Ferrying to Santa Catalina Island — just you, that special someone and an upper deck brimming with buoyant kids, chiding parents and assorted Jimmy Buffett look-alikes — isn't exactly a secret on any summer Friday. L.A.'s fabled leisure isle hosts more than 1 million visitors each year, and by the looks of those lines at the waffle-cone place, the throngs at the Green Pleasure Pier and the buzzing golf carts in downtown Avalon, many of them are hitting it right now. Should that deter you? Nah — it's all fun. But it might inspire a little solitude strategizing without resorting to hiding out in Two Harbors or (more drastic) hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail. When I'm traveling to Avalon, here are some of my favorite escape hatches beside, above and beyond the bay.
Perched high on a hill, the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel (199 Chimes Tower Road;  510-0966) has simple but serene ocean- and mountain-view rooms named after various book titles written by the famous Western author who built this Hopi-style lodge in the 1920s. No phones or Aveda products in the rooms. Resident cats stalk a pool deck adorned with hand-painted cactuses, a picnic table and yellowing Zane Grey news clippings on a billboard — and it all makes sense when you're up there listening to nothing but the breeze and the faint ferry horns. It's a quirky classic, but don't put it off for too long. The place is for sale.
Staying at the lovely Inn on Mt. Ada (398 Wrigley Road;  510-2030) — the original Georgian colonial mansion of William Wrigley Jr., who bought 99% of Catalina in 1919 and named his hilltop summer home after his wife, Ada — begins at $430 a night. Plan B: Come for breakfast ($25 plus tax and tip) or lunch ($33 plus tax and tip) and gaze down at Avalon like a chewing gum magnate. Reservations are a good idea.
The rest of Catalina Island. Most of this deceivingly huge island is gorgeous, rugged outback managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy (125 Clarissa Ave.;  510-2595), which stewards more than 40,000 acres of rolling interior, where bison outnumber people, as well as 50 miles of frothing coastline that wouldn't look out of place in Big Sur. Taking a Conservancy Jeep Eco-Tour, led by a naturalist, is the best way to get an off-road glimpse without a backpack and compass.
The lesson learned
"Everyone from L.A., see those twinkly little things up there in the sky?" asks a young guide with the Santa Catalina Island Co. ( 510-8687), piloting a sleek, 1920s open-deck vessel while combing the black ocean with a giant World War I-era, 40-million candlepower searchlight to entice Catalina's resident flying fish to jump. "Those are called stars." Ba-da-bing. Nevertheless, whizzing along the island's coast at night with acrobatic fish leaping everywhere and a firmament full of constellations is a singular experience, with or without educational punch lines.
Round-trip adult ferry tickets from the Long Beach downtown landing to Avalon cost $72.50 a person ( 519-1212). Once you're on the island, about $600 will cover a weekend for two at the Zane Grey ($195 a night for an ocean-view room), lunch at the Inn on Mt. Ada ($33 plus tax and tip), a two-hour Jeep Eco-Tour ($70) and an evening Flying Fish Tour ($28).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times