Catalina Island: Where Luxury Meets Nature
Jetset Extra was recently invited to take an Eco Tour of Santa Catalina, better known as Catalina Island. Catalina Island is only 22 miles from the coast of Los Angeles and only a short boat ride away, so it’s the perfect weekend getaway. It features a wide range of water activities as well as camping, hiking and biking.
The quaint city of Avalon is known for shopping, dining, and being a great place to relax and get away.
We boarded Catalina Express’ high-speed catamaran in Long Beach and were treated to a sunset cruise through the harbor at the beginning of our speedy and comfortable trip. It took just an hour. The large vessel does 32 knots and has a state-of-the-art stabilization system, so passengers barely feel the ocean swells. There are also upgrades available for those who want to travel in style.
We arrived and checked in at the beautiful Hotel Villa Portofino. With oceanfront views, the hotel combines European elegance and charm with a prime location in the heart of Avalon. It’s truly a gem within the gem of Catalina Island. Each room is customized and cozy, and the warm hotel staff makes you feel right at home.
We headed over to CC Galagher for dinner. It’s a combination bar, coffee and dessert café, and gift shop that serves sushi! Not only is the food excellent, but there’s also an outstanding selection of beer, wine and sake.
The next day, our morning began with a continental breakfast at the Portofino. We were picked up early by the hardworking folks from the Catalina Island Conservancy to begin our tour. Leslie Baer and Leslie Lieberman are a treasure trove of information about the unique, rich history of the island. Within the first few minutes of the drive inland, we were treated to stunning views of the ocean and the mainland. The day was clear enough to see the white snowcaps of Big Bear. All along the way there was evidence of the Conservancy’s efforts to restore and maintain the island’s natural beauty. Workers were planting and grooming species that are unique to Catalina, including many that are endangered.
The Catalina Island Conservancy was founded in 1972 to protect the native plants and animals, and to manage the open-space lands so that they can be enjoyed in perpetuity through controlled recreation. They rely heavily on assistance from volunteers. Even AmeriCorps has a presence on the island. These inspiring young people really walk the walk, putting in hours traversing the gorgeous but difficult terrain to assist the Conservancy with myriad ongoing tasks and projects. We learned that in addition to some great vacation packages that you would expect on Catalina, there are amazing volunteer packages. You can either “rough it” and camp at the end of a day of volunteering, or go back to Avalon and enjoy the luxury of the Villa Portofino.
We visited a few of the island’s well known residents—Tachi, the diminutive Catalina Island Fox (a species that’s unique to the island) and Pimu, a beautiful bald eagle, who isn’t diminutive at all. We were also treated to some time with a random bison (also known as buffalo) enjoying lunch right off the road. We were warned to keep our distance, but managed to get up close for some great shots. In 1924, 14 bison were brought to the island as part of a film production and were left behind. For decades, these great reminders of the American West were a tremendous source of pride as well as pain for Catalina. Because they aren’t indigenous to the island, they created problems. The Conservancy is now able, through a highly successful contraception program, to keep their numbers at a healthy level.
We moved on to Airport in the Sky for lunch. Operated by the Conservancy, it’s famous for its buffalo burgers (the meat is imported since the citizens of Catalina have a soft spot for their own buffalo). Pilots have been known to fly to the island just to have lunch. Part of the trans-Catalina trail runs near the airport, so we took a short hike to an ancient soapstone quarry. Here, Native Americans carved bowls out of rock for centuries, and these valuable dishes were traded with other tribes as far as Arizona.
We headed back to Avalon for dinner at Steve’s Steakhouse. The fresh sea bass was delicious, as was the steak with chimichurri sauce. Steve’s is also just a short walk away from the Avalon Harbor and, as is common on the island, the restaurant offers superb views.
We moved on to the Pavilion Hotel where we were guests of the Santa Catalina Island Company. Recently renovated, this hotel features such amenities as free iPads for guests to enjoy during their stay and a nightly wine- and cheese-tasting. There’s a great fire pit to stay warm with friends and, like the Portofino, the Pavilion is on the waterfront with views that can’t be beat.
The following morning opened another glorious, sunny day, perfect for the next adventure—a Zip Line Eco Tour.
It started with an orientation by our hilarious and fun guides, Justin and Elena, who showed us how to zip properly and safely. Then we took a short van ride up to the first leg of the run and stood on the tiny platform looking at the cable that would carry us across the gorge. This was when we started to wonder about the merits of this unnatural form of recreation.
Once we took off, our doubts disappeared. Just moments after we were cleared to step off the platform, we were soaring like birds hundreds of feet above a canyon. While we caught our breath, our guides got into the Eco part of the tour, sharing their rich knowledge of Catalina’s history and efforts by all to improve and keep the island beautiful for generations to come.
After our Zip Line Eco Tour, we walked back along Descanso Beach for lunch at the new Avalon Grille. The restaurant is another waterfront property that features “American regional dishes with a seasonal approach.” They have a great selection of wine and drinks and a fun, energetic atmosphere hosted by a delightful, friendly staff.
Our return trip to Long Beach on the Catalina Express included seeing a large pod of dolphins also making the journey across the Channel. The island is easily accessible and enjoyable year-round. The Catalina Express makes it easy to get away even for just the day. Whether you’re looking to relax or find adventure playing or volunteering, Catalina is truly a Jetsetter’s destination.