On Catalina, a Charming Home Base

On Catalina, a Charming Home Base
For older kids, taking a spin around the harbor in a kayak is an entertaining way to pass a few hours. (KAREN TAPIA / LAT)
I searched for the perfect, family-friendly rental house on Santa Catalina Island, scrutinizing one grainy Internet photo after another. I clicked past homes with high balconies and railings. Also those that specified "No children."

I eventually settled on a light green, bougainvillea-draped cottage a few blocks from the beach. It advertised two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a washer and dryer. The woman at the rental agency said it was one of her favorites, so I booked it.

For our first vacation as a family of four, renting a house instead of a hotel room seemed the way to go. With a kitchen right there, our 2-year-old, Nick, could get his favorite dinner of frozen waffles. We would have a washing machine for all those spit-up rags from our 4-month-old, John. And if either child had any meltdowns, my husband, Martin, and I wouldn't make enemies at a bed-and-breakfast.

Catalina seemed an ideal choice too. Just an hourlong boat ride from Long Beach, it is conveniently close yet far enough away to feel like vacation.

I called ahead and reserved tickets on a Catalina Express boat that departed near the Queen Mary. Round-trip tickets are $40 for adults, $30.50 for children 2 and older, and $3 for babies (to cover an Avalon city tax). In summer, the company advises people to book weeks in advance.

When we pulled into the parking lot one Friday morning last month, our main worry was seasickness. As it turned out, it should have been just getting on board.

Over the phone, the company had warned us that our stroller would have to be "checked" under the boat. I erroneously assumed that meant we would check luggage, like on an airplane. Not so.

"We have to wait on the dock and then carry everything onto the boat ourselves," Martin said after returning from the Catalina Express office lugging a stroller, a playpen and the world's largest duffel bag, stuffed full of clothes for four people, diapers for two kids and videos of the Wiggles, Australian children's entertainers.

There is no assigned seating, so we stood in line for half an hour in the hot sun with the luggage, a 30-pound toddler and a 17-pound baby in a car seat. We boarded with the kids to get seats; then Martin made a second trip for our belongings.

At least the crew members, unlike their land-based co-workers, were pleasant and helpful. The seats were comfortable and afforded terrific views. The sea was calm, and the drone of the engine sent little John off to sleep. Nick, fascinated with sharks, kept an eye out for predators in the water.

Seeing Catalina appear on the horizon was like magic. The sun-splashed hills and beaches of Avalon beckoned.

But then another snag. The spot where Catalina Express lets off passengers is a five- or 10-minute walk from the heart of Avalon. With kids and luggage, we needed a taxi. So did a lot of other people, all competing for three cabs.

Since I used to live in New York (OK, just nine months), I flagged down a driver who said he would take us to our rental. When Martin hurried to get our belongings from the boat, another passenger (a fellow ex-New Yorker, no doubt) took the cab.

Martin came back with the luggage and said, "Where's the cab?"

Nick took one look around and announced, "I want to go home now!"

Then the baby woke up hungry and started crying.

Another cab finally came--and charged us $11 for a half-mile trip. That's life on the big island.

Lucky for us, the house was worth all the trouble. It was on a quiet residential street a few blocks from Avalon's crescent-shaped harbor, as promised.

Our agency, Catalina Island Vacation Rentals, is one of the largest on Catalina. Two-bedroom houses in Avalon range from $150 to $200 per night, and three-bedrooms run $200 to $500 plus tax, with cleaning and processing fees averaging $90 per stay. Condos in adjacent Hamilton Cove, priced a bit higher, have stunning views, and guests have access to a golf cart, pool, tennis courts, fitness center and a private beach.

We were immediately charmed by our cottage's homey, old-fashioned furnishings. Though we didn't see the washer and dryer (the rental office later explained it was outside) and neither bathroom had a tub for bathing our toddler, we liked the cute kitchen and the living room with piano. The nightly rate: $150 plus tax and about $70 in additional fees.

We made ourselves at home, then headed to the Catalina Cantina for your standard enchilada combo plates.

Avalon is darling. We walked up and down the main waterfront strip, Crescent Avenue (called Front Street by locals), gazing out at the Pacific and stopping at an ice cream shop and stores selling T-shirts and other souvenirs.

Several places stocked brightly colored replicas of Catalina tile, made by Catalina Clay Products from the island's soil during the late 1920s and 1930s. The tiles, featuring birds and geometric patterns, are put to beautiful use throughout the village, especially at a town-square fountain.

Although Catalina offers a bounty of outdoor activities, we've found that a simple walk turns into an adventure through Nick's need-to-know-now eyes. Martin and I fielded a range of questions, from what's the name of a crane being used in pier construction to why the chocolate chip ice cream here tastes different.

The baby fell asleep in his stroller amid the cacophony of the Penny Arcade. While Nick and Martin (mostly Martin) played Space Invaders, I strolled John outside and enjoyed the sunshine. Later we all walked on the beach, watched boats in the harbor and buried rocks in the sand.

At the Discovery Tours office in town, a woman passed out a brochure on local marine life, and Nick was particularly interested in a big, orange garibaldi fish. All sorts of tours are available, including night cruises to see Catalina's flying fish, glass-bottomed boat rides and trips in a semi-submersible vessel.

We asked which tour was best for kids. She suggested the semi-submersible because Nick could sit face to face with fish. It was a little pricey--$30 for adults, $15 for kids for a 45-minute ride--but we decided to try it on Saturday.

For dinner, we bought groceries, fixed spaghetti and relaxed at "home," playing the piano, watching a video and falling asleep by 10.

At 6:30 a.m. we were all up again, setting off a bit later for kid-friendly Pancake Cottage in Avalon, open for more than 40 years. The place was packed with locals and tourists. Service was quick and friendly, and the pancakes, eggs and bacon were a nice way to start our day.

Martin watched the boys at a cute playground near the water while I went shopping. Then, back at the house, a minor miracle: The boys napped at the same time.

I slipped out to buy the semi-submersible tickets but was too late. All the afternoon rides were sold out. Of course, the kids couldn't have cared less. Nick spent the rest of the day making friends on the beach and goofing off in the water. Martin took John to the 1929 Catalina Casino, the island's most recognizable landmark, with ballrooms and a theater with Art Deco murals.

For dinner we bought clams from Armstrong's Fish Market & Seafood Restaurant, a highly recommended establishment by the water, and made clam linguine at the house.

We were back at the Pancake Cottage the next morning, supposedly at Nick's urging. He had found a new fascination: silver-dollar pancakes. (I suspect Martin, fond of the restaurant's scrambled eggs and bacon, had a hand in guiding us there too.) We knew the drill for the boat ride home, so the wait didn't seem so bad. But before we left, I wanted one last thing: a family photo.

We lined up in the morning sun with the casino and the dark blue sea in the background. We straightened John's shirt over his fat tummy, wiped the blond hair out of Nick's eyes and waited to corral someone to take the picture.

We passed on a group of teens. An older couple in khakis and Hawaiian shirts looked promising, but they turned away before reaching us. Finally a young couple came by. When the guy said "cheese," we smiled.

The picture came back blurry. I had forgotten to switch the camera to automatic focus. But you can still make out four figures, a new family on their first vacation.


Debora Vrana writes for the Business section of The Times.