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  Issue Date: 3 / 2018  

California's Resort Island

Norman Sklarewitz

Image Courtesy The Catalina Chamber's Image Library Click image to enlarge.

       On assignment from an advertising agency in London, a film crew once came out to the U.S. to shoot a TV commercial. The client had a new product to be marketed in Europe but made in California. So, the director wanted to capture the ambiance of California.to help sell the product. Only the camera crew had a limited budget and couldn’t afford to travel all around the state.
        Still, they found one destination not only quite conveniently located but one that also provided the desired California “look”. It was Santa Catalina Island. There the film makers found sun-kissed beaches, chaparral-covered hills where wild bison roamed, rugged trails for hiking and mountain biking and sports enthusiasts enjoying all manner of water sports, above and below the surface.
        Not bad for an island 22 miles off the coast of southern California and encompassing only 48,000 acres, or 21 miles long, 8 miles at its widest but only a half mile wide at its Isthmus where the tiny town of Two Harbors is situated. Catalina as it’s generally known has a permanent population of only around 3,000 but that number is swelled by as many as 10,000 visitors on summer weekends. Its main town and center of most of its activities is Avalon.
        There most can walk to the many restaurants or to the beach, but for longer distances, transportation is provided by golf carts. Not that many conventional taxis are available because, to protect the environment, only 422 private automobiles are permitted on the island. And the waiting period to get a residential vehicle permit is 25 years! No rental cars are available, either. All this, of course, helps avoid the smog so associated with Los Angeles. With so few cars, Catalina can also boast no rush hour traffic because it’s main road Crescent Avenue is a two lane road shared by cars and golf cars with, get this, not a single stop light. Still, getting around should be no problem, offers one Avalon resident. “Walking is the main form of island visitor transportation since we are only about one mile in circumference.”

Image Courtesy The Catalina Chamber's Image Library Click image to enlarge.

        While certainly a resort destination, Catalina in many ways isn't typical of most southern California getaways. The emphasis is on low-key fun. No high profile pro-am golf tournaments. No celebrity road races. There's no "coat and tie" requirement for gentlemen at even Avalon's finest restaurants.
        For such a tiny stretch of land, Catalina does have a long and colorful history. In its earliest days, pirates used it as a base to prey on Spanish ships. Sea otters which then thrived in the offshore waters were taken there by Russian hunters aided by Aleuts and Kodiak Indians from Alaska.
        American seafarers later used Santa Catalina as their base for running contraband and smugglers brought Chinese ashore here before sneaking them across to the mainland. Before the Civil War, Catalina was occupied by a succession of silver and gold miners and later squatters who brought over cattle, sheep, horses and goats.
        During the era of California land speculation, the island was repeatedly bought and sold as developers tried, without success, to make it a resort destination. During Prohibition, so-called “rum runners” used it as a transfer point of shipments headed for illegal liquor dealers on the mainland.
        Finally, in 1919, William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum mogul from Chicago, bought the entire island. For his family members and guests, Wrigley built a variety of facilities including a golf course, country club, a tiny airport and various fine residences.
        Being an astute businessman, Wrigley created the Santa Catalina Island Company to develop facilities that would attract visitors. Largest of these was an elaborate Casino building which, despite its name, never was used for gaming. Instead, it housed the largest ballroom of its type then in existence. On the lower level was the Avalon Theater, one of the few designed for the newest entertainment fad – “talking” motion pictures. While first run movies are now shown in the Theater, before the film begins visitors on weekends are treated to pre-film concert performed on the same 16-ton Page Organ that entertained patrons back in the 1930s.
        For all of its recreational attractions, one thing makes Catalina stand out. In 1975, the Wrigley heirs deeded 86% of the entire island to the Catalina Conservancy. This is a private, non-profit corporation whose sole mission is the restoration and preservation of the island in a natural state for perpetuity. The Conservancy manages the island’s open space lands to insure they are used “solely for the enjoyment and scenic beauty and for controlled recreational purposes.” And the Conservancy means business. Permits are required to hike, camp or even bike in the interior of the island.
        Being on island, the issue of getting visitors across the Catalina Channel was an issue, of course. For a time, seaplanes operated across from the mainland and, until 1976, there was a fleet of three Great White Steamers, one of which carried nearly 2,000 passengers, more than ocean-going liners.
        Today, various firms operate high speed boats that provide safe and frequent service. Oldest and largest of these operators is the Catalina Express. It owns and operates a fleet of eight vessels, four of which are catamarans. Largest of these is the $9.5 million Catalina Jet, an aluminum-hulled catamaran that accommodates 450 passengers and cruises at 35 knots making the cross-channel run in one hour. Passengers can board any of these boats at the Los Angeles area ports of San Pedro, Long Beach or Dana Point.

Norman Sklarewitz brings to his travel articles for The World & I a long and solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes being Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. He's reported on major international events, including the Vietnam War, and during World War II, he was a military correspondent. As a freelancer, he has traveled extensively and has published thousands of articles on a wide range of topics for a variety of publications.
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