies one square mile on the east end. It’s a sleepy place that comes to life a few days a year for festivals and events. Despite its size, Avalon has a lot to offer, including restaurants, bars, grocery stores, T-shirt shops, a zip line, an arboretum, beaches, tours and a scuba park off Casino Point. The art deco movie theater inside the 1929 casino and the ballroom up top are both a must-see. Built into the hillside, Avalon is a picturesque town often photographed and sometimes passed off as Monaco.
If Avalon is the big city, Two Harbors, called the “Isthmus” by the locals, is the lost village at the edge of civilization. Located at the neck of the bowling pin, the whole place consists of the Harbor Reef bar and restaurant, public toilets and showers, a small convenience store and a shack that rents bikes, kayaks and scuba equipment.
Along Catalina’s “front,” or northeast side, there are dozens of small anchorages, some quite deep. Diving and snorkeling are popular on the nearby reefs, and the kelp beds (when the water is cooler and the plants are healthy) are home to sea lions that nip at your fins and leopard sharks that nip at nothing because they’re harmless. Hiking is popular and mostly vertical, so it’s great exercise that leads to some amazing vistas—with the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean on one side and Los Angeles only a couple of dozen miles away on the other.
Buffalo were brought to the island in 1924 for a film and then deemed too expensive to ship back. Today they wander freely about the western end and congregate at the campground in Little Harbor. They inspired the Isthmus’s signature drink, Buffalo Milk, a concoction of seven different liquors, milk and whipped cream—like a milkshake with a punch.
The first weekend of October brings nearly 4,000 pirates to the Isthmus and its surrounding coves for a phenomenon known as Buccaneer (Buc) Days. Grown men and women dress in pirate- and wench-wear, swill grog and fire small, but eardrum-piercing cannons. It makes Vegas look tame. The next morning, you’ll find a few pirates strewn about the beach, looking a bit worse for the wear, likely they didn’t stick the landing.
In the summer, crossing the San Pedro Channel means losing sight of land due to the thick marine layer. In winter, the visibility is good, but prevailing February storms can shake things up, and the hot, dry Santa Anas, known as the “devil winds,” can ruin your weekend, when they come blasting over from the mainland desert, making the northeast anchorages at the island untenable. Dry decks and a layer of smog out to sea are a dead giveaway that it’s time to scoot to the southwest side and wait it out. In spring, the island turns green enough for Hollywood film companies to cast it as a South Seas paradise. It’s also a great time to watch for Minke, Finback, Sei, blue and gray whales gliding past on their annual migration north.
From many So Cal harbors, the trip to the island is a noserly, which makes for a lot of tacking to get to that Buffalo Milk. But it can be a nice fast reach back to Long Beach or points south, making the trip home only a few hours.
On any weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, getting one of the 1,110 moorings on the front side is like winning the lottery. But you don’t have to go just in the summer. The island is a year-round destination with some of the best times to be had in the “off season,” (as if Southern California had seasons). And a Thanksgiving feast at the Isthmus is plenty to be thankful for, like the island itself.