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A choppy boat ride for fish and chips on a pier? It's time to refine our definition of one of L.A.'s favorite retreats. Think boutique hotels and surprisingly good fare.

May 21, 2006|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Santa Catalina Island — THE assignment: Check out the hotel and restaurant scene on Catalina. I hadn't visited the island in perhaps 20 years and my recollections were a bit fuzzy -- fish and chips on Green Pleasure Pier, a glass-bottom boat, a night at an awful hotel. Luxury boutique hotels? Fine dining? Those weren't concepts I associated with Catalina, but I learned on a recent spring visit that some of my impressions were wrong.

Neither restaurants nor hotels are in short supply in Avalon. (There are 28 lodgings and about the same number of restaurants.) Family-friendly hotels with kitchen facilities are also available. Location is a major consideration. Are peace and quiet more important than being beachside? Avalon can get so noisy that some hotels supply earplugs. Hotel shuttles don't run 24/7, and taxis are expensive, so a central location may be important for those not wanting to do a lot of walking.

I saw almost every one of Avalon's lodgings on my spring visit. (The Atwater and Buena Vista hotels hadn't opened for the season, and no one answered the bell at Catalina Beach House.) On my reacquaintance trip, I stayed in four hotels and ate as many meals as I could.

I found some surprises.

The first was the high price of Catalina hotels, especially in season and on weekends. As one hotel manager told me, "You're not only paying for that night but for the nights in winter when nobody's here." And many hotels have a two-night minimum on weekends.

I also learned that, on Catalina, "old" doesn't necessarily mean "charming." Several turn-of-the-century hotels I visited were more musty than marvelous.

Not all hotels are air-conditioned either, so it pays to ask. Many have stairs, but few have elevators, and only two (Zane Grey Pueblo and Best Western Catalina Canyon Resort & Spa) have swimming pools. If hotel prices induce sticker shock, the good news is that package deals abound. They may include boat fare from the mainland, taxi fare to the hotel and/or island activities.

Eating on the cheap is easier than sleeping on the cheap. There's no shortage of fast-food places, mostly local, or ice cream and sweets shops.

Cruise to the island

MY Catalina adventure began with the one-hour, 22-mile Catalina Express boat trip from downtown Long Beach to Avalon, pleasant and smooth.

In Avalon, I boarded the Safari Bus, a van that took me across the island to sleepy Two Harbors, where I had reserved a night at Banning House Lodge, the hamlet's only hotel.

It was a white-knuckle ride on a narrow, winding mountain road above cliffs plunging 2,000 feet to the sea. It rained steadily, and fog started rolling in. Inland, we passed an oasis of palm trees, planted for filming the 1935 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty." And we had two bison sightings. (The island has about 300 head, most descendants of 14 animals imported in 1924 for a western in which the bison were edited out.)

It was still raining and the dirt roads had turned to red muck when the hotel shuttle came to take me down the hill to Two Harbors' only restaurant, the South Seas-themed Harbor Reef. Despite its captive clientele, its food is surprisingly good; I had a well-prepared halibut dinner.

The rooms in the main lodge were sold out, so I got a large room with queen and twin beds in the annex. The plaid-spread decor was strictly summer camp, and the plumbing was balky. I didn't mind that there was no phone or TV, but it was cold and damp and the only heat was an ineffectual roll-out radiator.

The lodge itself has a certain rustic charm, from the great room with a buffalo head over the fireplace to the trellis-covered bay-view terrace. If I return, it will be in summer, and I will try to snag Room 11, the bay-view Crow's Nest.

I was happy the next morning to learn that the road to Avalon was impassable, and we would be taken by boat, in my view a much better choice. The hourlong trip became an adventure when we detoured to see dolphins putting on a show.

I spent most of my time in Avalon scoping out hotels, but I did factor in some fun. There's not a lot to do when it's too cold to go in the water and you neither golf nor fish. The most fun was a trip on the Nautilus, California Adventure Tours' semi-submersible yellow "submarine." ($35.50). As we glided through the kelp beds, the fish -- lured by food shot from our "torpedoes" -- swam right up to the portholes.

I also took a one-hour scenic drive at the wheel of a golf cart ($35). Catalina, which limits private cars, has no rental cars, only these carts, which can be rented by the hour.

In the afternoon I joined the guided tour of the iconic 1929 Art Deco casino, where big bands once played, and its fine little Catalina Island Museum. I learned that Avalon was once called Timm's Landing and that Bruce Belland and Glen Larson of the Four Preps composed "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" while attending Hollywood High in the '50s. (Go to latimes.com/catalinaisland for a sample.)

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