I’m a sucker for places that provide such an all-encompassing experience that you forget where you are. For a small fortune, Disneyland lets visitors spend a day pretending they’re not trapped in a mind-numbing cash-grab smack in the middle of a pretty lackluster city. A little more money can get you a weekend at Coachella, where the combination of drugs, neon lights and live music is almost enough of a party to ignore the fact you’re burning up in the middle of a nearly uninhabitable desert. But arguably the biggest and best shift in environment begins a mere 20-minute walk from my downtown Long Beach apartment.
When boarding the ferry to Santa Catalina Island, most people fall into three distinct categories. That clueless bunch? They’re the rookies; the families nervously looking over their luggage as they hope the island lives up to the photos they saw online and not the negative Yelp reviews some old curmudgeon left.
The next group is the handful of locals who came to the mainland for something and are now headed home. They’re on nearly every Catalina Express (www.catalinaexpress.com) boat, and they generally look either relieved to be heading home or disappointed to be returning from vacation. Rather than drinking on the ferry, they’re willing to throw on headphones and wait to have a cocktail until after they’ve avoided the tourists.
Finally, you’ve got the folks who know the island paradise they’re heading to and aren’t afraid to share their excitement. Maybe they used to go as little kids and are returning for the first time as adults, or maybe they hop on the ferry as often as possible to avoid the crushing existential dread that comes with modern life these days.
The first time I caught a glimpse of the island through the windows of the Commodore Lounge—the upgraded section of the vessel—I immediately jumped from the nervous newbie group to the excited returners. Sure, I hadn’t actually set foot on it yet, but I felt as if Catalina Island was the kind of place where I’d live in my dreams. Avalon resembles a Mediterranean city on some exotic coast, rather than a tourist destination an hour away from the smog of Los Angeles. Everything was so pristine that I wasn’t sure Walt Disney hadn’t hijacked the boat and placed a projector behind the glass somehow. I finally understood what my photographer friends meant when they’d say that certain places were torturous because you couldn’t fully capture their beauty on camera.
It’s almost impossible to not notice how clean everything is. Since there are few cars (pretty much everyone drives golf carts, and gas is, like, $6 per gallon), the sky is so blue that it looks PhotoShopped, and even the water around the docks is clean enough that the most judgmental Laguna Beach retiree wouldn’t mind swimming in it. But a five-minute walk from the center of town shows you why there are only a handful of oblivious tourist families swimming in the waters right in front of Avalon’s hotels.
Around pretty much every corner of the mountainous island, the ocean becomes so clear and blue it seems weird to see the towering buildings and smog of the mainland in the distance. After making the short walk along Pebbly Beach Road to Lovers Cove, I tested the bottoms of my feet against the rocky terrain to check out the water. Even on a day when the locals were complaining about how murky it was, I didn’t get in past my knees before spotting dozens of colorful fish swimming around my shins. A few minutes and a snorkel from the Wet Spot Rentals (120 Pebbly Beach Rd., 310-510-2229; www.catalinakayaks.com) stand later, I was living out my Finding Nemo dreams and questioned why people would spend money on a glass-bottom boat tour when they could be face to face with many of the same fish just a few steps off the rocky beaches.
Considering the small year-round population of the island and lack of businesses that many suburbanites might consider normal, most of Avalon is dedicated to either outdoor activities or eating and drinking. One exception is the gorgeous Catalina Island Museum (217 Metropole Ave., 310-510-2414; www.catalinamuseum.org), where you can get your smart on with a mix of artifacts and art that depict the history of this paradise. During the busy season, the beachfront stretch of restaurants—eat/drink at Avalon Grille (423 Crescent Ave., 310-510-7494) if you’re looking for something fancy, or the Lobster Trap (128 Catalina Ave., 310-510-8585; www.catalinalobstertrap.com) if you’re not—and bars becomes an Instagram-friendly seafood heaven before morphing into an oceanside party scene that would rival some of the best drinking streets in college towns. Couple that with the seemingly endless amount of hiking and snorkeling, the best zip-lining I’ve ever done, and other outdoorsy options, and you know the native foxes, deer, buffalo and other local critters have seen more than their fair share of hungover adventurers.
Even with all of the tourism and liquor-induced debauchery, there’s a certain level of harmony between humans and nature on Catalina that serves as a reminder of how things might’ve been before big businesses and cars took over the rest of Southern California. Despite feeling the effects of the drought harder than just about anywhere else (alcohol seems like a good deal there because water is such a limited resource), the neighborhoods and businesses of the island don’t feel as invasive on the land as many of the state’s forced suburban developments. Although there’s an obvious human footprint—just ask one of the locals how the bison and other animals ended up over there—the area is clearly concerned with maintaining an ecological balance, even as boatloads of tourists shuttle over.
Sure, the island’s monthly concert series will provide entertainment for those looking for a “reason” to visit Catalina this summer, but the real draw goes down in late September with the Catalina Wine Mixer (visitcatalinaisland.com/catalinawinemixer).
The Step Brothers-themed, weekend-long festival is now in its third year and rapidly becoming one of Avalon’s biggest events. Whether you’re actually interested in wine is almost irrelevant, as the complaints from confused wine snobs on the event’s Facebook page show, but it’s certainly one of the best opportunities you’ll ever have to get hammered in paradise with thousands of other equally sloppy young folks.
Regardless of how many times I visit Catalina, it seems as if there’s always something I missed last time or had never noticed before. If you’re into beaches, nature, drinking and/or seafood—a few of my favorite things—there’s an island a whole lot closer (and cheaper) than Hawaii or the Caribbean. Oh, and don’t make the rookie mistake of forgetting to pick up your free ferry ticket on your birthday.