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Travel Through Time, Catalina Style

Avalon offers visitors a restful opportunity to escape the travails of life in the 1990s.

September 24, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you didn't get enough vacation this summer or if, like me, you think of work as something that keeps interrupting your vacation, you might want to head for Catalina. In fall, the weather's still warm but the summer crowds have thinned out. Time doesn't exactly stand still there, but it slows to a stroll.

From the moment I board the boat to go those famous 26 miles across the sea, I have the feeling of traveling backward--maybe because I actually am traveling backward, watching Long Beach slip away. And when I disembark in Avalon, my deja vu grows even stronger.

Avalon is a beachfront town reminiscent of every other beachfront town you've ever been in, from Key West to Provincetown, the salty air permeated with smell of fried foods, fudge and outboard motor exhaust. The main drag, Crescent Avenue, faces an actual beach, with a stall where you can rent umbrellas, beach chairs and sand toys. The beach is the preferred hangout of what an old Catalina hand calls "the cooler people," not because they're cool but because they bring large coolers over on the boat.

My only problem is, I'm not sure what decade I'm in. It doesn't seem to be the '90s. Nor, thank God, can I discern anything that smacks of the '80s. Not only is Avalon a Starbucks-free zone, it's also irony-free--the kind of resort town, like Honolulu, where newlyweds can dare to dress in matching outfits without causing a raised eyebrow.

But I can't decide. Should I stop by Catalina by the Sea at 405 Crescent Ave. for a real coconut shell carved in the shape of a monkey's head, only $7.95, just like the ones I remember from my Florida childhood in the '50s?

Perhaps I should pick up some cotton candy from Lloyd's of Avalon, 315 Crescent Ave., and travel back in time to my first sugar-sticky kiss at the Firemen's Carnival in upstate New York in the '60s. Or maybe I should just sink into a booth at Larry's Luau, 509 Crescent Ave., order a tequila sunrise and revisit the '70s.

This time warp is not news to the locals. When I cautiously mention to longtime Catalina resident Elaine Minnis that in some ways Catalina seemed to be stuck in the '70s, she laughs. "Oh, I thought it was the '50s," she says.

Her view is bolstered by a sign outside the original Antonio's Pizzeria, 114 Sumner Ave., just off Crescent Avenue: "This restaurant has been declared a genuine Catalina Bomb Shelter. Come on in and bask in the decaying 1950s while the world passes on. Your host, Jack Tucey."

In further confirmation of Antonio's throwback status, another notice proclaims, "Shirts and shoes required, bra and panties optional." On the wall not far from the giant moose head is a yellowing photo of a young (and shirtless) Clint Eastwood, but it's unclear if he dined there or is just an icon.

Putting all P.C. considerations aside, I sample a delightfully greasy cheese-and-pepperoni-laden slice, $1.75 from the takeout window, and am promptly wafted back to a certain summer on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1972. The '70s, the '50s . . . my sister, my daughter . . . All I know is, I'm Someplace Else, in Some Other Time. And isn't that what a vacation, even a mini-one, is supposed to be?

If you're looking for a trendy cutting-edge experience, forget Catalina. But if you're a nostalgia fan who'd like an escapist day at the beach, with maybe a little shopping and snacking and a nice cold umbrella drink, then Santa Catalina is the place to be.

It's easy to go to Catalina for the day. If your private yacht is in dry dock, take the freeway to San Pedro or Long Beach and hop on a boat or, if you're in a real hurry, a helicopter, for the short trip across. You can also opt to leave by boat from Newport Beach. (See box for details.)

My suggestion for a Catalina T-shirt slogan: "I'll sleep on the boat home." Prop up those eyelids with toothpicks and get to the island as early as possible. If you're in need of a reviving breakfast, there are plenty of options. My personal favorite is the Pancake Cottage, 118 Catalina Ave., just off Crescent Avenue, which advertises "authentic cuisine" and opens at 6 a.m. on weekends.

Your next move is to acquire the one essential item of beach equipment for Catalina's pebbly shores: plastic-soled swim socks from China. High Tide Traders, 415 Crescent Ave., stocks them for men in sober navy and for women and children in eyeball-shattering pink and blue neon, for $12.95. The surfer dude behind the counter says, "Batteries not included." But trust me, you'll be glad you have them even if they clash with your outfit. While you're there, check out the giant model sailfish on the back wall.

If you forgot your towel, you can pick up one with a dramatic shark motif for $16.99 at Catalina Kids, 201 Crescent Ave., where a little kid barrels in with the news that "they have really cool stuffed sharks in here!" He's right, the lemon-yellow foot-long stuffed shark, $19.95 from Angelitos, is a winner.

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