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Santa Catalina's famous past is felt in its charming present

The island has changed over the decades from its Hollywood-retreat heyday, but it's rich in history, views and unspoiled backcountry.

May 05, 2013|By Rosemary McClure
  • Twilight reflects on Avalon Bay on Santa Catalina Island.
Twilight reflects on Avalon Bay on Santa Catalina Island. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

AVALON — I'm standing at the railing, the late-morning sun warm on my face and hands, when the ship turns slightly and I see it, a rugged jumble of mountains jutting from the sea.

We slow and enter the harbor, where a village clings to the hillside and colorfully painted speedboats flash by pulling water skiers. As we draw close to land, children swim out to our vessel yelling, "Throw a coin, throw a coin." When I do, a boy dives, popping back to the surface clutching it and laughing. On shore, a hundred villagers have congregated near the dock, serenading as nearly 2,000 of us debark from the Great White Steamer, a 301-foot steamship named the Catalina.

The year: 1937. The place: California's historic offshore playground, Santa Catalina Island.

I'm not old enough to have been there that day, but I've heard the story so many times from those who did visit during the era that the scene replays often in my mind, a hazy, dream-like journey into the past.

And now, as Catalina celebrates Avalon's 100th birthday, I'm bound for the island in real time, on a March weekend trip, hoping to re-create an imagined journey.

It's not hard to do. In many ways, Catalina remains the same: a picturesque crescent-shaped bay, an armada of luxury yachts bobbing in the harbor, a charming city marching up terraced hills.

The island certainly seems familiar as I step off the ferry from Long Beach. Not surprising, because I've seen it hundreds of times. It's where Clark Gable mutinied on the Bounty, where Dorothy Lamour fought thunderous waves in "The Hurricane," where a shark ripped tourists apart in "Jaws."

Southern California's Island of Romance, as the locals call it, has been Hollywood's stand-in for Tahiti, Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and a hundred other locations.

And Catalina isn't just a pretty Hollywood set. It has an amazing history full of heroes, scoundrels, philanthropists and, of course, celebrities.

But first, I had to overcome my disappointment at my less-than-jubilant arrival in town. No one serenaded me, children didn't leap in the water to dive for coins, speedboats didn't circle the ferry.

I was about 70 years too late.

Doug Bombard, 87, sorted things out for me. Visitor welcoming ceremonies like the one I'd heard about reached their height during the late '30s and early '40s, he said. World War II intervened.

"Sometimes I wish it could be like that again," said Bombard, who grew up on the island. "It was grand while it lasted." Love of watercraft is second nature to Bombard, who is the founder of the Catalina Express ferry system. His father designed the Miss Catalina speedboats that circled arriving steamships, and Bombard was often manning the helm.

The welcome party "really put people in a great frame of mind."

It also offered a lot of fun for kids growing up on the island, said Eldon "Bud" Hite, 85, who was one of those kids who dove for coins. "I made maybe 25 or 30 cents each time. People threw a lot of pennies."

So, yes, the island has changed. But it's still a surprising find, a poor man's Hawaii an hour away from the Southern California megalopolis.

Although some nostalgic activities have disappeared, the island has improved in many ways, now offering more upscale hotels, restaurants and activities. "Everyone is working together to improve the quality and service," said Randy Herrel, chief executive of Santa Catalina Island Co.

Among new activities this summer: a heli-hiking tour into the backcountry, a nighttime biodiesel Hummer tour, land-and-sea tours to Two Harbors and a new bay-front Bluewater Grill Seafood Restaurant in Avalon.

After an economic slowdown from 2008 to 2011, the island's fortunes have improved. Avalon, with a population of less than 4,000, can more than double in size on busy weekends, drawing about a million visitors a year.

Some say the town reminds them of villages overlooking the Mediterranean: red tile roofs, a pleasure pier and millions of dollars' worth of yachts moored in the bay.

But none of those European towns has Avalon's 12-story Casino. The iconic circular ballroom — an Art Deco wonder that hosted some of the world's most famous bands during its heyday — isn't really a gambling house despite the name, which means "gathering place" in Italian. Today the building still draws tourists and locals; it is used for special events and houses an excellent small museum (www.catalinamuseum.org) and a large movie theater.

I found the town great for strolling, with a broad beachfront walkway that stretches from the ferryboat docks to Descanso Beach, a mile away. Palm fronds rustled quietly in the afternoon breeze as I walked. At Descanso Beach Club, I stopped for lunch on a patio overlooking the sea. Waterfront cabanas beckoned, and I made a note to rent one some day.

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