Enjoy Santa Catalina Island when prices are lower, Crowds are smaller and the weather is still beautiful
by David DeVoss
As a parent nothing is more rewarding than introducing your children to new experiences on vacation. The problem is those vacations coincide with school holidays, and when you’re traveling with kids, so is every other family.
But when children grow up scheduling becomes more flexible. For empty- nesters and seniors that means it’s finally possible to travel during the off-season when there are bargain tickets, fewer people, lower hotel prices and more opportunities to talk to locals.
For Southern Californians, one of the most popular getaways is Santa Catalina, a remote yet surprisingly accessible 74-sq mile island only an hour away by ferry from Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Avalon is a favorite weekend escape during the summer. Though packed with people sitting on the sand or strolling between shops, the tiny city maintains its mellow vibe, perhaps because there is little traffic, save for golf carts.
But to get to know the real Santa Catalina it’s better to visit Avalon in the off season when only 30% of the town’s 1,051 hotel rooms and vacation rentals are occupied. During the summer season the hotel occupancy rate soars to 70% – 90% on weekends. You’ll always find a room but perhaps not in the location or price range you wanted.
Catalina’s populist roots were planted progressive chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. In 1919, Wrigley bought Catalina Island with the intention of making it the Spring Training home for his Chicago Cubs and a vacation destination for working people. Catalina, he said, would be a place where every man who bought a stick of Juicy Fruit gum could bring his family for an affordable beach vacation. Wrigley could afford to dream big. Because most of Avalon burned in 1915 he was able to buy the entire 21-mile long island for less than $3 million.
Despite its proletarian roots, Avalon became an overnight favorite of Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn, who often sailed his yacht to the island to hunt wild boar. In the years before international jet travel, Catalina was used for location shooting. Eight Tahitian villages were built along its 54 miles of coastline for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. Later, Hollywood brought in a small herd of buffalo to film a Zane Gray western. Unfortunately, the film’s producer didn’t know how difficult it is to capture bison. So today wild buffalo still wander the island’s interior.
The island’s most famous visitors, however, were the Chicago Cubs, who came to Avalon every Spring from 1921 to 1951. Though the field where they played was repurposed long ago, a Cubs shrine, of sorts, still exists inside Lolo Saldana’s barber shop just off Sumner Ave. in the Island Plaza.
Born in Avalon, Saldana, 90, still cuts hair. But his shop functions more as a Cubs museum. “I watched the Cubs when I was a kid,” he volunteers while shaving my neck with a straight razor. “I still have a bat that was used in the 1945 World Series against Detroit.”
Saldana’s memories are interrupted periodically by the arrival of picture-taking tourists and locals who take seats along the wall and await their turn to gossip.
But Lolo is not ready to yield the floor. “Ernie Banks sat in that very chair,” he says with a wave of the razor. “Offered to teach my how to hit, but I told him I already could. So then Ernie smiles and says, ‘but you’ve never been schooled by somebody who’s hit 500 home runs.'”
Avalon is a full service community with a tiny population of 4,000 more than a third of which live off the island. Architecturally, it’s an imperfect blend of Cape Cod and California Colonial; a Cabot Cove for the Pacific Rim. One of Catalina’s most distinctive features, aside from the rolling mountain peaks and valleys that cover 88% of the island, is its star-filled night sky. In Los Angeles and San Diego it’s difficult to see beyond the moon because of glaring ambient light. But on Catalina the heavens reveal their celestial beauty.
The best person to show you the stars is Kathleen Carlisle, who escorts small groups of visitors at dusk to an outcrop next to the old Wrigley Mansion to look at constellations and star clusters. The star gazing occurs while listening to a compelling astronomy lesson featuring Copernicus, Aristotle and Galileo that is less an academic discourse than a history of how ancient societies used the stars to explain the mysteries of the earth.
The 26-miles separating Avalon from the mainland keep the night sky dark, but it also makes everything you buy in Avalon expensive. Gasoline is $7 a gallon here. Most of the items in the local supermarket cost at least $1 more than they would in Los Angeles. Logistics are a constant concern. No people in America appreciate Amazon Prime more than the citizens of Avalon.
Getting to Catalina
Catalina has a tiny airport perched atop a 1,602-ft. mountain that serves buffalo burgers in the coffee shop. But the cheapest, fastest and most comfortable way to get to the island is by ferry. Catalina Express has 30 departures a day to Avalon from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. Trips on the high-speed catamarans take about one hour from San Pedro and Long Beach where secure parking costs $19 a day. Book online at or call (800) 995-4386.