Residents find small-town life and a sense of permanent vacation on California's Santa Catalina Island.
Every American who has fantasized about living on a Mediterranean island can relax. There's a place much closer to home where you can enjoy the mild climate without changing currency or learning another language. Santa Catalina Island, some 20 miles off the Southern California mainland, has attracted visitors for decades. Many are day-trippers who spend a few hours, then board a return ferry or cruise ship.
But it's possible to live on Catalina, which generally means residing in Avalon, a town that occupies less than 3 percent of the 70-square-mile island. Life in Avalon revolves around the harbor, big enough to shelter a popular beach, myriad boats, and piers. Thanks to the stream of visitors, the town also supports a surprising variety of restaurants for its small population of about 3,500, and there's no shortage of souvenirs or tourist activities. Still, keeping kitsch to a minimum, the town has the charm of a vintage coastal playground. With cars restricted (it takes years to get a permit), this might be the only place in Southern California that has vanquished automotive tyranny. Jaunty golf carts stand in for gas guzzlers.
"Avalon is a small, rustic beach community, which you don't see much of anymore," says Esther Choi of Catalina Island Real Estate. "You can walk anywhere here, and you really feel you're in the center of nature." Beyond the tended greenery of the outlying golf course and botanical garden, the island remains mostly undeveloped. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy owns about 85 percent of the total land, with the Santa Catalina Island Company controlling most of the rest. Avalon residents can explore the rugged interior, home to several native plant and animal species. Introduced as extras in a 1920s Western filmed here, bison roam as well.
Among townsfolk, Kathleen and Rock Gosselin are partners in a local laundry and The Avalon Hotel. "There's a lot of small-town camaraderie," says Kathleen, "and a tremendous community of retirees who volunteer for the museum, the humane society, or the conservancy." Last spring, the same spirit rallied residents to help battle a wind-driven wildfire that, thankfully, was stopped before it reached town.
Rock says, "You can't be a socioeconomic bigot here, because every class is thrown together. You have to be able to rub elbows with people at the other end of the spectrum. I think it makes the town great, but it's not for everyone."
Limits on available land and freshwater (a third of which comes from a desalination plant) have fueled rocketing real estate prices. "The problem is we don't have enough housing for the people who want to live here," says Ralph Morrow, Avalon's former mayor. "You don't really have to advertise any property here. You just whisper, and five people are lining up to buy it." He and others compare Catalina to Balboa and Coronado islands, enclaves adjacent to the West Coast mainland where property costs even more.
"Vacation rental income probably won't cover your mortgage," Esther admits. "But it's more of an emotional purchase. People who've been coming over here since they were kids want a piece of it to enjoy and pass down to their kids." Rock sums up the appeal by saying, "I wake up in paradise every morning and can walk to work."
"In the 34 years I've lived in Avalon, I've never said good-bye to anyone―because they always come back," adds Ralph. "I say, 'I'll see you later.'"
Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce; 310/510-1520 or visitcatalina.org
(published October 2007)