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Still Crazy Over : CATALINA : Newer hotels have taken hold and the activities now include even para-sailing, but : Southern California's favorite island getaway hasn't lost any of its charm.

April 15, 1990|VIVIAN and ROY RINGER | The Ringers are Malibu free-lance writers .

It was a brisk, windy spring day in the San Pedro Channel. An occasional whitecap sent spray flying over the bow of the small ferry as we passed surfacing California gray whales on the way toward Avalon and Southern California's very own Mediterranean isle.

Except for the swift one-hour crossing, our trip was not much different than our first passages to Catalina in the 1950s, when flights of flying fish and convoys of dolphins would accompany the Catalina and Avalon--the "great white steamers"--on their two-hour voyages from San Pedro.

The aging ships were taken out of service many years ago, but generations of Californians will remember dancing and romancing their way across the moonlit channel.

"I found my love in Avalon, beside the bay,

I left my love in Avalon, and sailed away."

We all knew the lyrics.

For reasons not entirely nostalgic, we often return to Avalon. Although the town has new attractions, it still holds great charm for us because it changes so slowly. These days we go either in the spring or late October to avoid the summer crowds and the higher summer rates.

On our recent trip, it was evident from the range of our fellow passengers that the resort has lost none of its appeal for visitors of all ages and interests. There were young scuba divers and backpackers; a former Church of England vicar and his wife from Lancashire, intent on photographing buffalo in the back country, and a young vacationing couple from Boston, Roberto and Annetta Gallinelli.

On first sighting Avalon, Roberto was struck by its resemblance to Amalfi, the seaside town south of Naples. "My people are from Amalfi," he said, "and this looks like it."

This sense of being in a distant place, though it is only 20 miles from the mainland, affects many first-time Avalon visitors. After many visits over many years, we, too, have a sense of being far from home. Islands do that to the imagination.

Steve Geier, who runs Avalon's newest hotel, the Metropole, told us it is not uncommon for foreign passengers from cruise ships that now stop here to ask island shopkeepers if they accept American currency.

And although the island is part of Los Angeles County, visitors from the East and Midwest have been known to ask if it's in the same time zone as California.

From the sea, Avalon does have a European appearance, similar to resorts along the French or Italian rivieras. A backdrop of mountains . . . a cameo harbor with racing yachts and fishing crafts swinging to their moorings . . . hotels and cafes lining the seafront . . . the chiming of a campanile . . . a casino on a promontory.

(Unfortunately, the white, Moorish-style Casino is no longer the first landmark visible from approaching ferries. That distinction now belongs to a massive terrace of condominiums built on a steep slope at Hamilton Cove, just west of Avalon.)

Once ashore, the city looks much the same as it ever did. Rows of palms and silvery olive trees, set in large planters amid hot bursts of flowers, still run the length of ocean-front Crescent Avenue.

There are still more electric golf carts on the streets than passenger cars. The bell tower still tolls the hours from high on a mountain slope, just steps away from Western novelist Zane Grey's former home, now a small hotel.

The quaint Victorian Holly Hill House still sits precariously on a stone ledge above the harbor. And a bright array of pennants still flies from the yardarm at the end of the wooden green Pleasure Pier, survivor of many northeast gales that have swept large yachts onto the beach.

Old-timers still gather at the foot of the pier every morning, sipping their carry-out coffee and arguing over subjects from town politics to Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda's latest dumbhead decision. And the saltwater-taffy-pulling machine still flails away, year after year, in the window of a candy shop.

Despite first impressions, the town is changing. The Hotel Metropole on Crescent Avenue is the first to be built on the beachfront in many years. The adjoining Metropole Market Place, a small maze of boutiques, tourist gift shops and a florist, also is new.

Many restaurants and older hotels have undergone complete remodelings, while others are scrambling to catch up. Historic homes are converting to bed and breakfast inns.

In all its history, Avalon has had two grand hotels that drew the rich and famous from around the world. The first, the original Metropole, was left in ashes after a fire swept the town in 1915. Its much smaller namesake stands on the same site.

The other great hostelry was the St. Catherine, just around Casino Point on Descanso Beach. It gradually fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1966. But the Santa Catalina Island Co., Avalon's largest land owner, is planning to build another hotel on the same site and promises it will match the Old World luxury of its predecessor.

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