Catalina – A Paradise and Nature Reserve in So Cal

Catalina is a gem of an Island situated a forty minute ferry ride off the coast of Long Beach, which is a twenty minute drive just south of Los Angeles. Long Beach harbour, where you catch the ferry to Catalina Island, is also the site where the Queen Mary II rests, one of the grandest and most famous of all the transatlantic ocean cruise liners. There, if you like, you can stay as a hotel guest or grab a meal or a drink at one of the many period ball rooms, bars and restaurants. The coast of California is famous for whale watching and, as I found out much to my surprise, this part of the pacific is teeming with schools of dolphin. It is extremely common, but never the less always an incredible sight, to see these acrobatic creatures leaping in and out of the water with boundless energy, as they cruise alongside the modern, clean and comfortable ferry out.

Stare across the harbour and you won’t fail to notice one of the most elegant art-deco buildings, the largest Swing Ballroom in the United States, which rises up like Camelot from the sea.

The first thing the visitor to Catalina will notice and will not expect to find so close off the coast of one of the world ’s largest cities Los Angeles, is water so crystal clear, teeming with colorful fish, which a visitor notices
as soon as you step onto the gangplank to disembark from the
ferry boat. The next thing the visitor will probably notice are the curious ‘Captain Nemo’ looking, glass-bottomed marine life viewing submarines, which were actually designed and invented on the island for tourists to observe the abundant marine life beneath the ocean.

Charley Weber – Ascap
Is a freelance writer, composer and online teacher and new media developer, specialising in creative content, journalism and voiceovers.

Back in the era of prohibition, huge cruise liners would take swing dancers from the mainland on 24-hour dance parties to Catalina, where at the time there was a huge perspex tube which spanned the length of the waterfront, through which the revellers would have to walk through to get the kilometre or so distance to the ballroom situated on the other side of the bay. Beneath the ballroom, which is elevated on the second floor, also lies one of the grandest and most historical art deco cinemas in America, which visitors to the island can still catch a movie at.

Apart from a relaxed feel, with a profusion of golf carts buzzing around – not to mention a number of amazing golf courses, the visitor will also notice the immaculately restored classic ‘golden-era’ Americana buses which take tourists on tours into the heartland of the Island, along tight country roads and through big vistas to Catalina Airport, on the other side of the Island,
which is actually more like an aerodrome, or an old Casablanca era set.

Owned privately for generations by the Wrigley family – the owners of the chewing gum brand – the family has been instrumental in preserving Catalina’s wild nature and limiting development on the island. Although the council members are now democratically elected, the Mayor of the island is usually one of the Wrigley family.

The island itself is a nature reserve and has a unique history, feel and character, in part because – and this is the next thing you’ll notice there are practically no cars on the island, only golf carts and there are a lot of them, which you can rent by the day or the hour. The island also has a great aviation history, being the place where McDonnell Douglas built the famous flying boats.

When I visited the Island it was to propose a charity event to benefit some of the animals injured or lost in natural disaster. The event was to be a mixture of a fly-in, and round the island golf-cart Gumball rally, and a celebrity golf tournament to benefit animals who had been injured or lost in extreme Hurricanes which have been plaguing North America recently.

The Wrigley’s were fascinated by the proposal, although we never went as far as finding sponsors for the various teams, which would be one person and an animal, say a dog or an Iguana or cat, who would fly in with a celebrity pilot and accompany them through the round the island Gumball golf art rally and amateur celebrity golf stages and events of the competition.

Where to Stay

On the island you can find any number of reasonable hotels and
pensions along the harbor front which will set you back no more
or less than the average mainland motel for a nights stay.
However, if you can afford it and really want to experience the
real Catalina to the full, you can rent a small villa or apartment in
a villa complex for $250 plus dollars a night; which, split between
a few friends is also not too expensive.

The Natives

A notable contingent on the island is a thriving community of artists, who have moved there to escape the rat-race and the frenetic ‘Freeway’ pace and arguably superficial existence in Hollywood.

Among the group of artists and painters I met while visiting the Island was none other than the famous 60’s rhythm and blues band leader, Spencer Davis, who shot to fame when a very young Stevie Windwood took over lead vocals and keyboard duties to round out the Spencer Davis Group sound, on tracks like ‘Give Me Some Living’. Spencer, who seemed happy, fit and healthy, talked freely about how ‘that band’ – meaning Traffic – ‘stole’ his singer and also about Windwood’s genius; how the young Stevie would absorb some new sound, style or instrument which Spencer would introduce to him and then, within a few months, would have transformed it into something new, fresh and personal, but evocative of what he’d been newly exposed to.

Although there are no longer 24 hour cruise, dance parties to the island – as interesting an idea as that might be – once a year the Island does host the Catalina Jazz Trax festival in October, using various outdoor stages as well as the grand ballroom and the harbor as the focal point for the festival, where people come in by ferry and also more stylishly float in and moor private boats in the harbor. Apart from swimming, scuba diving, sailing and hiking, kayaking is also a popular way to explore the water, scenery and cliffs off the near shore.

Catalina is also the place where much of the stylised and classic cult 60’s Tv show, The Fugitive, was filmed and has a long history of movie production and collaboration with Hollywood, from which horses and buffalo were imported to shoot cowboy films.

There are now herds of wild horses and buffalo that roam the eighty plus percent of the island, which is protected as a nature reserve.

Article by Charley Weber

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