Catalina Island Family Crusin’

Genie Davis November 17, 2010 No Comments

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Catalina Island fun starts with the ferry ride from the California main land from San Pedro, Marina Del Rey, or Newport Beach, California. If you’re a Southern California native, Catalina cruising is a ritual of sorts, everyone does it, and seemingly everyone brings their children along for the ride. If you’re visiting the area, this nearby island offers a host of fun activities for the kids and the feel of a completely different world from that of the coastal cities.

Catalina Island CaliforniaOnly 22 miles from San Pedro, Santa Catalina Island as it’s also known, has a rich history and ecology. Getting there takes a little over an hour by boat; you can also fly via helicopter in fifteen minutes. We took a Catalina Express boat to Avalon, the most popular destination on the island. Boats also arrive at quieter, more isolated Two Harbors which is an excellent starting point for hiking, fishing, or snorkeling. For families with small children, and for those wishing to have a larger variety of island experiences, Avalon is the destination to chose.

Avalon feels like a small European town, albeit a kitschy one, with tourist shops selling tee shirts and stuffed toys. Wandering the curving streets or strolling the manicured Wrigley botanical gardens, you’ll feel like you’re somewhere far away from the busy streets of Los Angeles.

For us, taking a ferry also allows us to mellow out and get ready to enjoy the laid-back small town ambiance. Watching the ocean as the coastal cities recede and the small island approaches is a pleasure in and of itself. The ferries offer smooth rides; none of us have ever gotten sea sick on multiple crossings. The ride is short enough not to bore little ones, and during whale watching season, you may get lucky enough to spot one of these magnificent creatures. We’ve seen dolphins and flying fish.

Keep arriving simple with a minimum of luggage, as you won’t find any car rentals here. Golf cart rentals, yes. Renting a golf cart can be a lot of fun, as zipping up and down the hilly island town streets is an activity kids of all ages – yes, that means you, parental drivers – enjoy. We usually choose to walk, however, and often stay at the Portofino, which also houses a comfortable Italian restaurant and cafe. The rooms are large and many have fireplaces. On the roof, a hot tub beckons along with excellent views of the harbor.

Avalon Mosaics Catalina Island

We love the beautiful mosaics and tile work all around Avalon on Catalina Island.

Once we’ve dropped off our bags, our family’s favorite activity is a visit to the Catalina Island Casino and Museum. A tour describes the structure’s beautiful Art Deco murals and gives you a look at the original 1929 pipe organ inside the Avalon Theater. Our kids love climbing the ramps into the enormous, beautiful Casino Ballroom. In the museum located on the ground floor, you can explore what its like to live on an island and learn about the island’s place in the Channel Island chain, who’s lived here, and what plants and animals are native to the spot. Outside the casino building, you’ll find bright, mosaic lined fountains.

But the best part about the Casino and Museum is actually seeing a movie in the massive theater and hearing the pipe organ play. It’s a glimpse into an elegant past, and we always arrange a visit to coincide with a film our family wants to see. It’s a far different experience than visiting the local multi-plex.

Kids will love taking one or many of the brief, fun island tours offered right in downtown Avalon. From the harbor, you’ll climb on a Semi Submersible, or cruise in a Glass Bottom Boat. You can rent a peddle boat or a kayak, too, depending on your children’s ages. Any tour you take you’ll see fish in the living aquarium that is Avalon harbor. We enjoyed a night cruise in a semi submersible, boat lights seeking out nocturnal denizens of the deep like spiny lobsters, moray eels and sharks. The Island is justifiably well known for its super clear water, and the glass bottom boats offer a comfortable way to show you and your kids the undersea wild life. The boats sail out of the downtown harbor to nearby Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, where the fish are plentiful, varied, and brightly colored.

We also love the old fashioned miniature golf attraction, Golf Gardens. Set in a lush garden setting, there are no themed holes with windmills here, just simple stuff like banked turns, spirals, and uphill shots. Although we’ve found some of the holes to be a little too challenging, and resorted to eliminating any ball strokes once we reach the two digit range, it’s a truly enjoyable way to spend a lazy afternoon. Stray cats settle in to watch the play, family groups are always laughing their way through the course. Small clubs are available to suit small hands.

After a game of golf, we enjoy grabbing a soft serve ice cream at Dessert Island or a fresh waffle cone at Olaf’s in downtown Avalon.

Wrigley Memorial Tower on Catalina Island

The kids enjoyed climbing the Wrigley Memorial Tower on Catalina Island.

A mile and a half from the harbor you’ll find an amazing view of the harbor and the botanical gardens of Wrigley Memorial, honoring the founder of the largest chewing gum manufacturing company in the world. Wrigley brought public utilities and the Casino building to the island, and set aside land to preserve the island’s beauty for future generations. You can take a cab or a tour shuttle; the walk is easy, even if you’re pushing a stroller.

The Memorial itself is a tower built with blue flag stone and crushed native stones. Glazed tiles were made on Catalina. At the center of the garden, the tower offers great views, and the garden itself provides plenty of green space for the kids to explore. Wrigley’s wife Ada designed the native plant Memorial garden.

From the botanical garden to the cultural throw-back design of the miniature golf course, the splendid art deco excellence of the Casino and it’s theater, and the quiet, hilly streets, Avalon not only feels like a location apart from the Southern California mainland, but like a time apart. It’s old fashioned, easy-going pleasures are a fun treat for the whole family.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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