The most popular $100 Hamburger stop for Southern California pilots is probably the Airport in the Sky on Santa Catalina Island. But most pilots simply leave after lunch and miss out on unique experiences available year-round. It’s an easy shuttle ride down from the airport to the town of Avalon, set into a cove on the island’s southeast corner. You can relive the swinging Big Band Era as you dance and dine at a black-tie ball, see colorful fish in a pristine kelp habitat via scuba, kayak, or submersible, or stroll the quaint streets. The famous Casino dominates the beachfront; there you can take a historic tour, catch a movie, or enjoy a concert. Most of the island is undeveloped and looks as it has for thousands of years, especially due to the restoration efforts of the Catalina Island Conservancy. Backpackers or even casual walkers can enjoy a peaceful natural setting just 26 miles away from bustling Los Angeles.
The shortest overwater distance to Catalina is 18 nm from San Pedro, southeast of Zamperini Field Airport (TOA) in Torrance. It’s best to cross the channel as high as possible; from an altitude of 7,500 ft., a Cessna 172 can glide for nearly 9 nm if an engine fails, nearly assuring that you can get to one shore or the other. It’s a good idea to bring life jackets too (they’re required on flights for hire). The airport is atop a mountain in the center of the island and is often clear of clouds even when low-hanging fog obscures mainland or island coasts. Call the ASOS before canceling a flight due to weather; you may be pleasantly surprised, 310-510-9641. Although the LAX Class B floor between Catalina and Long Beach is 8,000 ft., jets sometimes transition the area lower than that. Consider contacting SoCal Approach at 127.4 MHz for advisories.
Arriving from the Los Angeles area, aim for the isthmus, the narrow spot between the two prominent landmasses of the island, and get the current winds and altimeter setting from the ASOS on 120.67 MHz. From the isthmus, a turn toward the airport will put you on a 45-degree entry for right-traffic, Runway 22, which prevailing winds usually favor. Announce on CTAF 122.7 MHz; tower will ask you to report downwind. Approaching the airport, you’ll see why it’s called “Airport in the Sky”: the mountaintop was leveled to create a runway at 1,602 ft. MSL with steep drop-offs at both ends. After turning base for Runway 22, you’ll be more than 2,000 feet above the ocean and the topography can make the runway seem small as you turn final, but it’s plenty long for most aircraft at more than 3,000 feet long. Use your altimeter to assist as you approach the steep cliffs, but don’t cut it too close and keep your hand on the throttle: prepare for a brisk downdraft on short final if you have headwinds since they’ll spill over the cliff like a waterfall.
Upon touchdown, the asphalt can be a tad rough. Don’t panic when you lose sight of the runway end due to a hump in the middle. As you near the halfway point, the rest of the runway will come into view. Climb the stairs to the tower to pay the landing fee, $25, overnight tiedowns are $15. The private airport is owned and operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy; the fees support airport maintenance and staff costs. The Unicom personnel are not controllers. Technically, permission to land is required, but this permission is routinely granted on the radio. Opened to the public in 1959, the airport celebrates its 55th anniversary this year, open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (Oct 16–Apr 14), until 7 p.m. (Apr 15–Oct 15), no fuel or maintenance, 310-510-0143 or 800-255-8700.
Native islanders, known as Tongva or Gabrielino, occupied Catalina until the early 1800s. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to land here, named the island San Salvador. Sixty years later, Sebastian Viscaino arrived on the eve of the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, and renamed the island in her honor. The first otter hunters, Aleutian Indians, arrived in 1803; they killed most otters and spread disease to the natives. American and Russian hunters and missionaries then arrived, exterminating the few remaining otters and resettling the people.
Recreationists started visiting Catalina in the 1880s, and the island changed hands several times. Finally, William Wrigley, Jr. of chewing gum fame bought out all investors in 1919 to become the sole owner. A copy of Wrigley Field was built, and the Chicago Cubs held spring training here from 1921 to 1951, except during World War II. In 1924, 14 bison were brought for filming Zane Grey’s latest Western; they later multiplied to more than 600. The island came into its own in the 1930s; the Casino hosted the most popular big bands, and Hollywood celebrities made it the place to be “seen.” Elegant steamers and flying boats brought in thousands of tourists.
Wrigley’s son Philip assumed leadership upon his father’s death in 1932. He helped found the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC) in 1972; three years later, he deeded his Catalina Island Company shares to the CIC. Today, the non-profit CIC protects 42,135 acres, 88 percent of Catalina. It is restoring bald eagles to Catalina; about 25 now live and breed here. Biologists also helped save the beautiful Catalina Island fox after most of the 1,300 tiny native foxes died from a distemper outbreak. The few remaining foxes were captured and vaccinated. They bred well in captivity and were later released; they now number over 800. Feral pigs and goats that consumed native vegetation and destroyed Native archeological sites have been removed, and a hunting season controls the deer population. Excess bison were deported to their native South Dakota, lowering the population to an ecologically sustainable 150–200.
Your stay can be lazy and luxurious, rugged and rustic, or anything in between. After landing, you can venture into the wilderness on an extended hike or backpacking trip, or catch the shuttle for an array of activities in Avalon. The town is small enough to walk and home to very few cars, as most of the 3,700 residents opt for golf carts instead.
More than 200 miles of trails make Catalina a great place to hike. From the airport, you can simply follow the road 10 miles down to Avalon. But the island’s showpiece is the 37-mile Trans-Catalina Trail that opened in April 2009. It takes about four days to hike the whole thing, but you can hike just part of it. Designed to showcase Catalina’s dramatic changes in elevation, it begins near Avalon and then climbs the steep Hermits Gulch Trail to the Divide Road at 1,506 ft. where hikers enjoy bird’s-eye views of Avalon, and Silver and Grand canyons. The trail climbs and descends a few times across the island before ending at Starlight Beach. Along the way, you’ll pass Haypress Reservoir, which is a good place to spot bison, descend down Sheep Chute Canyon with expansive views of pale turquoise waters below, and pass through Two Harbors Campground at the isthmus, where you can eat at a restaurant or pick up supplies at the general store. Recent winter rains should produce plentiful wildflowers this spring. Free permits are required for day-hiking, available at the airport, botanic garden, and other locations, 310-510-1445. For overnight camping permits, see Where to Stay.
If you’ve taken the shuttle down to Avalon, you’ll find a wealth of activities. Stroll the tiny town with its restaurants and shops, most open 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Afishinado is filled with unique, hand-made art, all of the piscine variety, of course, 203 Crescent Ave., 310-510-2440. The Ruth Mayer Gallery hosts a collection of the popular painter’s art, 116 Sumner Ave., 310-510-8318.
Santa Catalina and Discovery Tours operates more interesting tours than we have space for, and offers discounts if you buy at least two, 310-510-2000 or 877-778-8322. We loved the new, one-hour Behind the Scenes Casino Tour that celebrates over 80 years of Catalina’s most recognizable landmark. John G. Beckman, designer of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, did the interior and exterior artwork. Walk out onto the stage of the Avalon Theatre with the floodlights on and organ playing, test the amazing acoustics, and explore the projection room with its original and current equipment. See the Wrigley’s private booth and dressing rooms where stars primped. The original black walnut lining the hallway walls is worth an estimated $4 million. Everything is more interesting when you know the backstory, and the guides help transport you to the past. Upstairs, the elegant ballroom with a dance-floor capacity of 6,000 hosted Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Gene Autry (who brought Trigger into his dressing room); tour 12:30 & 3 p.m., $25. Your tour ticket gets you in free to the Catalina Island Museum on the ground floor. A visit here will fill you in on the fascinating details of Catalina’s history, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., adults $5, children under 16 free, 310-510-2414.
How can you scuba without getting wet? Try the 45-minute Undersea Tour, where you’ll sit five feet under water in front of a large window as hundreds of calico bass, topsmelt, and bright orange Garibaldi (California’s state saltwater fish), swim among kelp beds and along your window inches away from your nose. The tour departs hourly from the green pier 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (more often on weekends), $25–$30.
From June to mid-September, the five-hour Sundown Isthmus Cruise will get you to Two Harbors without even breaking a sweat aboard the Blanche W., an open-deck wooden boat built in 1924. Explore Two Harbors and enjoy dinner at the Harbor Reef Restaurant. On the way back, the World War I-era 40-million-candlepower spotlights will shine onto the ocean, causing nocturnal flying fish to jump in response. The fish burst out of the water and extend their long pectoral fins to glide above the waves for over 150 feet, much longer if they hit updrafts, departs 4 p.m. (Jun–Aug) and 3:30 pm. (Sep), $59.
The Zip Line Eco Tour allows you to cover 3/4 mile over five zip lines with a total drop of nearly 600 feet. You’ll begin high on the island’s interior, traveling down through Descanso Canyon to end, two hours later, at Descanso Beach, just north of the Casino, $115–$125. At each station, guides will give presentations of the island’s unique history and wildlife. Also available is the Sea Trek Eco Tour, where you actually walk along the ocean bottom in a special helmet and suit, surrounded by giant kelp and curious fish, $79–$109.
Catalina’s protected waters with abundant fish and kelp make for great diving. A variety of snorkeling or scuba options are available through Catalina Ocean Rafting, 310-510-0211; Catalina Divers Supply, 310-510-0330; and Catalina Scuba Luv, 310-510-2350 or 800-BOB-DIVE.
Kayaking is a fun and easy way to enjoy Catalina’s natural beauty, steep cliffs, and secluded coves. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports has kayak and snorkel tours and rentals, 310-510-1226; Wet Spot Rentals has kayaks at $55 for 24 hrs, 310-510-2229; or try Joe’s Rent-A-Boat on the pier, 310-510-0455.
Landlubbers can golf at the Catalina Island Golf Course, built by the Banning brothers in 1892, with nine holes, and two sets of tees for 18-hole play. The narrow course wanders through a canyon behind town, greens fees $32–$56, 310-510-0530.
Catalina will transform into “Smooth Jazz Island” when the 28th annual Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival comes to town for two weekends Oct. 9–12 & Oct 16–19, with shows at the Wrigley Ranch and casino ballroom featuring talented musicians from around the world. Weekend series tickets to five shows cost $119–$315; the Thursday “unplugged” concert at Wrigley Ranch includes bus transportation and barbecue dinner, $129.50–$345, 866-872-9849.
The Casino ballroom is the setting for yearly events, including the black-tie Conservancy Ball with dinner, big band dancing, and auctions; the event will celebrate its 20th anniversary on April 11, 2015, 310-510-2595. The Avalon Ball, held by the Art Deco Society, features live music from the 1920s and 30s, May 16, 2015, 6–10 p.m., $60, 310-659-3326. Other balls are held on the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day. Festivals include the Rugby Festival in May and the Flying Fish Festival in June. Other events include kids’ camps and fishing derbies, silent film screenings, food tastings, and a marlin-fishing tournament, 310-510-1520.
Avalon provides a variety of hotels and B&Bs to suit every taste. As for the rest of the island, camping is available at several sites near Two Harbors, plus Hermit Gulch campground near Avalon. Reservations are required; permits are included with your camping reservation. No fires or pets are allowed. Equipment can be rented and facilities vary, camping $5–$18, tent cabins $50, 310-510-8368.
The charming, pink, Victorian-style Hotel St. Lauren is just up the hill from the beach in Avalon. You can sunbathe or read and enjoy a panoramic view on the large sixth-floor patio or look out your room window to watch the town come to life in the morning as locals whiz about in their golf carts, coffee cups in hand. Some rooms have oval whirlpool tubs, balconies, and ocean views; all feature rosewood furniture and Victorian décor. Coffee is available in the lobby 8–10 a.m., and they’ll store your bags if you arrive before check-in time. Ask about seasonal discounts and packages, rooms $94–$439, 231 Beacon St., 310-510-2299 or 800-645-2496.
This year may be your last opportunity to visit The Inn at Mt. Ada. The lease on the property expires on Dec. 1, 2014, after which the future of the iconic hotel and restaurant are uncertain. If you’re lucky enough to book a room before December, the only thing you’ll likely hear in the morning are the acorn woodpeckers and other birds bustling about, because it is 350 feet above Avalon, with a commanding view of the town, surrounding hills, and the ocean. Presidents and a prince have slept here. Truly the island’s premiere inn, the Colonial-style home was built in 1920–21 by William Wrigley, Jr. and named for his wife. Deeded to the University of Southern California in the 1970s by his son Philip, it was used as a conference center until two dedicated women with no inn experience signed a 30-year lease 27 years ago. They painstakingly restored and improved the building, and were awarded the Mobil four-star rating 18 years in a row. The six rooms of varying sizes have balconies, a porch, or fireplace. A van picks you up from Avalon; you have your own golf cart to come and go as you please during your stay. The public rooms invite you to feel at home, read, and relax. The butler’s pantry is always open; help yourself to soft drinks, beer or wine, sherry or port, coffee, tea, or cocoa, fabulous scratch-baked cookies, popcorn, or all the ingredients for a frosty root beer float or banana split. Hors d’oeuvres and a wine bar are set out in the den each evening 6–7:30 p.m., with hot and cold dips, Mexican pizza, tacos, or a casserole. A full breakfast and lunch are also included (see Where to Eat), so you won’t need to eat anywhere else, $390–$780, 310-510-2030 or 800-608-7669.
You’ll find plenty of dining options along Avalon’s waterfront, but we’ll focus on a couple of local secrets. You don’t have to stay at The Inn at Mt. Ada to dine there; you can join the guests for breakfast or lunch in the sumptuous dining room. Breakfast includes a rotating hot dish like an egg omelette, banana-pecan French toast, or Mexican egg casserole, along with mimosas, fresh fruit and yogurt, cereals, bagels, croissants, or muffins, and another fruit dish like cherry cobbler, baked apples, or spicy pears on cornbread bagels. The daily lunch menu includes items like tuna and chef’s salads, specialty burgers (one has pastrami and grilled onion), open-faced hot grilled vegetable sandwiches, wraps, or hot Mexican dishes, and come with sides like coleslaw, three-bean salad, sweet potato or French fries and beer, wine, or champagne. Breakfast is served 9–10 a.m. $25, lunch 12–2 p.m. $33, reservations required 24 hours in advance, 310-510-2030 or 800-608-7669. (The restaurant is scheduled to close on Nov. 30, 2014; see Where to Stay for details.)
A local tipped us off to the Buffalo Nickel and, in a town dominated by tourism, we were the only non-locals in the restaurant. It’s simply good food and the best value around. The location south of Avalon past Lover’s Cove is quiet, except for the rare helicopter at the adjacent helipad. Eat in under the massive buffalo head (he started chasing tourists around the golf course) or out on the large patio with its bubbling fountain and mountain backdrop. The rap is that service can be slow during summer, but it certainly wasn’t during our October visit. The kitchen prepares several completely different genres of food well: Mexican, pizza, and American steaks and ribs. Those BBQ ribs are popular at $16 for a half rack, $21 for a whole, as is the New York steak, $17. We loved the sizzling combo steak and chicken fajitas, $19 for two. Also popular are the chili rellenos with steak, rice, and beans, $14. Pizzas can be delivered, two for $25, or try the Mexican pizza with green tomatillo sauce, beans, jalapeño, avocado, and carnitas, $15–$20. Cap it off with a Buffalo Milk: vodka, light & dark crème de cacao, fresh banana, banana liqueur, and half-n-half, blended, poured into a tall glass, and topped with whipped cream and nutmeg—it tastes like a grown-up chocolate-dipped frozen banana, $7. Weekend-only breakfast items include carne asada, waffles, pancakes, French toast, huevos rancheros, burritos, and omelettes served 10 a.m.–1 p.m., open until 9 p.m., 57 Pebbly Beach Rd., free shuttle van will pick you up at Crescent & Clarissa, 310-510-1323.
The airport restaurant, DC-3 Gifts & Grill, serves breakfast and lunch daily. The buffalo burgers are the biggest draw, along with giant, hot, gooey chocolate chip oatmeal cookies that I never can resist. You’ll also find salads, sandwiches, and Mexican dishes, as well as eggs, burritos, and hot cakes for breakfast, $7–$16, 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sat & Sun 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Scheduled summer BBQs (see website) bring in many pilots, adults $40, children $21, 5–8 p.m., 310-510-2196.
The Airport shuttle to Avalon departs at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., with a 7 p.m. bus in summer. The bus departs Avalon for the airport at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m., with a 6 p.m. bus in summer, $32 round-trip. You’ll get a good glimpse of the island interior, 310-510-0143. The Catalina Safari Bus can take you to Avalon and some of the campsites if you want shorter hikes, $16–$54 one-way, 310-510-2800. For non-guest meals, they suggest calling a taxi, about $12, 310-510-0025. Golf cart rentals run about $40 per hour, Catalina Island Golf Cart, 310-510-1600.
Catalina’s island ambience makes 26 miles seem a world away. You could find yourself traipsing through the wilderness past a wild buffalo, then camping on a secluded beach. In Avalon, spend some time in the iconic casino touring backstage, watching an evening movie, or dancing to a Big Band. Soak in a little history, then peer into turquoise waters populated by bright orange fish. It’s all here, all year round, if you just venture down off the hill from Airport-in-the-Sky.