AVALON — On most days, it might as well be Atlantis--invisible from the mainland, swallowed in offshore haze or low clouds, surrounded by an expanse of sea that, to the eyes of someone standing on the Orange County shore and looking southwest, seems to go on all the way to Australia. It is detached from the mainstream, almost otherworldly, a kind of Southern California afterthought. Inlanders have to remind themselves that it's out there.
But while Santa Catalina Island, Orange County's nearest western neighbor, may be out of sight much of the time, out of mind it is not. Over the years, the island has become the retreat of choice for thousands of Orange County residents who regularly sail or fly the 26 miles (give or take a few, depending on the destination) in order to breathe clean air, soak up bright sun, swim, dive, hike, fish--in short, to relax in depth.
While part of Los Angeles County, Catalina nevertheless has enduring recreational and economic ties to Orange County that in some cases go back two generations or more, to the days when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. owned the island, stocked it with a buffalo herd and built himself a magnificent Georgian mansion overlooking Avalon harbor. And in those days, when Newport Beach was beginning to emerge as a yachting center, the yachtsmen's destination of choice often was Catalina. For Orange County residents, the island became a preferred vacation spot and infected visitors with the sort of island fever that compels frequent return visits. Many formed a lifelong attachment.
Carolyn Olsen is one. A frequent visitor to Catalina since she was 3 years old, Olsen today is married, has grown children and has turned the family's three-generation love affair with the island into a business. Last year, the Olsen family opened the Garden House Inn, a seven-room, bed-and-breakfast inn on Claressa Street in Avalon.
The post-Victorian structure, built in 1923, was spotted for sale by Carolyn's son Jon, who was running a landscaping firm on the island. He set to work restoring it, but "halfway through the renovation, he yelled for help and my husband and I became involved," Olsen said. "Then Jon convinced his sister Cathy to come over and manage the place, and now we're all here. It used to be that we lived in Newport Beach and vacationed on Catalina. Now we live on Catalina and vacation in Newport Beach."
The Olsens continue to maintain a home in Newport Beach, as well as their boat, the Norwester, which once belonged to John Wayne. But now they consider themselves residents of Avalon and spend only one week a month on the mainland.
In the summer, Mel and Maxine Morrison spend even less than that, when they become residents of Newport Beach in name only. When the weather warms up, the Morrisons head for the beach like thousands of others. But when they reach the beach, they simply keep going and don't stop for 26 miles.
For about 100 days each summer, the Morrisons live aboard their cabin cruiser, the Sea Swan, luxuriating in the small-town pace of Catalina. Like many Orange County boat owners who make frequent visits to Avalon, they belong to the Catalina Island Yacht Club and moor their boat near its dock. Maxine estimated that perhaps a third of the club's membership comes from Orange County.
Avalon, said Mel, may be the last true small town in Southern California.
"In a small community like this," he said, "people are very friendly and you end up knowing a lot of people. That's one of the best things. And they can be millionaires or people with 20 bucks in their pockets and they'll all be equal here. And you see people from Orange County constantly."
The Morrisons, who run a real estate investment and management firm, said that they have considered buying a condominium on the island, "but we always come back to the preference of being on our boat," Mel said. "It's special for us here because we can spend full time on the boat."
And, said Maxine, "if you get tired of the action in Avalon, you can always go to the back side of the island to Cat Harbor or to Cherry Cove or somewhere else. Also, (Catalina) is kind of like an 'in' spot to go now. It used to be kind of corny, say, to buy a T-shirt that said Catalina on it, sort of like getting one from Niagara Falls, but now it's the big thing. Everybody thinks it's kind of a neat thing to go to Catalina. I just never get tired of the place."
In fact, said Mel, "If I asked Maxine if she'd rather go to Europe or Catalina, she'd say Catalina."