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A Southern California Island Vacation in Catalina

Catalina Island Casino

Catalina Island's Casino, Photos by Dana Rebmann

Santa Catalina Island is one of those places most Californians know about, but many have never been. Just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, it’s so close, yet so far. Not being able to jump in the car and go may simply stop many from going. Yet, not being able to jump in the car and go is one of many reasons that makes the place most simply call Catalina worth a visit.

Visit the Airport

The majority of folks set sail to Catalina Island on board Catalina Express. Boats depart daily from ports in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point, taking about an hour to reach the island. Helicopters flights are another option. Private planes come and go at Catalina’s small Airport-In-The Sky. The airport is worth a visit, even if you don’t have the luxury of arriving by air. The DC-3 Gifts & Grill restaurant is famous for buffalo burgers and “Killer Cookies.”

Catalina

Catalina's wild side

A vast majority of the rugged island, 88% to be exact, is protected and preserved by the Catalina Island Conservancy. What’s left pretty much comprises Catalina’s one city, Avalon and the unincorporated town of Two Harbors. Catalina Express boats dock both places and both are worth visiting, but lively Avalon wins the popularity contest hands down.

Sticky History

Catalina is the destination it is today thanks to famed chewing gum maker William Wrigley Jr. He bought 99% of Catalina Island in 1919 with a vision of protecting the island, while at the same time creating a vacation resort.

Rent a Golf Cart

Avalon is Catalina’s big and only city with a permanent population of about four thousand that swells when summer heats up. Only 800 cars are allowed on the island, resulting in an auto waiting list of 20-plus years and a golf cart boom. Even visitors can rent golf carts by the hour. The waterfront has the feel of the Mediterranean, lined with shops and restaurants, and home to the distinctively colored Green Pleasure Pier.

Go to the Casino

Along with the impressive scenery comes an impressive history. A couple years after buying the island, Wrigley brought his Chicago Cubs there for spring training, starting a tradition that continued for 30 years. In 1928 construction began on his waterfront landmark casino. There’s no gambling here. Casino means gathering place in Italian and that’s exactly what the building is designed to be.

Casino Theater

See a movie in style

See a Movie in an Incredible Theater

Make time for the Behind the Scenes Casino tour. Downstairs the 1000-plus seat Avalon Theater is all about Hollywood glamour. Art deco murals, a 1929 pipe organ and ceilings adorned with 22-karat gold leaf stars. It was the first theater designed for talking films (engineers studied it to design another famous theater you may have heard of: Radio City Music Hall) and still shows first-run movies. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, there’s an hour-long organ concert before the movie begins. A carbon arc projector installed in 1939 still gets put into use for special events. Going to a movie here is more than just going to a movie. It’s an event.

Casino Ballroom

Dance lessons anyone?

Directly above the theater is the world’s largest circular dance floor. Simply said, it’s stunning. Generations have danced on the original hardwood floor and recently a few basketball games took a twirl too. Intrigued? Take the tour to find out why.

Daytrippers can head over in the morning and return at the end of the day, but while heading back, you’ll wish you stayed. The Pavilion Hotel is steps from the beach, with a nice breakfast and a daily wine and cheese tasting. You can include many of the tours offered on the island in your hotel package or purchase tickets separately at the hotel front desk.

Dana can be found on Twitter @drebmann

Dana’s trip was hosted by the Santa Catalina Island Company, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.