Exploring Catalina Island: A Journey to Avalon
“I found my love in Avalon, beside the bay;
I left my love in Avalon and sailed away.
I dream of her and Avalon from dusk ’til dawn –
and so I think I’ll travel on to Avalon.”
~Al Jolson, Avalon
The early morning sun was already casting an apricot glow over the horizon as we waited at Dana Point Harbor to board the Catalina Express ferry. Despite the chill in the air, the perfectly clear October sky told us it was going to be a lovely warm day and most likely, smooth sailing across the Pacific waters. We dropped our small carry-on bags in the luggage chute, found seats by the window and settled in for the hour-and-a-half journey.
We had visited Catalina several times with our family – on a cruise ship stop and by ferry – but we had never stayed there overnight. Herb and I were celebrating anniversary #38 and were eager to return to the island, curious to see how it had changed and if it was as special as we remembered.
As Avalon Harbor came into view, passengers on the ferry began moving to the outside deck, grabbing gear, taking pictures, breaking the silence of the ride. I remembered our first visit when overcast skies seemed to magically part as soon as we approached the island. There was no need for a heavenly disappearing act on this arrival, but the magic of the place was still there. Calm harbor. Rocky terrain beyond. And that iconic red-roofed circular building called the Casino.
We collected our bags and headed to the parking area, where we met Joy, a concierge from our hotel. Joy told us she had just returned from a vacation and couldn’t wait to get back to the island. “I need to see water,” she said. “I need to see that view.”
The view she was referring to was the panoramic harbor seen from the hilltop terrace of Mt. Ada, former home of Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr and his wife Ada. Now a bed and breakfast, the house was built in 1921 and overlooked the field where Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs baseball team held spring training until 1951. It’s an elegant home, with a circular driveway, wide columned porch, green shuttered windows and wrap-around back terrace.
Joy gave us a quick tour of the house, explaining that they want the guests – all six rooms of us – to feel as if we’re guests of the Wrigleys. There are two living rooms, indoor and outdoor dining rooms, Mr. Wrigley’s former study – where late afternoon drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served – and an enclosed porch with views of the harbor. The overall feeling is warm and unpretentious. It reminded me of Hammersmith Farm, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s girlhood home in Newport, Rhode Island, the site of the reception for her wedding to John F. Kennedy. When we toured that house years ago, I was struck by the dichotomy between the history and the homey feeling it exuded. Mt. Ada has that same atmosphere.
We were assigned one of the inn’s golf carts – the main mode of transportation on Catalina Island – and set out for our day of touring. Navigating the island’s hilly roads by golf cart is definitely life in the slow lane, but after a while it’s hard to imagine getting around any other way. And with so many golf carts sharing the road, it sometimes feels as if you’re driving on the Autopia at Disneyland instead of in a real town! As we wound our way downhill, we stopped to take photos at several lookout points before reaching the streets of Avalon.
The road runs through town, hugging the harbor and stretching along the coast before curving back into the hills. Herb commented that the route seemed shorter than it did when we were here years ago. Perspective can be a funny thing. We hear of adults returning to their childhood home or school and remarking that it seemed so much smaller. Places we’ve once visited can have that same impact on our memories.
Back on the low road, we passed a beautiful Spanish style building with the name Bird Park emblazoned over one of the archways. We stopped to take a photo, but couldn’t figure out exactly what Bird Park was. I later learned that it had been a bird sanctuary from 1929 to 1966, a vision of Ada and William Wrigley, Jr. At one time Bird Park was filled with almost 8,000 birds, including many rare and exotic species, and was the largest in the world.
“The sound direction team for The Wizard of Oz spent a week in Avalon in 1939 recording the sounds of many of the 8,000 birds in Bird Park…The recorded birdcalls were played at different speeds and in different ways and then incorporated into many of the film’s scenes, including the spooky sounds of the witch’s Haunted Forest.”
~Catalina Island Company, A Step Back in Time: Bird Park
Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden
We passed the Catalina Golf Course and headed along Avalon Canyon, arriving at the entrance to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. Run by the Catalina Island Conservancy, the 38-acre gardens feature desert plants, rare and endangered species and California “endemic” plants that grow only on the Channel Islands. We paid a small entrance fee and began our walk through the gardens.
Circular pathways meander off the main trail, providing an unofficial route through the gardens. Plants are identified with nearby signage, listing the given name, scientific name and where it was from. Some species were familiar – many were not – and I found myself especially drawn to several that displayed a sort of botanical charisma.
The memorial to William Wrigley, Jr. stands at the end of the gardens. At 130 feet high, it offers views out to the Pacific. The tower was built with materials found on the island, including handmade glazed tiles from the Catalina Pottery plant. When Wrigley died in 1932, his body was interred at the memorial but was later moved.
We returned to Mt. Ada for a quick lunch before our afternoon tour of the Casino. I had always been curious about what was inside the intriguing circular structure, but we’d never been able to fit a tour into our past visits. We parked the golf cart, walked around the building to the front entrance and joined a group of about a dozen for the tour.
The first thing you notice at the entrance are the murals – soaring, glorious Art Deco designs that wrap around the walls of the exterior. Our guide explained that William Wrigley, Jr. commissioned artist John Gabriel Beckman, who had created the murals for Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, to create the captivating scenes in 1929. Each depicts an expression of sea life, sprung from Beckman’s imagination.
The Casino’s name is a bit of a misnomer. The 11-story building houses a theater and ballroom – not slot machines and roulette tables – and is named after the Italian word for “gathering place.” The movie theater seats more than 1,100 people and was the first theater built for “talking” motion pictures. Our guide told us that the acoustics of Radio City Music Hall were modeled after the Casino theater. From the architecture of the lobby to the Beckman murals lining the theater’s walls, it’s an Art Deco wonderland.
We toured several dressing rooms, Wrigley’s private viewing space and the projection room before arriving at the Casino’s crown jewel: The Ballroom. Wrigley had wanted to build the world’s largest circular ballroom with a theater below, and the end result was a 15,0000-square-foot oak, maple and Brazilian rosewood dance floor that could accommodate 500 people, all under an umbrella-shaped Art Deco ceiling. The Ballroom attracted the stars and major Hollywood players of the day, who would arrive from Los Angeles on one of Wrigley’s steamships and return home after an evening of music and dancing. Our guide explained that Wrigley did not allow drinking or smoking at the Casino…but I have a feeling he didn’t have an issue with chewing gum.
Before we returned to Mt. Ada, we stopped in Avalon to wander some of the streets. The town seemed empty on the autumn Friday afternoon, and I got the feeling that when it comes to crowds, Avalon is a place of two extremes: Busy in the summer months and on weekends, but quiet on off-season weekdays. Houses are cottage-like, close together, painted in pastels and muted tones, often with golf carts parked out front. Street signs are a distinctive blue and orange. We passed endless shops and restaurants and found the place where our family had played miniature golf many years ago.
The Celebrity Infinity was anchored in the harbor when we stepped onto the Mt. Ada terrace Saturday morning. We watched the ship’s tenders heading into Avalon, bringing passengers into town for the day. “It’s going to be a busy one,” Mt. Ada concierge Sean commented. “That ship can hold almost 3,000.”
After breakfast, we said our goodbyes and rode down the now-familiar hill to catch the Catalina Express back to Dana Point. It seemed as if we were doing a reverse commute, leaving instead of arriving on the Saturday morning ferry. With only about a dozen passengers on board, there was no need for using the baggage chute or scrambling to secure a window seat. I began scrolling through photos on my camera and Herb read his phone feed while Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty played on the ferry’s television screens in subtitles.
We were about half an hour away from arriving when Herb suddenly nudged my arm. “Look at that!” he said, pointing out the window. A pod of dolphins was traveling alongside the Catalina Express, jumping out of the water in graceful arches, going back under and coming up again. I grabbed my camera and clicked away, unsure if I would be able to capture anything with the barriers of window glass and a moving ferry.
It was a beautiful sight and another reminder that unexpected travel moments often become our favorite memories.