By Larry Levine –
My love affair with Avalon, Catalina Island began before I ever saw it.
As a boy in Brooklyn, I listened devotedly to variety shows on the Crosley tabletop radio next to my bed. I heard Al Jolson sing, “I found my love in Avalon, besides the bay …” It conjured up images of balmy days and rolling waves. Maybe that was a bit much for a pre-teen Brooklyn street kid. But what can I say? I’ve been a bit of a romantic for as long as I can remember.
I arrived at Avalon for the first time with my parents and sisters in the summer of 1950, nearly a year after our family moved west to Los Angeles. The Great White Steamer, the S.S. Catalina, blasted its horn and sailed out of the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro. Two and one-half hours later, the horn blasted again as the ship slid into Avalon Harbor.
The chimes in the bell tower on the hillside rang out Avalon as we eased through the bay between rows of bobbing yachts and sail boats. Suntanned children glistened as they swam to greet the ship. Many of the 2,000 passengers tossed coins to them in the water. Eleven-year-old me had no trouble imagining I was in a scene from a movie. I was hooked.
When relatives visited from back east, we took them on a day trip to Avalon. It was a favorite destination during my bachelor years. Jennifer and I took our sons there during the early years of our marriage. Even after the S.S. Catalina was retired from service in 1975, we traveled “26-miles across the sea” for visits. We were there when our sons played basketball and baseball games against Avalon High School.
After the S.S. Catalina was retired, we traveled by sea planes, catamarans, helicopters and even on a reconditioned DC-3 that landed at “the airport in the sky.” from where a bus took us down to town.
I thought those days were in the rearview mirror until Jennifer recently said she felt like a trip to Catalina. In particular, she wanted to stay at The Inn on Mt. Ada, gleaming white high on a hill above the city and the harbor. It was the home of the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame. We’d never stayed there before but talked of it often.
The Windsor Room on the second floor of the Inn is the only one that offers views of both the ocean and the city. It was available for the week we selected. Included with the reservation were hot cooked breakfasts, full lunches, and evening wine and cheese each day. We also were assigned a golf cart for our exclusive use.
Friends asked, “What’s there to do at Catalina.”
I answered, “Nothing. That’s the point.”
That’s not completely true for those who’ve not been there as often as we have. For those who’ve been there frequently over the years, it’s pretty much true. There’s still the glass bottom boat and the faux submarine for viewing underwater life. There are inland excursions to see the wild bison or drive the ridgeline. The short nine-hole golf course varies between adequate and not. and the mini-golf course still is open. But after you’ve done these things three, or four, or half a dozen times, enough is enough.
So, nothing was a good thing for us to do. And it can be very relaxing. A stroll through the harbor-front shops in the town yields exactly what you’d expect and offers discounts to cruise ship visitors who arrive twice a week. Sitting on a deck chair reading a book and glancing at the water taxis as they come and go across the channel. Breathing fresh ocean air and not thinking about what comes next. A trip down the hill for dinner in town. Perfect.
One critical thing has not changed in the 73 years since I first set foot on the pebbly beach at Avalon Harbor: restaurants are a hit-and-miss affair.
We remember fondly Portofino on the main street. It was the plus side of adequate. We once had swordfish there that was caught by the waitress’s husband that same day. Otherwise, it was C+ Italian fare and whatever seafood was available. There were some summers when the restaurant at the so-called Catalina County Club was open with very good dinners.
But over the long haul, the best meals we had at Avalon were the ones we cooked ourselves at houses we rented.
On this recent visit, we could have restricted ourselves to meals at the Inn, where the breakfasts and lunches were substantial enough to invite one to pass on dinner. We did that one of the three nights. For the other two nights we asked Inn staff and town folk for suggestions. Three names were the only ones mentioned: Steve’s Steakhouse & Seafood, Bluewater Avalon, and The Lobster Trap.
The Lobster Trap the first night isn’t worth discussing, unless you’re OK with a beach front fish house with poor clam chowder and inedible seared ahi. The place was packed with folks in beach clothes. Beer seemed to be the number one commodity.
I liked the online menu for Bluewater and was rewarded with a delicious plate of sand dabs in a lemon, butter, caper sauce with au gratin potatoes and sauteed spinach after a wonderful clam chowder. Jennifer’s prawn cocktail was very good, but her Dungeness crab cakes were a bit over-cooked and dry. We’d return.
We passed on Steve’s because I’m suspicious of places that bill themselves as “steak & seafood.” The menu in front of the restaurant looked nice. But I want a place that knows its identity. A corollary would be “don’t order fish in a steakhouse or steak in a fish restaurant.” But the menu at Steve’s was interesting enough to justify a try.
A major upside on our recent visit was finding a number of the old hotels have been seriously upgraded and a few nice looking new places added. The Inn on Mt. Ada remains the crown jewel. The charming old Zane Gray Pueblo was ripped down and turned into someone’s nightmare of a boxy quasi-modern hotel.
Some of the old places that received notable upgrades include: the once run-down Pavilion now is charming with a lovely patio area right on The Crescent; the old Atwater, once the destination of budget-watching students on spring break, now offers Italian bedding. The quaint, pink St. Lauren is a few blocks up the gentle hill from the hustle of The Crescent. An internet search will yield a nice selection of other places to bed down.
Avalon is a place where restaurants serve water in plastic bottles because there are no local water sources on the island. A desalinization plant handles most of the load. It’s a place that has managed to retain and refine its charm and allure through the decades while so much has changed on the Southern California mainland. Al Jolson’s words to that young boy in Brooklyn still ring true: “I dream of her and Avalon, from dusk till dawn. And so I think I’ll travel on to Avalon.”