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A CHANGE OF PLACE : Going to Catalina Is a Good Excuse to Isle Away the Hours

October 16, 1994|Wanda Coleman

While my husband's employers were moving their business from their mid-Wilshire location to Downtown, some of the staff celebrated with a midweek excursion to Santa Catalina Island. I agreed to go, but when the alarm went off at 7 a.m., it was a struggle to haul my less-than-enthusiastic self out of bed.

"Ever been there?" Huz asked. "No. Maybe. I'm not sure!" I muttered. Sea and surf have never been my style. I prepared lethargically, Huz prodding me at intervals with reminders that the company rendezvous was set for 8:30. Racing from the house, we beat morning traffic, arriving seconds shy of missing the Catalina Express. The upper deck was packed, so we sat in the forward compartment. The mood turned romantic when we went outside to stand arm-in-arm at the prow, enjoying wind and spray, watching the coastline recede. The sky was overcast and gray--my kind of weather. The water was aquamarine and choppy. The cabin cruiser clipped rockily along at 25 miles per hour.

After 10 minutes, my landlubber's legs tired of the pitching and yawing, so we went inside. While Huz read a book, I went to the front of the cabin. The grumble of the engine conjured up the adventure novels of my youth: with Sinbad's hapless crew on his fifth "Arabian Nights" voyage, his doomed ship meeting the rocks; aboard the Hispaniola, avoiding the peg-legged wrath of Treasure Island's mutinous John Silver, or out from New Bedford aboard Ahab's Pequod, hunting Moby Dick.

Minutes off Avalon Bay, sunny Catalina emerged on the horizon. Onetime retreat for Laurel and Hardy, the 21-mile-long island was a sometime movie set. It's a former colony of Spain, pirate's hold, gold rush bonanza and splashground for the wealthy, a familar tourist flock since the Jazz Age. Today you can jet ski, play miniature golf, ride horses and even parasail. But in our state of citified ennui, that seemed too much like work. We opted for a tour package. Eager to see some buffalo, I picked Skyline Drive. But Huz preferred the Glass Bottom Boat.

As we boarded the MV Moonstone, I had a sudden sense of deja vu. As a petulant teen-ager, I had visited the island with my mother's church youth group. I'd enjoyed the boat ride but thought Catalina dull stuff. Now I stared, mesmerized, through the window to the underworld, blinking only to compare the creatures below with those illustrated on the flyer. The calico bass, Day-Glo orange garibaldi, opaleye and half-moon fish were abundant, but few of the more exotic denizens came up to play. What passed for a couple of eels wiggled near the ocean floor. A spiny lobster crawled between rocks. The high point was the unexpected sighting of a large shadowy bat ray.

Under hot blue sky, we walked toward Descanso Beach, studied the Art Deco murals over the Avalon Theatre entrance, then visited the adjacent tiny history museum. After lunch, we skittered back along the boardwalk to catch the tour bus and soon were navigating interior roads so dangerous that mirrors were placed at intervals to help drivers make safe turns. From the two-hour narration, we garnered that the buffalo were actually bison, that the world's only saltwater toilets had once been installed here to conserve fresh water and that all surviving Gabrielino Indians had been forced off the island before the turn of the century.

Back in town, our trip nearly over, we enjoyed root beer floats, feeling like slightly overbaked truants. Sure, it was corny, but it busted our routine nicely. On the way back to Long Beach Harbor, Huz read quietly, then fell asleep against my shoulder. Miles from shore a daredevil sky diver dangled from his parachute. Then I noticed a flock of gulls. Fins appeared and arcing dolphins broke water level. I watched until they disappeared. Then I shut my eyes and imagined having that kind of freedom.

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