The Magical Island
By Ann Nelson



Exhausted and numb from cell phones, traffic and too many endless deadlines, the realization hit me that I had
neglected to nurture myself for months, and I needed a break from my routine.

Finding a way to revitalize myself was a necessity. I promised myself I would accomplish this goal by going back to one of my favorite places: a quiet, little magical place called Catalina Island. Sometimes you see Catalina, and sometimes she is hidden in fog, adding to the allure of a place so near and yet so far. Naturalists describe Catalina as “Southern California about 200 years ago.”

Only hours earlier, I was creeping along the San Diego freeway, stressed about trying to catch the boat in time. Once onboard the catamaran, the mainland drifted into the background. Porpoises swam beside the boat, sea lions sunned on buoys. My thoughts turned to the weekend ahead.

An hour later, we neared Avalon, a time warp of a town plopped into the ocean, easily reached by ferry and helicopter, yet at the same time, remote. As the ferry boat draws close to the southeastern tip of Catalina, I see the postcard cove of Avalon Bay, dotted with sails. I see the town’s cottage dwellings on the hills that rim the bay.

Catalina has been a Southern California playground for more than 100 years. Chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr., who made his fortune peddling Spearmint and Juicy Fruit chewing gum, fell in love with Cat-alina and bought the entire island in 1919. No expense was spared when Wrigley built a 20,000 sq. ft. ballroom (today known as the Casino Ballroom).

From the ferry landing a visitor can walk to many small, reasonably-priced hotels that hug Crescent Avenue, but in this location your room may be right on top of the perpetual late-night bash of Avalon’s pedestrian plaza. For peace and quiet during the busy season, if your budget is generous, you may want to stay at the meticulously-restored Inn on Mount Ada, the former home of William Wrigley, Jr. The Georgian colonial-style inn, built in 1921, is breathtaking.

For the budget-conscious traveler like myself, the Zane Grey Pueblo is a good option. Built in 1926 and perched on a hill at the west end of Avalon Bay, the pueblo is the former home of Grey, a prolific writer of Western novels in the 1910’s, ’20s and ’30s. This place is rustic and simple with no phones or TV’s, and terrific views. I found this to be a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of a cell phone lifestyle.

During my weekend stay, I rarely saw anyone talking on a cell phone, toting a camcorder, or roaring around in an SUV. In fact, locals must wait more than a decade to have a car on the island, and tourists can’t bring one at all. The golf cart is Catalina’s favored mode of transportation. They’re easy to rent and a great way to get around. When I wasn’t driving the golf cart, I  walked and rented bikes.

The island spans about 60,000 acres, 88 percent of which is protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. A variety of tour companies make it possible to visit the back country via guided tours and scheduled buses. Native American Indians actually inhabited Catalina 7,000 years ago. If you want to feel like a true castaway, head to the interior. If the real focus of your trip is simply to enjoy nature, Catalina offers dozens of hidden coves and beaches and isolated tree-lined mountain trails offering panoramic views of the ocean.

Catalina is a delicate and unique environment, home to more than 400 native plants, and more than 100 species or varieties of birds. Rattlesnakes, native quail and Channel Island fox are found here. Non-native animals introduced to the island include pig, goat, deer and American Bison, 14 of which were brought to Cat-alina in 1924 and used for filming of “The Vanishing American” in 1925. Today, about 200 buffalo roam the island.

Catalina is one of the rare places where you can arrive without a schedule. You can sit at the beach and read a book for an entire day, or you can choose from so many outdoor adventure activities, almost too many to mention here. Snorkeling in the brilliant turquoise water of Lover’s Cove, exploring the coastal waters in the SS Nautilus (a semi-submersible vessel), checking out a Jeep Eco-Tour, or going on a Twilight Safari are just a few of the possibilities.

Don’t be surprised if you see one of your favorite Hollywood stars while strolling on the pedestrian plaza. After all, Brooke Shields felt Catalina was such a magical spot, she was married here a few years ago.

On my last morning I hiked in the hills behind the pueblo. I felt like I was an ocean away from the rest of the world. When you’re ready for a change of pace, there’s nothing like visiting Catalina Island, with its Mediterranean charm and timeless beauty.

July through Labor Day —

Conservancy Summer Naturalist Programs: Catalina Island Conservancy naturalists will lead you through a wonderful outdoor learning experience. Free programs include nature walks, hikes and campground programs. Reservations are not required. Visit
September (all month) — 6th Annual Pottery and Tile Extravaganza: Celebrate the island’s colorful heritage of locally-made Catalina pottery and tile (1927-1937). The Museum features the largest exhibition of Catalina pottery and tile, weekly tile-walking tours, lectures and demonstrations. Catalina Island Museum. (310) 510-2414.

September 18th-19th —
46th Annual Catalina Island Festival of Art: Artists from all over the country exhibit and sell their works of fine art, sculpture, crafts and photography. Visit website at
September 25th — Annual Catalina Wine Festival: A wine tasting festival including hors d’ oeuvres, live entertainment, and a silent auction. Sponsored by the Catalina Island Women’s Forum. Funds raised are for charity and support of CIWF programs. For reservations call (310) 510-1520.

October 1-3, 8-10, 15-17 —  
Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival 2004: The 18th Annual Jazz Trax Festival is a three-day, three-weekend event that takes place in the legendary Casino Ballroom  This is the west coast’s premiere smooth jazz festival featuring the newest and best in smooth jazz. Ticket Info Line 866-TRAXTIX or

Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently residing in San Diego, CA. In addition to travel writing, she has published interviews of business leaders, including Dr. Ken Blanchard of the best-selling “One Minute Manager” series, and astronaut and businessman, Captain Wally Schirra.

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