By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2001
No guardrails impede the view of Boushay Canyon, 1,800 feet straight down from the edge of a narrow dirt road. As the Hummer hits a hairpin curve, my foot reflexively shoots to the brakes, or where brakes would be if I weren't in the back seat.
"Don't worry," says biologist Misty Gay, who's actually driving. The Hummer or the civilian version of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle was built for tough terrain under battlefield conditions, she tells me. "It can even tilt up to 45 degrees without turning over," she adds.
Gay seems as highly able as the vehicle. So I stop my back-seat driving and start taking in a view of Santa Catalina Island that hasn't changed since Hollywood directors flocked here in the 1930s and pretended they were in the Black Hills of South Dakota, on the shores of Tahiti or in the Arizona desert.
Back then, the 76-square-mile island just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California was primarily the private playground of the Wrigley chewing gum family, moviemakers and stars like John Wayne, who played their parts on location and then returned again and again for pleasure.
Today, about a million people a year visit the island, including many from cruise ships that briefly dock at the port town of Avalon. The vast majority of tourists spend their time in the little town, seemingly unaware that just beyond lies 52 more miles of coastline and more than 42,000 acres of unspoiled land.
Nearly 90 percent of Catalina Island is part of a land conservancy created by the Wrigley family. William Wrigley Jr. acquired the island in 1919, and in 1975, his family donated most of it to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. The nonprofit's mission: to preserve a piece of California as it used to be, before the white men arrived to build their missions, and their condos.
The land and water beyond Avalon are known mostly to experienced yachtsmen who moor along the isthmus, to hikers and campers and to herds of wild bison. The Hummer trips, started by the Santa Catalina Island Co. last year, are intended to introduce more visitors to the island's rustic beauty. The High Adventure Tour leaves twice a day from the only other town on the island: Two Harbors, population 150. People, only half-jokingly, say it's where residents of Avalon population 3,200 go to unwind.
While only 23 miles separate Avalon from Two Harbors, the bus trip between them takes two hours. The first 10 miles are paved. Once you pass a small airport, you hit a winding dirt road built for stagecoach traffic. On the way we pass a total of three people, all hikers, but have to stop a half-dozen times to wait for bison to get off the road. All are the progeny of a few animals that escaped the roundups after cowboy movies were shot here generations ago. Between 300 and 400 bison are allowed to roam. The herds are culled to keep their numbers in check; at the airport restaurant you can buy buffalo burgers that presumably are quite fresh.
You can see all of downtown Two Harbors in a minute or two. The outdoor bar serves "buffalo milk," a powerful signature drink made of creme de cacao, creme de banana, vodka, whipped cream and a dribble of Kahlua. On weekends, the bar features live music on its broad deck along the sea. The deck attaches to two restaurants. A general store is next door. Across the road is a dive shop that also rents snorkeling gear and ocean kayaks. That's pretty much it. Suddenly, you can understand how Avalon residents could indeed consider Two Harbors a relaxing getaway. People stroll the single downtown street a dirt road eating ice-cream cones and chatting. Half the people on the yachts anchored offshore, it seems, have dogs that like to be walked as much as any landlubber dog.
The only lodging in town is about a 10-minute amble along a path that cuts past the Two Harbors school. About nine children attend the one-room schoolhouse. It used to be K-5, but this fall it will be K-4 because the only incoming fifth-grader decided to commute to Avalon. Stone steps twist up a hill to the Banning House Lodge, an 11-room inn built in 1910 by Judge Joseph Brent Banning, brother of Phineas T. Banning, a major early developer of Los Angeles. Luckily, the Bannings did little to Two Harbors. Initially, the lodge was for family and friends; later it hosted Hollywood stars and other celebrities who were either filming there or using the lodge and surrounding landscape as an escape from the adoring masses.
The lodge was restored in 1987. The rooms are simple, but each has a water view. A shared living room with a massive fireplace has comfy overstuffed chairs. From the windows and patio, you can look over the mountains or down to the bright blue waters of the Isthmus Cove to the left and Catalina Harbor to the right. A second patio area outside our door is sheltered with a trellis trailing flowers and ivy. It's the simple-yet-beautiful type of summer home rich people built back when they had confidence and class. It's surprising that you can still buy this kind of serenity and privacy for as little as $104 a night.
A family had rented all 11 rooms for the weekend but canceled at the last minute, leaving my daughter and me as the only lodge guests. Just as we finish breakfast in the dining room, with its old oak furniture, Gay arrives to pick us up for our tour. Several other passengers are already on board.
Gay, a natural history expert, came to Catalina Island 15 years ago to study the plant life, and never left. Without her instruction, the island appeared to me rather barren. I had noticed the scrubby pines and palms, and could smell the eucalyptus. But by and large I saw brown hills with patches of sagebrush: hills beautiful because of their height and craggy rocks, certainly not for their flora. But Gay's running commentary teaches us to look closer. As it turns out, there are about 400 kinds of native plants. After our tour, my eyes start noticing the bush mallow, the holly trees, the mission manzanita, the morning glories, the sticky monkey flowers and the pesty wild mustard and sweet fennel two "invasive exotics."
In fact, Catalina Island has seven endemic plants, meaning they grow nowhere else in the world. As we ride the bumpy roads, Gay stops to show them off like old friends: Catalina Live-Forever, St. Catherine's lace, the ironwood tree. The island is home to more than 100 species of birds, including subspecies that live only here. Each December, the Audubon Society hosts a count.
The Hummer suddenly climbs out of the interior to the top of Silver Peak, 1,802 feet above the sea and a few dozen feet above the clouds. It's an odd sight: clouds blocking our view of things directly below. But in the distance, above the clouds, we have a clear view of the peaks of Mount Orizaba, more than 2,000 feet above the sea.
We weave our way around canyons on high roads chiseled from the sides of mountains. Far below we see Cherry Valley, Pirates Cove, 4th of July Cove, Emerald Bay. Gay does not have to tell us how the bay got its name it is exactly the color of the gemstone. Gay leads us down the mountain past Starlight Beach to Parson's Landing, where we have a picnic along the beach. A reddish-brown Catalina fox spots us and dashes into the underbrush.
When we reach a road above Isthmus Cove, Gay points to the underwater skeleton of the ship used in the film "Mutiny on the Bounty." That and more than 200 other movies have been filmed on Catalina's shores, including "Treasure Island" and "MacArthur." A generation of Hollywood cowboys were attacked by fake Apaches riding painted ponies on these rugged hills. And many bad guys needing a shave lived the last moments of their celluloid lives climbing Catalina's peaks, bullets ricocheting off the boulders.
Now that Hollywood has hundreds of millions to spend on a feature film, Catalina is not as popular as a backdrop. Still, Hollywood types occasionally come here to escape the smog and congestion.
"Last week they filmed 'Days of Our Lives' here, and Booger from 'Revenge of the Nerds' was visiting," Gay tells us as she steers along the edge of Silver Peak and back to Two Harbors.
We arrive a bit dusty, but wiser, and jump into the cool waters of the Pacific for a short swim before renting an ocean kayak for a look around. Way too soon, it is time to leave. One night here is not nearly enough.
A ferry runs directly from San Pedro on the mainland to Two Harbors and back. But personally, much as I liked the isolation and rural beauty of Two Harbors, I also appreciated Avalon. The town is a tourist magnet for a reason.
Both ends of the island offer water sports, and the beaches near Two Harbors are superior to those in Avalon. But only Avalon has the "touristy" things that most people disparage, yet by and large want.
I particularly enjoyed the "semi-subs" that go underwater just deep enough so that the pilot's elevated cabin sticks out of the top of the sea. Watching from the wide windows below deck, we floated through forests of giant kelp. Bulbs filled with gas help the world's fastest-growing plants float upright from the ocean floor as they stretch toward the sun.
In Lover's Cove, a natural preserve, fish gather in remembrance of the food pellets that employees of the semi-sub throw for them each trip. Bright orange garibaldi and a variety of bass and smelt swarm in such numbers it seems you could walk across their backs should you happen to be swimming nearby. After dark, the same tour flashes lights on underwater night creatures: lobster, eel and the fish that make up the ocean's "cleaning crew."
Other captains offer snorkeling and glass-bottom boats; rafts take passengers on various trips around the island, including a dolphin-seeking trip. If dolphin pods are found, some passengers jump in to swim near them.
May through September, a night cruise hunts for flying fish, which jump and then glide as far as 50 feet across the water. The ultimate trip, but exponentially more expensive at $100 an hour per person, is in a small submarine that dives 40 feet.
Strict zoning laws preserve the character of Avalon. Most new buildings are limited to 28 feet high. Developers planning a hotel must make housing available for employees. Only about 500 cars, grandfathered in by city ordinance, are allowed.
As a result, bikes and golf carts, both of which can be rented, are the major mode of transportation around Avalon. The town is so crime-free that most golf carts can be started with the same key, so pay attention to small details on your cart.
Shops and restaurants line the streets, some of which are closed to all traffic, including golf carts. But you can use carts on a nine-hole golf course. Horseback riding is available nearby.
Romance is an obvious byproduct of life in Avalon, which hosts enough weddings to support several wedding planners. Some couples choose a free hilltop, others use the Casino, a turn-of-the-century building that features a ballroom that can hold 1,200 dancers. Avalon is, in a way, a convenient place to tie the knot, because at the end of the ceremony, you're already at a great honeymoon spot.
There are a number of ways to critique a vacation destinatin. Near the end of our first day, which included time on both sides of the island, my daughter offered a pretty good means of judging.
"I wish," she said, "that this day would never end."
GETTING THERE: Los Angeles International, Long Beach and John Wayne (Orange County) airports are less than an hour's drive to Catalina Island ferries. US Airways and American fly nonstop to LAX, with fares from $270 round trip. On Oct. 8, Jet Blue will begin nonstop service from Dulles to Long Beach for $254 round trip.
High-speed boats leave almost hourly for Catalina from Long Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro, Calif. The trip takes up to 90 minutes. Round-trip fares are about $40; reservations recommended. Details: 800-481-3470,
. For daily service from Newport Beach, call 949-673-5245,
Helicopter service is available from Long Beach and San Pedro for $127 round trip. Details: Island Express, 800-2-AVALON,
Island Hopper Airlines (858-279-4595), a charter, flies daily from San Diego for $200 round trip.
GETTING AROUND: The tiny town of Avalon is accessible by foot, or you can rent golf carts ($30 an hour) or bikes ($12 a day). Bus service is also available; the two-hour trip from Avalon to Two Harbors costs $20.
WHERE TO STAY: Two Harbors has but one choice, the simple yet splendid Banning House Lodge (800-851-0217 ,
). Rates for the 11 rooms range from $104 to $198 per night.
Avalon offers several dozen choices of hotels, inns and lodges, ranging from $40 to $620 a night. The Pavilion Lodge (513 Crescent Ave.,800-851-0217; www.scico.com/html/pavilion_lodge.html is a simple two-story hotel on the beach. Rates run from $72 to $162 per night.
For luxury and incredible views, try the six-room Inn on Mount Ada (800-608-7669, www.catalina.com/mtada), a Georgian mansion that was the private vacation home of the Wrigley (gum) family. Rates are $280 to $620 per night, with breakfast, lunch and a golf cart included.
For information on house rentals: Catalina Island Vacation Rentals, 800-631-5280, www.catalinavacations.com.
WHERE TO EAT: In Avalon, Armstrong's (320 Crescent Ave.) has a great outdoor patio along the water and good regional fish dishes. Entrees for lunch are $6.95 to $13.95, dinner $10.95 to $26.95. Locals say for elegant dining, hit the Catalina Country Club at the golf course, where entrees start at $30.
CAMPING: The island offers five campgrounds with varied amenities and a number of boat-in sites in isolated coves. Campground sites cost $12 daily, or $30 for tent cabins or teepees. Details: 310-510-2800,
ACTIVITIES: The two-hour Humvee tour is $79 per person (includes a snack) or $135 for four hours (lunch included). Details: 310-510-2800, www.catalina.com/scico. Raft trips begin at $45. Details: 310-510-0211. Submarine tours, at $100 an hour, must be reserved at 877-252-6262, www.seamagine.com. Other land and sea tours, including the semi-submersible, leave often enough that advance reservations are not essential unless you have limited time. Horseback riding is also available. For spa treatments at the Best Western Canyon Hotel (888 Country Club Rd.), call 310-510-9255.
VOLUNTEERING: The Catalina Island Conservancy recruits volunteers for a variety of environmental projects and provides tents for a limited number of campers who can commit for five days. Details: 310-510-2595, www.catalinaconservancy.org.
INFORMATION: Catalina Island Visitors Bureau, 310-510-1520,www.catalina.com or www.visitcatalina.org.