The Dinosaur Goes to Catalina
Through a series of misunderstandings (don’t ask), we found ourselves making a trip to Catalina Island. On our first day, we drove to Long Beach to spend the night prior to taking a ferry to the island. The Best Western in Long Beach had a really good deal; they charge a little more for the room, but they let you leave your car with them for up to seven days for free. The parking lot for the ferry charges $15 per day, which means parking at the motel is half priced. The hotel also has a shuttle that will take you to the ferry and pick you back up again, all for free.
We had dinner at a really nice Spanish restaurant called Sevilla of Long Beach, that offered a special sampler of six different tapas, and a nice paella. Our choices of tapas included two with different kinds of cheeses, one of which was much like bleu cheese with a balsamic vinegar laced over the top, while the other was a dry sort of cheese, sliced in thin slices. Our four other tapas included a chicken-liver pate, ham that seemed to be on a dab of romesco sauce, thin slices of chorizo, and an olive tapenade. All six of the savories were on thin toasted bread and were topped off with a slice of pimento.
The paella was very nice, but I make one just as good. However, I did rescue the scallop shells, because although you can get scallops in Las Vegas, I’ve never seen them for sale still inside their shells. I wanted the shells as a bit of atmosphere for the next time I make paella. Their Sangre de Toro red wine, often described as a rough and peasant-style red wine blend, added just the right touch to the meal even though paella is seafood, not meat.
We finished off the meal with desserts, which we aren’t supposed to have right now, but hey, we’re on our vacation. Patsy had gelato with a thin string of caramel sauce over fruit and berries, and topped off with whipped cream. I finished off my meal with an Andalusia Apple Tart (not to be confused with a French Apple Tart… language difference I suppose).
The next morning, we grabbed the continental breakfast and then took the shuttle to the Catalina ferry. A woman at the ferry company offered us special accommodations on the upper deck for a mere $30 apiece extra, but we declined. We sat in the un-crowded lower deck for the hour and something it took us to get to the island, and even had window seats.
After we checked into the Catalina Canyon Spa & Hotel, we walked around for a while. Avalon, the main town on the island, is a very walk able place of some 4,000 plus people. I found it sort of Steinbeckian, because it’s built around a harbor and on up into the hillsides, and while there is a lot of money here, there is also a lot of funkiness. Avalon is not a cheap place to live; for example, a gallon of gas is around $6.40 per gallon. You can see why, since almost everything has to be brought in by boat or plane.
English may be the official language here, but we heard more Spanish than English as we walked around town. There is a plaza, called the Tour Plaza, that features a gathering spot called ‘Pete’s’ Café, a place where people can gather to talk and solve the problems of the world. During our vacation, we passed the place several times a day on the way to and from our hotel, and I never did hear English being spoken at the cafe.
There is a restriction on the amount of automobiles that can be on the island, so the main form of vehicular traffic is golf cart, followed closely by bicycle and scooter. Given the lack of space, plus the cost of operating a vehicle, the abundance of golf carts is not surprising. We were told it takes between fifteen to twenty years to get a permit for an automobile. Even the golf carts are limited to one per family, depending on need. Most of the vehicles we saw were city owned, which was surprising. Catalina has a lot of top shelf equipment for a town of only 4,000+.
We had lunch at a place called El Galleon. After a tasty Greek salad, we took a ride on an ersatz yellow submarine that was powered by John Deere, or so it said on the dorsal fin. The sub was actually a deep hulled boat with big portholes below the waterline. There were also water cannons along the side so that you can blast fish food into the water. Surprisingly, we were very popular with the locals… fish that is. The ride takes you out for a ride through a stand of kelp that supports a healthy fish population.
Out on the pier, we met an interesting woman named Peggy. She came to Catalina specifically to ride on the ersatz sub – the boat went out three times, and she was there all three times. In between rides, she bought fish food pellets to toss off the pier to the fish, especially to the Garibaldis, which is a type we would call a pan fish. Peggy asked us if we wanted to join her in feeding the Garabaldis, and I asked her if she meant we were feeding some old Italians. A Garabaldi is about a foot to eighteen inches long, and looks like a cross between a gold fish and a crappie; think of a large, bright orange ping-pong paddle with fins.
Peggy was a hoot. She was a butter-ball of a woman, wore round glasses, and had a floppy, soft brimmed hat shoved down on her head. She was very enthusiastic about everything around her. While she laughed when the fish came swimming by the portholes, she really got a kick out of firing the food out of the cannons.
There were several types of fish swimming around – lazy drifts of dusky Opal-eyes, individual Kelp Bass, schools of fast swimming smelt that looked like silver flashlights, and a lot of small black fish called, surprisingly, Blacksmiths… go figure. When the food cannons went off, the Opal-eyes and the Blacksmiths would swirl, making a cloud around the portholes until all of a sudden a Garibaldi would jump in, looking like a spot-light on a dark night.
We had dinner at a small place called Armstrong’s, out by the water. I had scallops kebabs, while Patsy had giant shrimp on a stick. The food was pretty good, and I would recommend Armstrong’s if you go to Catalina. Afterwards, we had an early night to get ready for the next day.
The next morning, we went down to the continental breakfast and met three pigeons named Bob, Jack, and Fred. They came into the breakfast room and got chased out by the woman at the front desk; she scolded them by name – of course, the pigeons seemed abashed.
After breakfast, we walked about a mile and a half uphill to the botanical garden and the Wrigley Memorial at the top of a valley. As we approached the memorial, I saw what I thought was a feral cat dashing across the front of the stairs, however after another sighting, I realized it was one of the native foxes. These things are not much bigger than a large cat, so it’s easy to mistake a fox for a cat, but they have a bushy tail which is the give-away.
The memorial was a lovely spot in the form of a large campanile with Art Deco bas-reliefs and more of the Catalina tile work we have seen all over town. There was a tile company on the island for about ten years, but then it got moved off to the mainland. Apparently, the new company kept the original design presses and also the style of making picture tiles. Even the new tiles for the zip-line rides have the same feel as the original tile work.
The floor of the memorial is paved with native Bluestone as well as marble from, I think it was Alabama. Since it was built in the 1930s, the structure is high Art Deco. The original idea was to use as much material from Catalina as possible, so not only is the concrete made with local materials, but the tiles, and even the red roof tiles were made at the Catalina Pottery plant. On the way back down to the garden, I saw some great Art Deco gargoyles around the staircase. I would have loved to see in full gush, but then again, maybe not, since it would mean I was out standing in the rain.
As we walked down the hill, we stopped at the Conservation Interpretive Center to see what they had on exhibit. When we left, a gentleman who worked there asked us what our plans were, and we said we were looking for some hikes. He asked if we would be interested in a way to get back to town other than walking down the road we came up on. When we said yes, he directed us to a pathway that took us up over hills and down into gullies. Our fifteen or twenty minute walk turned into a two hour hike, but it was very pretty.
The day had started out clear, but turned foggy in the afternoon. We had a quick lunch at a place called Coyote Joe’s, and then took a bus tour to the top of the island to the airport, or as they term it, the Airport In The Sky. Our bus driver told us three times that we were not supposed to go out onto the airstrip, nor were we to touch any airplanes. Well, of course one of the first things we saw after we got off the bus was a small red and silver airplane sitting at the edge of the airstrip… however, we resisted the temptation. As it turns out, there is a thousand dollar fine for going out on the strip and touching the planes. Makes you wonder how often this has happened to make the authorities pass such a law.
We should have seen all sorts of amazing things on the tour, but the fog had rolled in, so our bus driver just described to us what we would have seen if the fog hadn’t been there. On the way back down the mountain, he tried to scare us by driving right up next to the edge of the road. If it hadn’t been foggy, we would have looked straight down several hundred feet into a canyon, however, his trick didn’t work and even he started laughing about it. We got back late in the afternoon and walked down to the Avalon Casino to look around until it was time for supper. We stopped at a restaurant called Villa Portofino for a nice meal, and then came home again.
During the night, a strong wind came up and blew a lot of branches down, but it cleared the air. We were tired from the day before (our short cut, plus all the walking around town really took it out of us), so we planned to have a quiet day.
While the hotel we are staying in is nice enough, their continental breakfasts leave something to be desired. We went down town to have breakfast at a place called Original Jack’s Country Kitchen, and then walked a little more. I have no idea if there was a secondary Jack’s Country Kitchen, or if he was the first person with that name on the island. I wonder if he knows he’s sharing a name with a pigeon?
After breakfast, we started back up the hill to read for the rest of the afternoon. The wind kept up so that there was no fog, but there were no tours either, so we just decided to take it easy. We did stop at the only market in town for some bananas and carrots, however. On the way back home, we took the wrong road and ended up going another half mile or so out of our way, uphill of course, trying to get back to the hotel. So much for taking it easy.
That evening, we went back to Armstrong’s and had dinner. Before we did so, we stopped into a shop called ‘Afishianado’ – a store dedicated to all things piscatorial. They have statues, paintings, photographs and more, all about fish. The lady who owns the place invited us back on Saturday night for a late night shopping special, a glass of wine, and a chance to see them light up the Avalon Christmas Tree.
When we got to Armstrong’s, we switched around, so that I had what Patsy had ordered two nights before, and she had what I ordered. After a nice dinner that included a slice of hot apple pie, we headed home for an early evening of ‘Boggle’, reading, and a little television.
They have all sorts of tours in Catalina, including one where you ride on Segways, those two wheeled scooters. The also have a ghost tour here, because Avalon is supposed to be partly built on an old burial ground. I’m not so sure we didn’t see a ghost, but if we did, both of us saw her. The one who may have been a ghost was a little blond girl, about eight years old, with long blond hair, and dressed in a blue sweater and jeans. The reason why we thought she might have been a ghost was that I kept seeing her when Patsy was doing something else, so she did not see the girl at first. About the fourth time I saw the kid, I mentioned her to Patsy, who then saw her as well. She passed by, going down the alley behind us, but when we got to the end of the alley, there she was again, in front of us. There didn’t seem to have been time for her to get from where we last saw her to the place we were now seeing her. Since we hadn’t heard about the ghost tours at that time, we speculated that she might have been twins, and that one was following the other. Who knows?
The hotel has been fairly empty because of the season, so their restaurant was not open until this morning. However, with the weekend coming up, we think there will be more people staying at the hotel. As an indication of this, we saw the board in the lobby, saying we could eat breakfast here, so we did. We had eggs, bacon, and potatoes O’Brian, with a cup of coffee.
Now, I have come to the conclusion that nobody in Avalon knows what a really good cup of coffee tastes like. While our meal was pleasant enough, the coffee was mediocre, so we went downtown to a coffee shop that offered Nicaraguan Organic. Should have been nice, right? It tasted a lot like the stuff we had at the hotel.
The day was spent walking around (what a change,right?) and looking at places we hadn’t been to yet. We also started paying attention to all the golf carts. Some of these have enclosures around them to keep out the weather, while others just have a windscreen. There are fancy ones, ones for larger groups, maybe a family of four or even six, and then there are the smaller ones that could only hold a couple of people. The differences included paint jobs (or those in need of a paint job), and hubcaps (some fancy, some not so); there was even one with raised suspension and big tires. That cart stood almost two feet higher that the others! We haven’t seen any golf carts with flames painted on them so far, but we did see one that looked like an old fashioned surrey.
Later on in the morning, we took a tour to the interior of the island. This place is bigger than you might think! By the way, our bus driver from the other day told us a story he claimed was true. He was talking about the Pacific Ocean and how the tectonic plates raised up the land to make the island, when one of the tourists asked if Catalina was completely surrounded by the ocean. The driver said he told the person that it was, but only at high tide.
The bus drivers are apparently supposed to know something of geology, botany, history, and more. They also appear to be entertainers. For instance they like to explain how the eucalyptus trees are planted along the side of the road to keep buses from going over the edge, and when you hit some, they shout, “You clipped us!” (Ho, ho, ho!)
We had dinner at the El Galleon and then went back to the hotel for a game of Boggle. If it sounds like we keep going to the same places to eat, there is a reason for that. The El Galleon was offering a tri-tip dinner for $14.00, where a couple of doors down at a steakhouse, the cheapest steak was $22.00. I didn’t mind it, but Patsy thought the tri-tip tasted fatty. I guess so, but it seemed okay to me.
You have to look at the menus; for instance, you can pay $11.50 for a Buffalo Burger at one place, and $17.00 at another. Now really, how much difference can there be in Buffalo Burgers?
The next morning was clear and cool. We hiked down town for breakfast at Jack’s and then walked around for a while. The Wrigley mansion, built on a hill named Mt. Ida, is now a B&B. We decided to hike up the road to take a look at it. As it turns out, you can’t get too close to the place, however you can hike to the main gate. We understand the rooms go from $350 to $700 a night, but they feed you two meals plus evening snacks, and they even give you the use of a golf cart, so it all works out. The tour bus drivers like to point out the mansion and the fence below it. They make a joke about that fence being the longest fence in Los Angeles County without graffiti, which I guess is true.
On the way back down from looking at the mansion, we stopped and talked to a gentleman who told us Nicholas Cage wanted to buy his house for 8.5 million bucks, but that he didn’t want to sell it because he would have to pay so much in capital gains. He said that the government would just waste the money. When we all agreed that people in congress weren’t earning their pay, he said that those folks were not looking out for folks like him and us. Yeah, like we have a house worth $8.5 mill.
The walk up the hill was a long one, so we went back to the hotel to nap and read for a while before dinner.
That night was a special one. We had seen city workers putting up holiday decorations all around the place. The town has a big Christmas tree in front of the harbor, and this was the night to light the tree. There were carolers dressed in 19th century outfits, St. Nicholas arrived on a fire truck with all the lights flashing, and there were booths giving out free coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries. As has been our pattern so far, we went back to the Villa Portofino for dinner. Patsy had the Italian turf and surf, while I went for the pumpkin ravioli in cream sauce. We probably both put back on every pound we’ve lost on Weight Watchers just with that one meal. The night was chilly, so when we got back to the room, we turned on the heat and played Boggle for a couple of games before turning in.
Our last full day was Sunday, another clear, cool day. We stopped down at our usual breakfast spot and I had my first taste of steel cut oatmeal. I have always had the rolled oats, so figured there would not be much of a difference, but I was wrong. The steel cut is much nuttier and has a better texture. I’ll be looking for that in the market when we get home.
We took the Cape Canyon tour, a four hour jaunt around the island. Of the three tours we have taken, this was the most expensive but also the most comprehensive. We stopped at the Fox Habitat (where we saw a fox) as well as the Eagle Habitat (where we saw a bald eagle and a golden eagle), and went down some trails that looked awfully suspicious. The most suspicious trail was one called the Sheep Chute, where they used to drive the sheep down to the boats when there were still sheep on the island. We also saw the pens where they take the extra Bison for shipping out to the Dakotas. Tour guide joke: What did the mother buffalo say to her son when they shipped him to the Dakotas? “Bye, son.” Bah dum-bump!
If any of you reading this Dinologue plan to go to Catalina, and if you decide to take just one tour, take this one. If you go, however, be prepared. The tour is in an open Hummer with a sun shade overhead, but otherwise you are exposed to the weather. It got a little brisk, but it would probably be more comfortable during summer.
Our tour guide was a White Mountain Apache called Bear. He filled us in on some of the things the other guides glossed over, including the story that we kept hearing, how Wrigley bought the island sight unseen. That was partly true; he invested in a company that bought the island and then he came over to see what he had invested in. When he saw Catalina, he bought out all the other partners, so in a way, he did buy the island sight unseen. Bear also told us that the man who first owned the island planned to turn the small fishing village into a tourist attraction. He had been reading about King Arthur going to the isle of Avalon, so he took that name for his planned attraction.
We had lunch at the airport and I had my first cup of coffee that had any taste; that was a nice surprise. On the way back to town, Bear told us many of the same jokes the other guides used. I think there must be a training manual for guide with the jokes printed out and they all have to memorize them.
After we got back to Avalon, I just had to go down to Courtyard Coffee to try their Dancing Goat Blend coffee. The story about coffee was discovered is that a young goatherd noticed that when his goats ate certain beans off bushes, they danced around, hence the start of our caffeine addictions. The Dancing Goat blend was more in line with what we brew at home, which pleased me. Too bad I had to wait for so many days before getting what I think of as a decent cup of coffee.
Following the general pattern we had set, we went to Armstrong’s for dinner that night. Someone on one of the tours had said Armstrong’s served great salmon, and they were right. If you go to Catalina, and if you have dinner there, be sure to try the salmon at Armstrong.
Well, that’s about it. We got up early the next morning, hoofed our way down to Jack’s, then got to the ferry on time and came home. It was a nice vacation, one I wouldn’t mind doing again. Thanks for coming along, I hope you enjoyed our story.