Enjoying Catalina like a local

Story and photos by Barbara Beckley

Descanso Beach.

Sand on my toes. Waterfront restaurants. Bison, eagles, and foxes, oh my! Santa Catalina Island, 31 miles off the Los Angeles coast, has been a vacation escape for generations of Southern Californians.

A close friend, Lesley Lundgren of Glendale, has been going to Catalina since she was a girl, and her parents rented a cottage there every summer. Now she owns a condo in the “flatlands” (the blocks closest to the beach) of Avalon, the only town. I joined her on a recent weekend and got the insider scoop on what to see and do.

Our first stop, after I arrived on the Catalina Island Express from Long Beach, was lunch at the oceanfront Descanso Beach Club Restaurant. Located in a five-minute golf cart ride past the landmark Casino, this open-air restaurant is a locals’ favorite, with gorgeous views of the beach, sea, and Casino, and good food and drink. Lesley had a tasty burger, and I loved my shrimp and artichoke quesadilla.

Golf-carting back to town (you can rent them from Catalina Golf Cart Rentals and Cartopia Cart Rentals), we strolled along Avalon’s beachfront promenade, enjoying an ice cream cone at Lloyd’s of Avalon Confectionery, an institution since 1941, and perusing Lesley’s favorite boutiques: the Avalon Bay Company (I made a bee-line for the 50% off fashions at the back), Sugar Beach (I found great tops in the $5 sale basket), Leo’s Catalina Drug Store for cute souvenirs, and the Island Toy Store Plus More for adorable old-school and new toys, books, and gift items.

Happy hour found us at Luau Larry’s — a must-visit watering hole for tiki bar lovers like me — and I can vouch, the L.A. area’s only tiki bar with an ocean view. We ordered the signature “Wiki Wacker,” a concoction of rum, brandy, pineapple and orange juice and grenadine, and proudly wore the big straw hat that comes with it.

Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret, a funky waterfront Italian eatery was perfect for dinner. From our ocean-view booth, we admired the harbor outside and the vintage license plates, old Barbie dolls, movie posters, and clutter of flotsam and jetsam that covers the inside walls and ceilings. I enjoyed the build-our-own pizza, with a choice of 18 toppings.

Saturday dawned sunny and clear — perfect for rolling across the island on paved and unpaved roads with the Catalina Island Conservancy’s Jeep EcoTour. Catalina is nearly 75 square miles of mountains — 2,097-foot Mt. Orizaba is the highest peak — and valleys. About two-thirds is protected from development, making it a nature lover’s paradise.

Peter Sharpe, our guide and the program manager for the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS), which runs Catalina’s Bald Eagle cam and other wildlife protection programs, explained how the bison were introduced for the filming of an early 20th century western, the bald eagles were reintroduced about 20 years ago, and the threatened diminutive Santa Catalina Island fox evolved over thousands of years.

Driving along a mountain ridge, the views of Avalon, the ocean, and the distant Los Angeles coastline were breathtaking. Equally thrilling was spotting through binoculars bald eagle parents and fledglings in their nests — one on the south end and one in the Two Harbors area. These are the same nests everyone can view on their electronic devices 24 hours a day through the IWS’ Bald Eagle live video cam.

But you had to be there to witness our next thrill. A bald eagle dive bombing out of the sky, with talons and white tail spread wide, skimmed the water and plucked a huge fish from the sea. Amazing!  

Bison were grazing on the hillsides as we drove deep into the interior to the American Bald Eagle Habitat at Middle Ranch Canyon. Following Peter inside the aviaries, we gazed eye-to-eye with a handsome golden eagle and a bald eagle, both being nursed back to health. Leaving the habitat, an island fox loped across the road right in front of us. Score three out of three for wildlife sightings.

Peter capped off the tour at the DC-3 Café, set 1,600 feet above sea level at the Catalina Airport in the Sky, where the must-buy is the oversized homemade chocolate chip-oatmeal-walnut cookies.

Back in Avalon, we enjoyed a phenomenal dinner at the Lobster Trap, a loud and boisterous restaurant serving what many residents say is the best and freshest seafood on the island. I agree. My swordfish, sautéed in a tomato basil cream sauce, was perfect.  

The upscale Avalon Grille on the waterfront was Lesley’s choice for brunch the next day before I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Our chic outside table, with a wrap-around view of Avalon Harbor, the beach, the town, and the hills made a perfect send-off to my island adventure.

For more, go to www.catalinachamber.com and www.catalinaconservancy.org.

Apr 2020


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