Catalina Island, with its rugged beauty and cosmopolitan allure, is America's own Capri.

By Peter Greenberg
June 25, 2015
Avalon Harbor and the iconic Catalina Casino
Photo: Dave Lauridsen

It's small in size—just 21 miles long and eight miles wide—but large with legend and romance. Set in the deep blue Pacific of the coast of Los Angeles, it's a glittering little island resort with rugged hills and intimate coves that have lured movie stars and musicians for generations. Some even call it America's Capri.

Santa Catalina Island was first made famous in my mind, though, by the stories my mother told me. A native Californian, she'd spent her teenage years taking the steamship ferry four hours out to sea for adventures in the sun and surf. Later, she returned as a singer, performing inside the famous Catalina Casino with bands fronted by Benny Goodman and Perry Como.

Legend and Lore

Enchanted by my mother's reminiscences, I pictured the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. erecting a mansion atop one of Catalina's ridges in 1921 and using his perch to oversee the baseball team he owned—the Chicago Cubs—practicing on a diamond he'd built for them down below. When Wrigley didn't like the way the boys were playing, he'd dial a phone he'd installed on the field with an invitation to "come up and see him." Which required the Cubs to trot quickly up the island's steep slopes to see their boss.

I collected those memories like a boy hordes baseball cards. When I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I caught the ferry to see Catalina for myself, and I've been going for long weekends on my own boat ever since. Even stacked up against the world's most exotic destinations, the island remains intoxicating. The air is clean and crisp, the ocean breeze seductive. It's one of those special places where I sleep best.

America's Capri

Pulling into Avalon Harbor and glimpsing its tight arc backed by gentle slopes, I always feel like I'm arriving at some dreamy combination of Positano and Villefranche. I love listening for the Chimes Tower, which has tolled every quarter hour between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. since 1925; in the quiet morning hours, you can hear those notes reverberate across the waterfront. And there at the harbor's entry sits the round, whitewashed casino, a symbol of Catalina as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris—iconic and unforgettable. Never a place of gambling but built to be a palace of entertainment, the casino is a shrine to Spanish influences. Graced inside with wildly imaginative murals from 1929, it houses a massive ballroom and a grand Art Deco movie theater.

While the theater still shows a new film every Friday, savvy locals arrive early just to hear islander John Tusak take over the keys of the historic organ. The theater fills with the rich chords of standards, marches, and waltzes, and always, right before the curtain rises, the strains of "Avalon" (the island's theme song first made popular by Al Jolson) wash over the crowd. Sitting here in this happy slippage of time, I imagine the television has not yet been invented, much less the iPhone.

And this remains Catalina's deepest delight. Locals work hard to keep the vibe here as old-fashioned as possible. Most of the island, about 42,000 acres, is held in conservancy. The harbor is clear and clean, thanks to staunch environmental controls. There's a waiting list 16 years long to gain a permit to own a car, so the preferred modes of transport are walking, biking, and renting a golf cart. There's no mail service, so locals congregate at Avalon's post office to pick up letters, packages, and the news of the day. The other hangout is still the town barbershop, where 85-year-old Lolo Soldana proffers haircuts, shaves, hearty conversation, and maybe even a little town gossip.

Staying and Playing

In keeping with that feel, the hotels and B&Bs keep a beautifully low profile, still offering pleasures for every taste. Located right in the heart of Avalon, the Hotel Vista Del Mar is just a short walk from the ferry landing and is known for its impressive view of the entire bay. Nearby, the Snug Harbor Inn—an intimate, Cape Cod–style luxury hotel—is a favorite among celebrities trying to escape the Hollywood hustle.

It's all sybaritic fun, but for me, Catalina works its greatest magic on its ridges and in its dozen or so remote, pale-sand beaches and coves. I love to hike the Trans-Catalina trail, which begins just southeast of Avalon and rises a steep 1,328 feet to the ridgeline, where I tromp surrounded by fragrant eucalyptus trees and pale green prickly pear cacti. (For adrenaline junkies, zipline tours take you soaring over these landscapes.) In the afternoon, I kayak out to the island's of shore kelp forests, where I watch harbor seals play in and out of the slick, undulating carpet of kelp leaves that float on the ocean's surface.

And I feel, here on the water, high on the ridges, and rapt in my plush seat in the casino, that Catalina allure that never seems to fade—why visitors come, and fall in love, and stay forever. I feel what brought my young mother over the waves again and again. And what calls me back, when home from the world's far corners, to rejoin this quiet dot of paradise that time may have indeed forgotten. But which I never do.

Get Here
Avoid peak crowds by going midweek if possible. Catalina Express runs three ferry lines—from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. Round-trip fares are $75 each way for adults with an additional $7 charge for bikes—bring yours if you can. The Catalina Flyer operates a daily trip to Avalon from Newport Beach at 9 a.m. every day.

Stay Here
Hotel Vista Del Mar sits charmingly on Avalon's harborfront promenade with 14 guest rooms and three suites. (Two have panoramic ocean views.) Rates start at $175. Each of Snug Harbor Inn's six rooms is named for one of California's Channel Islands. Rates start at $325. For nature lovers, camping is allowed in several designated areas; reserve a spot in advance by calling the Catalina Island Conservancy at 310-510-8368.