A cheerful little island that bustles in spring and summer snoozes in winter, Catalina sits just 26 miles offshore. Arriving by boat,you’ll first see the misty green peaks of a mountain range that rises from the ocean floor to form this and the other Channel Islands. Next, your eyes will be drawn to the gleaming buildings climbing the hillside above the Mediterranean-style port of Avalon and its legendary casino. And finally,you’ll enter the thriving harbor, alive with Pleasure boats and the accasional cruise ship. The picturesque, winding streets of the island are lined with red-tiled houses and shops. Alas, hotel rooms here are in short supply and Pricey during summer; most visitors take the terry over for the day, a trip that takes as little as an hour.
Catalina Island’s resident population of 3,700 is far outnumbered by the influx of up to 12,000 visitors a day, and the town of Avalon, established in 1913, is straining at the seams. Fortunately, most of the island (28 miles wide by 8 miles long) has been preserved in its unspoiled natural state, and traffic is generally limited to golf carts and the buses that transport visitors along the back roads. (You can see even more of the island if you hike.) A 15-year plan to add houses, small hotels, and civic amenities—without sacrificing the small-town charm—is currently underway.
Most of the island has been privately owned since the native Indians were resettled on the mainland in 1811. Avalon was named in 1888 by the sister of an early developer, George Shatto, after the island of Avalon in TennySon’s Idylls of the king, the refuge of blessed souls in Celtic mythology. ln 1919 William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum scion, purchased the Santa Catalina Island Company, built a casino in Avalon and a mansion for himself,promoted deep-sea fishing, and established a spring-training camp for his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. Avalon became a popular tourist spot during the 1930s, but most of the interior of the island and much of the coastline remained undeveloped. A nonprofit conservancy acquired the title to about 86 percent of the island in 1975 and now administers this unique open space in conjunction with the County of Los Angeles.
The native wildlife in Catalina’s underdeveloped interior is extraordinary. It is home to more than 100 species of birds, 400 species of native plant life(including eight types found only on this island, such as the Catalina ironweed, wild tomato, and dudleya hassel, whose generic name means “live forever”). Herds of wild bison (left by a movie crew several decades ago), boars, and goats roam free over the back region of the island.