By Kitty Morse
Build it and they will come! So believed William Wrigley Jr. when he developed Catalina Island, his utopia of an island getaway. Wrigley, of chewing-gum fame, purchased stock in the Santa Catalina Island Co. until he became the sole owner in 1919 by buying out other investors. In the 1970s his descendants deeded most of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy.
My husband and I chose to do the 90-minute ocean crossing on the Catalina Express, from Dana Point to Avalon. The weather was glorious, the crossing smooth and our boat flew across the waves, 22 miles (not 26, contrary to the Four Preps' tune) toward Catalina.
Each time I set foot in the town of Avalon, I am struck by the forward-thinking magnate's vision to create a destination for everyone while nurturing the island's unique flora and fauna. The town's landmark remains the extraordinary art deco casino, still Avalon's principal attraction.
We disembarked in the picturesque harbor a few hundred yards from the town center painted with the colorized cheerfulness of a vintage postcard. The number of cars is limited in Avalon, and some residents wait up to 30 years to obtain a permit. Instead, golf carts dart around the narrow streets lined with quaint beach cottages, most of them vacation rentals. Though Santa Catalina had been inhabited for at least 7,000 years, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to drop anchor there in 1542. Decades later, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino named it Santa Catalina in honor of St. Catherine.
Fresh off the boat, we rolled our suitcases along the harbor, past the pier, toward the bubblegum pink facade of the iconic Hotel MacRae, which is visible from the ferry landing. The establishment reinforced the impression of stepping back in time. Up the staircase we went (no elevator) to the check-in counter/office situated in a corner of the terrace. The hotel reminded us of those in France and Spain where you climb stairs to a "lobby" then up more stairs to your room. The MacRae occupies a central location on Crescent Avenue facing the waterfront.
A short while after check-in, we resumed our walk along the harbor toward Wrigley's world-renowned casino and its famed circular ballroom. Inside and out, the striking building is covered in hand-painted murals and specially commissioned tiles depicting the history of the island. We could almost hear echoes of jazz bands and flappers dancing the Charleston. The vast ballroom with its 50-foot domed ceiling, Tiffany-style lamps and expansive dance floor attracted many early-20th-century movie celebrities.
The Catalina Island Museum, housed in the elegant Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building at 217 Metropole Ave. illustrates the island's fabled history as a refuge for smugglers and pirates and a training ground for the Union Army and Wrigley's beloved Chicago Cubs baseball team.
In 1891, the three Banning brothers established the Santa Catalina Island Co. to develop the island as a resort. They built the town and paved the first roads into the interior. But the catastrophic fire of 1915 burned half of Avalon to the ground. The fire, along with the restrictions of World War I, forced the brothers to sell their island in 1919.
Enter Wrigley, who expanded the infrastructure and commissioned more island highlights. Along the way he helped develop a nascent film industry, and Catalina became a location for many of the early "talkies." One movie, made in the 1920s, called for 14 bison. The movie was made and the set struck down, but the bison remained. Today a herd of about 150 animals roam the island's interior.
An attempt to view the elusive beast inspired us to book a bus tour along a string of hair-raising roads leading to the Airport in the Sky. Our adventure proved futile for viewing buffalo, so we consoled ourselves with the airport's warm, Frisbee-size chocolate cookies. Closer to town, the Wrigley Botanic Gardens proved a bit of a letdown, save for a small herd of deer prancing through the golf course. The paucity of water has turned it into a dry landscape dotted with lackluster plants. We made the mistake of walking there in searing midday heat.
The next day, we walked to Green Pier, built in 1909, to purchase tickets on the open-air Cyclone ferry to Two Harbors, a diminutive beach nestled on a sandy crescent 40 minutes from Avalon. What a pleasure to discover yet another side of Catalina from the water. The inlet is the narrowest point on the island, and you can walk from one side to the other in about 20 minutes. Lunch on the beach at Harbor Sands is served under palapas facing a small flotilla of sailboats bobbing in the emerald water, an atmosphere reminiscent of a Mediterranean hideaway.
Thank you, Mr. Wrigley. You built it, and we came!
WHEN YOU GO
The Catalina Express leaves from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro: www.catalinaexpress.com.
The Catalina Flyer leaves from Newport Beach: www.catalinainfo.com/general-information.
Hotel MacRae: www.hotelmacrae.com
The Catalina Island Museum: www.catalinamuseum.org
For a wide variety of restaurants: www.catalinahotspots.com
Kitty Morse is a freelance travel writer and author of 10 cookbooks, including "Mint Tea and Minarets: A Banquet of Moroccan Memories." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The art deco casino in Avalon on Catalina Island, California, remains the town's most iconic landmark. Photo courtesy of Kitty Morse.