Thursday, December 17, 2015

Santa Catalina -- the island of romance, fine dining, adventure, fun

Signature coconut shrimp, hibachi steak with mushrooms and yummy soup made moments ago are part of a delightful "Taste of
Catalina" food and history tour, with Lili Dana a delightful guide for a walking, learning and munching tour of Avalon.
Lili Dana greets tour tasters with a lively history of Catalina
Island and The Four Preps, whose "26 Miles Across the Sea"
made Catalina famous, along with tasty food and friendly people. 



WE HAD four days to discover Catalina.
I, a Montana kid, had loggged only one earlier brief visit "26 miles across the sea." Acting as my tour guide was lifelong Catalina island fan, sailor, native San Diegan and my half-amphibian partner, Bruce Keller. He'd been to Avalon  many times -- diving and taking photos -- glowing reports!
Cookie and Keller took a kayak excursion out of Descanso
Beach, where a stylish hotel once sat and many kinds
 of relaxation and water sport await.
SO ON THE FERRY over, he gave me a history lesson, along with a glass of chardonnay: More than a century ago, an eccentric sailor, Captain Joseph McAfee, sailed a flat bottom houseboat from Venice Beach to Santa Catalina.  He'd purchased land with a wonderful view of the bay, determined to make Avalon home.
THE CAPTAIN'S spirit and sense of adventure typify today's Catalina resident: visionary, persistent, not afraid to be different. In love with the sea and the views.
McAfee  hauled his "house" up a hill and opened what would become a hotel.
McAfee's 1912 vision spawned today's Catalina Island, which offers luxury hotels, cottages, condos, camping and bargain hotels --  you can be active or laid back, your call.
WE ENJOYED the pleasant ride over on Catalina Express, a comfy ferry. The only year round boat service to Catalina Island, it offers regular daily departures from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point to both the main city, Avalon, and the quieter, smaller Two Harbors. Between my history talk and the cocktail, the smooth trip over flew.  A VIP lounge for a few dollars more is worth the upgrade:
We strolled to the lovely Descanso Beach Club offers fine dining, lovely landscaping and a variety of water sports.
 Here we met our guide for an narrated kayaking journey to Frog Rock.
ONCE THERE, we called the Catalina Boat House and were picked up at the nearby harbor in the island's favorite mode of transport, a golf cart. (The waiting list for a car is years long and gas is more than $7 a gallon, so the golf carts are fun, sensible and environmentally friendly.) The Boathouse -- formerly the captain's Catalina Beach House Hotel -- is a pleasant walk from the action, in a residential area with friendly people and dogs.  Captain McAfee would approve, for he was a lover of the good life -- from the flying 
Keller and Nora prepare to enjoy a few
active but relaxing days on Catalina, which
is very dog friendly and a lovely get-away.
fish he showed off at night -- to fresh seafood he favored.
The Catalina Express runs regularly from several mainland
departure points with a comfy, fast and scenic one-hour journey.
The beautiful and historic Avalon Casino has a Christmas tree atop.
HE WOULD have loved the coconut shrimp at Steve's Steakhouse, one of our stops on the delightful "Taste of Catalina" tour we booked, with our charming guide Lili Dana. Six varied and thoughtfully ordered stops are included in the three-hour walking excursion where Lili serves up intriguing bits of island lore to accompany a half-dozen "light bites" including fabulous green beans at the town's well loved Oriental restaurant, Mr.Ning's Chinese Garden, bedecked with dozens of umbrellas. On to  splendid seafood chowder at Bluewater Avalon with its magnificent waterfront patio, then stops for a Mexican snack, cinnamon tea and a tasty ice cream soda dessert. Each stop has character and Lili keeps the commentary running in an amusing, never cloying fashion.
It's fun, filling and educational and a good way to get a feel of the island, returning to favorites as we did to Steve's and Bluewater. We also dined one night at Avalon Grille, which is a world class establishment. The scallops and tenderloin were superb, service impeccable.

BEST BETS: for a hit of holiday cheer,
tap into "A Christmas Carol"
at Cygnet Theatre

 This Old Town venue in San Diego, provides
a  fun spin on the familiar story:
 Sean Murray's
 adaptation offers laughter, 
ironic but tender touches, fine acting 
by a versatile cast, adaptations of familiar carols
(Oh Come Emmanuel and Bring a Torch
 Jeanette Isabella) Book it for a fast track 
to holiday joy: 
THE FLYING fish the cap'n loved can be seen on the walls of Catalina Island's famed casino, which we'll feature down the road in its own story.  The artwork is phenomenal.... and the handsome museum within -- building its own larger complex -- is  a delightful way to spend a few hours.
Catalina offers upscale spa treatments, diving, biking, Saturday night movies and splendid free weekend organ concerts, parasailing, charter boats-- or just lovely beachfront places to park yourself, read and see if you can glimpse the mainland you've left behind. And for this Montana native, seeing bison outside of my Yellowstone Park stomping grounds was a wonder!
The Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce is one of the most efficient and helpful I've come across in years of travel writing.  The fine website helps line up whatever you fancy for your tailor-made Catalina get-away. 
NEXT UP: He was born in Russia and named
 Israel Isidore Baline, but most of the world knows him by his American name, Irving Berlin. La Jolla Playhouse is presenting a tuneful, masterfully performed holiday offering, "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin," through Jan. 3. Whereiscookie enjoyed opening night of Felder's brilliant performance as the beloved composer and master of the '88s, whose music forms a time-honored chapter in the American musical lexicon.


  1. Have not been to classy Catalina for many moons, but just booked a 3-day sojourn for Valentine's Day. Thanks for the encouragement. Will be a nice break from the snows.

  2. Fun piece about a fun place. I am looking for a get-away to surprise my girlfriend during college break. The plan is to pop the question there! Maybe on a kayak. My parents were married there and still talk about it.

  3. I have never been to this beautiful sounding place, although on a clear day I can see it from my kayak off La Jolla shores. Thanks for the jump start. Will make it a must when it gets warm enough to camp.....the "quiet end" of the island sounds idyllic for me. And I want to see those bison.

  4. Nostalgic in New MexicoDecember 23, 2015 at 7:52 AM

    Got out my late dad's old long play and smiled. Always wondered about what the Four Preps sailed in --that "any old thing that would stay afloat." The Express Ferry sounds divine. Dad would have loved this piece.

  5. Another Sant(a): BarbaraDecember 23, 2015 at 3:44 PM

    Santa Catalina...... the island of romance. Mine needs a jump start. Here we come. Appreciate the suggestion at holiday time.