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Catalina Island becomes more like a secret getaway in winter

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You road-less-traveled types may adore Catalina right now. During high season, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Southern Californians flock to this overgrown rock like Bostonians to Martha's Vineyard. Californians visit Catalina's hilltop Wrigley Mansion (now the pleasant Inn on Mt. Ada), attend movie premieres and Kenny Loggins concerts at its landmark Casino Ballroom (where Duke Ellington once played) and take bus tours through its vast backcountry (still occupied by real buffalo herds).

These are all legacies of chewing-gum baron William Wrigley Jr., who bought the whole 76-square-mile island for a couple of million bucks sight unseen in 1919 and shaped it into his vision of an offshore hinterland and equestrian-class resort.

There's a sunny nine-hole golf course here too (reportedly the oldest in Southern California), a triathlon and an October jazz festival. But come winter, when tourism plummets to a fraction of its fair-weather numbers, Catalina may be something closer to a secret getaway.

"The crowds are gone, the weather's still pretty nice, the ferries are still running, the inns are cheaper and you can even dive if you wear a wetsuit," says islander and Catalina Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Donna Harris.

Some of Catalina's winter perks are immediately evident the weekend I'm there. Check-in at the Hotel Metropole is officially 3 p.m., but my seaside room is ready and waiting for me when I arrive at 9:30 a.m.

Standard high-season rates will be well over $200 per night. Right now it's about $100 with a continental breakfast -- and there are sweeter deals than that.

"The Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel is currently offering a $65-per-night midweek special," a local tour guide tells a small group in front of the Casino Ballroom. "By the way," he adds, "if any of you aren't chewing Wrigley's gum right now, we would greatly appreciate it if you did."

Silence.

During low season on Catalina, even canned tour guide jokes are feeling the pinch. There'll be more laughs in July when the climate and attendance pick up.

Tonight, the new James Bond flick is playing in the Casino's ornately muraled movie theater ("the first one designed for talkies in North America," the guide mentions, "and an early acoustical model for New York's Radio City Music Hall.")

Early birds are treated to a free, hourlong pipe organ concert before the movie. I show up early, as do exactly seven others scattered around the 1,184-seat auditorium, to enjoy the most under-attended pipe organ recital in one of the loveliest Art Deco movie houses in the country.

Later, I take a quiet Saturday night stroll through town, where underworked waiters are moonlighting as karaoke artists and a few people from an Irvine engineering firm are wobbling outside Luau Larry's bar in oversized straw hats -- free, if you order and drink the bar's signature beverage, the Wiki-Wacker.

"We're on a company . . . retreat," one of them says, his breath steaming in the cold air. "So what brings you here?"

On a dull, raw night in downtown Avalon with more rain in the forecast, this seems like a valid question for any weekend warrior.

Anyway, it's one I've been grappling with this day. What brought me to Catalina now of all times? Not the Casino Ballroom tour, as impressive as the building is. And not the four-hour off-road tour across the island's wild interior in a Mercedes Unimog -- as cool as this might have been.

"Sorry, that one's been canceled," the ticket agent told me. "The rain."

How about the Nautilus submarine tour? Nope. Canceled too.

"Choppy ocean conditions."

What am I doing here? The answer arrives unhurriedly the following morning -- a sunny Sunday despite storm forecasts. Walking through empty Avalon, passing newspaper boxes with yesterday's headlines, I head west, away from the bay. Up Catalina Avenue to Eucalyptus Avenue to Avalon Canyon Road.

Past the empty golf course, a bird sanctuary with no birds and a campground with no campers to the Hermit Gulch Trail -- a footpath that switchbacks a couple of miles uphill through a sloped canvas of red-berried toyon trees, oak scrub and prickly pear cactus.

The trail crests at the top of the island, where gusts from Catalina's wild backside call for a Windbreaker. Sweet views of little Avalon far below seem almost otherworldly, save for the faint toot of a ferry horn.

The weather is just right for a walk like this in a place like this. Brisk enough to keep sweat glands in check. Clear enough for panoramic vistas across the sea to the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains. Unpopular enough to not run into another soul in nearly two hours.

Hospitable enough too. The trail will eventually loop down through the back gate of the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, where a friendly local named Zella will pull over in her golf cart and ask me (a total stranger) if I need a lift back to town.

And there it is. What's the draw of a hibernating island 26 miles from the hazy blur of Los Angeles six months before the butter-pecan-loving masses pull ashore? Just that. On a cool Sunday afternoon, with more storm clouds brewing on the horizon, I was sorry to leave.

travel@latimes.com

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