While many Los Angelenos have heard of Catalina Island, many of them tell me they have never visited the little island that lies about one hour ferry ride off the southern coast of California. This time marks my third visit. I’ve flown over to it and had a bison burger for lunch; I’ve been dropped there by cruise ship, and kayaked around the harbor; and now, probably my favorite time, I took a ferry over and spent the day in the sleepy little town of Avalon. What is remarkable about the island, from what I could see, is that there isn’t a Starbucks or a McDonald’s to be found. It appeared to me that most of the restaurant’s and shops were locally owned. It’s a bit like being thrown back in time to the 1930s. Tiles were made right on the island and their use is evident in the walls, benches, walkways and architecture, staying true to the Art Deco time period. Truly, everything had the ambiance of a 1920s film. I had the strangest sensation of being in the middle of an Agatha Christie mystery just before the body is discovered.
The Catalina Casino is probably the most recognizable structure. Built in 1928 it contains a movie theater, a ballroom, and the island art and history museum. Although it is called a casino, taken from the Italian language, it is merely a place of gathering, and gambling doesn’t go on here.
How in the World Did the Bison Get to Catalina Island in the First Place?
It is somewhat of a puzzle about the Catalina Island bison herds, since animals could only get to the island by swimming across the ocean, flying on wing, or floating over on the breeze. A little research shows that back in 1924 a silent picture was being made on the island, one of the Westerns by Zane Grey called The Vanishing American. Someone thought it a grand idea to include bison, it’s a cowboys and Indians type story after all, so they shipped fourteen of the woolly beasts to the island. You may look all you like but all the scenes in the film featuring the bison have been left on the editing room floor. And since it was too much trouble to haul back the herd they left them right there where they now number 150 head.
This short film clip looks nothing like the Catalina Island I’ve seen. And sadly the bison are missing. So typical of Hollywood, but now for over eighty-two years the mighty bison has roamed the rocky terrain of Catalina Island, becoming something of a mascot.
And Speaking of Zane Grey
The famous author of adventure Westerns built a home on the island of Catalina. After his death the home was turned into a hotel The Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, now permanently closed. Perhaps it will be turned into a museum of sorts?
There are some other famous movie star connections on Catalina Island namely, Marilyn Monroe lived there as a teenager while married to her next-door neighbor who was in the Merchant Marines at the time. The harbor at Avalon is the center of the mystery surrounding the drowning death of Natalie Wood.
But What Else?
All this aside, Catalina is lovely place to find peace and solitude on the beach. There’s plenty of fun things to do like snorkeling, diving, and fishing. But, if you aren’t into any of that the shops are cute, the restaurants all get great reviews on Yelp, and the views from the beach are exquisite. You can find a nice place to sit and have a drink and relax. Which is really what I was in search of on my visit to Catalina Island. Many people come and stay over for a night or two. Hotels are in abundance, so yes, I will be back a fourth time, and will probably stay awhile.