In recent months, my mood had gotten so rank even I couldn’t stand the stench. Accordingly, my doctor gave me strict instructions to get the hell out of Dodge. But being an unrecovering workaholic — and having some family obligations — my wife and I couldn’t stray too far or be away too long. So we did the next best thing. We took advantage of an offer to spend three nights at the Villa Portofino, a hotel on Catalina Island, just two hours down the road and another hour out to sea, courtesy of Catalina Express.
I’d never been to Catalina before but had always been intrigued by the island’s world-out-of-time mystique, where movie stars lived the California Dream long before anyone conjured the term. The Chicago Cubs once held preseason training camp there, and Catalina is where Norma Jean Baker once lived before morphing into Marilyn Monroe. And if I’m not mistaken, Catalina is where the sublimely sinister Noah Cross — played to perfection by John Huston in the movie Chinatown — told Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
I, however, was capable of doing very little other than a whole lot of serious nothing. My wife, it turned out, was in exactly the same frame of mind. We could have gone on a four-hour backcountry excursion in search of endangered eagles — by all reckoning said to be an amazing tour. Likewise, we could have taken an after-dark cruise in search of flying fish or taken a ride around the Avalon Harbor in one of the many pseudo submersible pseudo submarines in a quest for the life aquatic. But mostly we took indolent advantage of the cabanas at the Descanso Club on the south end of Avalon and lay around like a couple of beached sea lions.
Sand is not native to the island habitat, meaning it has to be trucked in, planted, and carefully cultivated. Along the waterfront of downtown Avalon — where we stayed — there are a series of small garden patches of sandy beach —sectioned off by wooden fences and thickly cabled rope. Because the sand is not deep, it doesn’t hold the heat and so never gets too hot for comfort. By contrast, the bed of small rocks and stones along the shore are difficult to comfortably navigate in bare feet, giving rise to many comic variations of the “oooch-eeech-ouch” dance by anyone getting in the water. But the sound these rocks make — a chorus of clicking and clacking — as the tide sucks the waves back out to sea compensates for any inconvenience. And the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea seemed far bluer than any blue I had ever seen.
To get to Catalina, we drove down to Long Beach and grabbed a ferry-ride over. The ride used to take three hours; now it’s only 70 minutes, faster than anything but the 45 minutes it used to take carrier pigeons to make their way from Catalina to the mainland. The fleet of vessels operated by Catalina Express is big enough to carry 400 passengers but they also manage to be sleek and speedy. The fact that visitors can’t bring their cars might explain this apparent incongruity. Those inclined to sip Bloody Marys or enjoy a beer can hang out in the Commodore Lounge and soak up the channel view through massive windows. But there’s plenty of outdoor space on deck and none of the thick diesel fumieness that one associates with such rides.
From the Avalon pier it’s a short walk down the main drag — Crescent Avenue — to the Villa Portofino. The first thing I noticed was the near total absence of automobiles. To the extent there are any motor vehicles, the vast majority are gas-powered golf carts. Actual cars are not only exceedingly few but exceptionally tiny. Even the trash trucks were micro-sized, the same way that island bison — originally imported by Western writer Zane Grey for a movie he was working on — are about one-third smaller than their Great Plains counterparts. The number of cars (and bison) on the island, it turns out, is strictly regulated. Road capacity — like water — is a limited resource and planned for accordingly.
Although the historical record of the island goes back 7,000 years, the town of Avalon is really a manifestation of the wild imagination of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who proved that if you say anything loud enough and long enough — through the magic of advertising — you can become rich beyond your wildest dreams. Wrigley took control of the island in 1919. Ten years later, he had invested in all the modern utilities necessary for a small urban getaway to attract wealthy snowbirds looking for a winter paradise. He also established a decorative tile manufacturing factory to provide jobs. To this day, the island is generously adorned with tile mosaics stylistically distinct to Catalina.
The most striking monument to Wrigley’s oversized passion is the 12-story-tall circular structure known as the Casino built in 1929. Upstairs, the Casino boasted the world’s largest dance floor and ballroom; downstairs was a movie theater of equal splendor. Adorning the outside is a panel of massive art deco murals, the centerpiece of which features a willowy mermaid depicted with surprising gynecological detail. (Mermaids back then, it seems, were made different, with their fins starting well below the waist.) The movie theater is still in use, and if we didn’t have reservations for the Avalon Grille, we could have enjoyed a screening of The Godfather for only $5.
As much as I’d love to see almost anything in that theater, it was lucky we did not. The manager and the chef at the Avalon Grille — which gives off an old school, traditional vibe with its dark wood decor but still manages to come across as airy, elegant, and contemporary — had knocked themselves out preparing an eight-course extravaganza of off-the-menu meals that qualified as a gastronomical Fourth of July. Each course was paired with the just the right wine, all Rusak. Given that the Rusaks, whose main winery is in Ballard Canyon, have joined the Wrigleys in controlling the island — and have planted a vineyard there — it wasn’t not too surprising. While my tastes run more to beer than wine, the Rusak Reserve Sauvignon Blanc was pretty great. The quail breast with mango relish demi-glace, roast fig, and butter-soaked mashed potatoes knocked my socks off, and I wasn’t wearing any. I loved the lamb ragout, but the concoction of white beans on which the lamb sat was even better. And what’s not to like about a lobster claw-and-mussel risotto? But the star of the night by the end of the rainbow, the Big Wow award of the night, went to the mushroom bisque served in a tiny espresso cup splashed with a tiny spoonful of lemon oil. Before that, I never cared for mushroom bisque one way or the other.
Catalina is a humming, thoroughly integrated tourist destination operated with obvious expertise by the Santa Catalina Island Company. Book-ending our trip was the arrival of two cruise ships, each one carrying about 1,500 visitors. But being midweek visitors arriving at the tail end of the season, we were very fortunate to have the island pretty much to ourselves. When we took the zip-line tour — traversing about one mile in five separate descents, which started in the backcountry and ended up near the beach, and offered startling canyon and ocean views — the guides outnumbered their charges by at least two to one. They made sure we were hooked up safely and delivered a steady stream of patter and nature lore, pulling our legs with some regularity with a Paul Bunyanesque tale to make sure we were paying attention.
Later, we went snorkeling; there was no shortage of the bright orange garibaldi — the island’s signature snorkeling sensation — but there was no shortage of other sea critters as well. We’d find ourselves enveloped by great clouds of tiny blue and orange fishlettes or bombarded by what looked to be either sardines or anchovies. Fortunately, there was no evidence of the 12-foot great white the wet-suit vendors reported seeing in the harbor the previous day. Not to worry, we were assured, sharks tend to stay on the other side of the kelp line, “tend” being the operative word.
The wetsuits were not enough to keep me warm, however, and when my teeth stopped chattering, my wife and I took to the kayaks, paddling along the coast from cove to cove. Just the color of the water — a great mix of cobalt blues and copper greens — was spectacular. However, the way the sunshine reflected off the sea gave the powerful illusion that the light was originating from the ocean floor, shooting upward and out. As schools of anchovies went teeming by, they gave off a dramatic strobe effect as the light rays bounced off their backs. Every now and again, to complete the idyllic picture, a sea lion lumbered by, close enough to hear its breathing but not close enough to smell its breath.
After an arduous day doing nothing, we’d head back to the Villa Portofino, a ’60s vintage cinder-block structure — two stories on the street and four in the back — nicely disguised with a red-tile roof and stucco finish. The real genius of the hotel was its use of outdoor space; it wasn’t just there for the taking. And it wasn’t inviting — it was irresistible. The front enclosed patio is small, but there’s no better place to watch the world wake up in the morning. Better yet was the rooftop patio — complete with a raft of outdoor cabanas and beach beds on which to lie.
About three two-top tables lined the lip of the balcony overlooking the Pacific. There are few better places to watch the world go to sleep. And that hulking land mass hovering vaguely but unmistakably on the horizon? Well, that’s California. If you go to Catalina, maybe you don’t get too far. But you definitely do get away, and when I got back I didn’t stink so much.
• Villa Portofino, 111 Crescent Ave., Avalon; (310) 510-0555
• Descanso Cabana Rentals, 1 St. Catherine Wy.; (310) 510-7410
• The Avalon Grille, 423 Crescent Ave; (310) 510-7494
• Zip Line Eco Tour; (800) 626-1496
• Catalina Express; (800) 481-3470
• Santa Catalina Island Company, visitcatalinaisland.com