Catalina – an island lost in time
Stepping off the boat with my suitcase, I smell the fresh air, feel the wind through my hair and the buzz of excitement in my chest. Catalina, a small island about 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, is not the easiest place to get to. It wouldn’t be so special if it was. The charm of Catalina is how removed it is from the outside world, from modern sensibilities and worries. I don’t like to say it’s a simpler life, but just one not so restricted by the clock. Makes it the perfect escape from time!
As I walk along the central street of Avalon (Catalina’s main city), I have ocean to one side, and individual shops to the other: fish & bait, jewelry, clothing, golf cart rentals, Mexican food, ice cream and fudge, an excellent antique store/sushi & wine bar, and the overwhelming smell of lavender. No chains, all stores are locally run by the island residents. We are not in 2011 US of A anymore! Where are we, exactly? We could almost be anywhere, but the most evident time is the 1920s.
William Wrigley Jr. bought Santa Catalina Island in 1919 and created his island paradise. The main attractions that we see and experience there today are mostly remnants of his work, his vision. His lasting footprint remains on an island built on hundreds of years of history before him.
William Wrigley Jr. is on the right.
Everything in Avalon is pretty much walking distance. If you choose to explore the island more fully, you will need to rent a golf cart. That is, unless you are staying on the island as Wrigley’s houseguest at the Inn on Mount Ada. The Inn provides a golf cart to all of their guests. (There are no cars Catalina for visitors. In fact, there is a 20 year waiting list to get a car on Catalina – period.)
The Inn on Mount Ada, a bed and breakfast, is William Wrigley’s estate. He built it as home for himself and his wife in 1921. Staying at the Inn, it was exciting to walk through the rooms that Wrigley walked through daily. Since the Inn maintains the complete 1920s décor, furniture, lay out – classic and refined- and the Inn Keepers are absolutely committed to treating their visitors as house guests, I could get an absolute sense of Wrigley’s life on the island. From waking up to morning breakfast, lunch on the balcony, and watching the sun disappear over the horizon, I got to experience Catalina the way he did, view it the way he did…from a very high vantage point. It’s the same remarkable view that greeted Wrigley and his guests every morning.
William Wrigley also brought entertainment to his island paradise that we can still experience today. Every year, Wrigley took the Chicago Cubs to Catalina for spring training – a perfect delight for sports fans – and residents of Catalina became avid Cubs followers. When I learned the Clubhouse that housed the Cubs was still in running order (still the Country Club for the golf course, as in 1920s) and that the former Cubs locker room was now a high end bar and restaurant, I had to check it out.
As I walked into the bar, I certainly felt like I was in Cub’s territory – the dark, heavy, elegant wooden bar, the crackling sounds for the kitchen, the black and white photos featuring the Chicago Cubs displayed on the surrounding walls. This is a classic spot, married to its history, but not overwhelmed by it. Perfect place for me to relax, have a nice glass of wine, and breath in the past. If you do follow in my footsteps and have a snack or a drink here (which I highly recommend), look around to see who might be in your company. I ran into two wonderful gentlemen, both from Catalina Island, who have history with the Cubs. One personally knew the Wrigleys and used to be a Cubs Bat Boy.
Of course, William Wrigley Jr. is also responsible for the most prevalent visual image of Catalina, the lasting landmark set on the cape, – the Catalina Casino. This is not a casino in the modern sense of the word. The historic building does not house slot machines, poker rooms, or craps tables, but contains a massive movie theatre and an iconic dance floor.
Entering the theatre, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. The exquisitely detailed murals were designed by John Gabriel Beckman (also known for Grauman's Chinese theatre in Los Angeles). I was most entertained by the theatre's original pipe organ and the hat racks that remain under each individual theatre seat. Not only can visitors experience the 1929 theatre by watching a movie here (every night at 7:30 pm), but the Casino also offers a "Behind the Scenes Tour" for those that want a special peek into 1920s island life and entertainment.
Catalina’s past is living and breathing in every modern aspect of the island – places to sleep, eat, and play. While Catalina is an island full of history going back generations, there is no way to visit Catalina, to take a step off your boat or helicopter, and NOT travel back to the 1920s. Stepping on to the island, I could feel Wrigley’s intention and vision surrounding me. Everyone does – whether they are aware of it, or not. I think that’s fabulous!
Historic photos are provided by the Catalina Island Museum and are used with permission. All rights reserved.