It was impossible to secure even a towel-sized plot of sand on Catalina the first time I visited on a Labor Day weekend some years back. Avalon's visitors were shoulder-to-sunburned-shoulder on the beach. The main drag was a golf-cart traffic jam.
It was a festive end-of-summer scene, but like any crowded party, it was more exhausting than rejuvenating.
The Catalina I discovered in mid-November hardly seemed like the same island. Even on a warm and clear Sunday afternoon, there was room to breathe — deeply. The long shadows of palm trees stretched uninterrupted across the beach toward Avalon Bay. It was so quiet that you could hear the webbed feet of seagulls slapping against wood as they paced the empty Green Pleasure Pier.
My mother and I needed an emotional recharge by the time we climbed aboard a Catalina Express ferry in San Pedro on Friday morning. Mom had spent the last months as a full-time volunteer for John Kerry's presidential campaign in Ohio; she had emerged from the election wringer a little frayed. I had just finished remodeling much of my house but still had no furniture. I'd been sitting on the floor for two months. So when Mom came to L.A., I knew we needed a relaxing weekend away. And a comfortable place to sit.
We checked into the Avalon Hotel, newly opened in July after four years of remodeling. The building, formerly the far less fashionable Bay View Hotel, got a from-the-studs-up makeover.
The sunny yellow exterior is trimmed with slate green and Catalina-style tiles. Inside, the 15 rooms have been done in California Craftsman style, with mica-shaded lamps, African mahogany wainscoting and richly colored bed linens.
Our south-facing room on the second floor had a view of Avalon Bay and a queen-size bed so high off the floor that we could have used a stepladder. Although none of the rooms is particularly large, the owners have incorporated some luxuries in support of their boutique-hotel aspirations. DVD players are connected to flat-screen LCD televisions; a small library of movies is at the front desk. Also available for overnight loan: laptop computers to take advantage of the Ethernet ports in each room.
The technology was nice, but it was the Supple-Pedic memory foam mattresses and pillows swathed in silky 350-thread-count sheets that made the Avalon feel like a splurge, which it was. We had chosen our room, which cost $295 a night, because it was one of three that had an additional drop-down Murphy bed. Pricey, yes, but a bargain compared with the high-season $495 rack rate. Rooms without balconies or ocean views start at $195 for weekend nights in the winter, comparable to the 48-room Hotel Metropole next door.
Similar discounts were to be found on the Pleasure Pier, where tour companies sell tickets. Around lunchtime, Catalina Adventure Tours was hawking tickets for its afternoon submarine tour, usually $35 for adults, at the kids' rate of $18.
Below deck on the bright yellow Nautilus, a video monitor showed high-tech graphics, as if we'd boarded the USS Enterprise. The "Star Trek"-esque recorded spiel, clearly created for the youngest, most enthusiastic passengers, was out of step with our sedate crowd. But after "Dive! Dive! Dive!" we slipped "one-point-six feet" under the surface, and the Pacific offered up its own quieter special effects. Swaying forests of ladder kelp — which can grow up to 2 feet a day — glowed yellow in the sunlight filtering through the clear water. Kelp bass darted between the flat leaves. Hundreds of well-trained opaleye fish crowded the sides of the sub to catch "torpedoes" of food shot from our craft. And out in Lovers Cove marine preserve, California's "state marine fish," the garibaldi, made a striking impression, deep orange against the blue water. The submarine tour, despite any initial misgivings, wound up Mom's favorite part of the weekend.
Dinner Friday night, however, showed us the downside of an off-season visit. At 7 p.m. we were the only diners at the Landing restaurant. We felt as though we were keeping everyone from "JAG" or something; the wait staff tried three times to bus my mother's plate before she was finished. Dessert? Coffee? Not on offer.
Back at the Avalon, we got comfortable on the squishy bed and fired up "Big Fish" on DVD, only to have trouble with the player. No, the front desk receptionist said, another DVD player wasn't available anywhere in the hotel. Saturday night, the hotel staff neglected our request for turn-down service — not a big deal except that I had to pull down the Murphy bed myself. No one was at the front desk.
The hotel facilities are gleaming — I witnessed the lobby floors being cleaned three times and the wood polished twice — but the service will have to improve if the Avalon wants $500-a-night guests come springtime.
The steamship days Saturday we walked out to the Catalina Casino to visit the museum, which chronicles the history of the island, from its original inhabitants to its establishment as a holiday destination in the early 20th century.
No building embodies that entertainment ethos more than the casino, completed in 1929 after 14 months of round-the-clock construction. Discovery Tours guides groups through the building most days, well worth the time and $14 (which includes museum admission). Atop the circular structure is the remarkable Catalina Ballroom, a destination for thousands of dancers who came by steamship to swing and jitterbug to the best-known big bands of the 1930s and '40s.
Directly below, insulated by thick layers of maple and oak, felt and paper, pine and cork, is the Avalon Theatre, which rivals any of Los Angeles' downtown movie palaces for glamour. The domed ceiling is covered in silver leaf, the curved walls are adorned with Art Deco-influenced murals. Though the theater was the first in the country built for sound movies, it also has a pipe organ for silents. The theater made such an impression that the tour wasn't enough. We returned for the first screening of "The Incredibles" on Saturday night and got there early to hear the 30-minute pipe organ concert before the movie.
Arriving early meant rushing a bit through dinner at Ristorante Villa Portofino, which lured us in with the promise of pumpkin ravioli. We enjoyed the pasta, which came in a light cream sauce with sage, with a green salad and good wine. We had plenty of fellow diners that night, but even though no guests were waiting for tables, the staff hadn't fully adjusted to the slower pace of winter. Again, Mom guarded her plate from overeager busboys.
Sunday was picture-perfect Southern California, the skies cleaned by a little rain, cool air offset by warm sun. Some pedestrians seemed comfortable in their shorts; I was using the sub-70 temperature to wear a neglected wool sweater and I was just as happy.
It was too cool to dip my toes in the Pacific, but clearly others were hardier. I saw them dragging their scuba tanks and wetsuits back from Descanso Cove. The only part of Catalina I found less to my liking in the winter was the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, the latter of which appeared to have been recently pruned.
By Sunday afternoon, I was so relaxed that I napped through the sunset during the ferry trip back to San Pedro. The post-election world looked better to my mother too — though, granted, she was seeing it through blue-state-colored glasses.
Robin Rauzi is an assistant travel editor. *
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Catalina Express round-trip
and port parking $128.00
Avalon Hotel, two nights
with breakfast, tax $660.00
The Landing $54.00
Ristorante Villa Portofino $68.00
Catalina Adventure Tours $36.00
Casino tour and museum
Discovery Tours $25.00
Avalon Theatre $16.00
Botanical garden $10.00
Other meals $92.00
Final tab $1,089.00
Avalon Hotel, 124 Whitley Ave., P.O. Box 706, Avalon, CA 90704; (310) 510-7070, http://www.theavalonhotel.com .
Catalina Adventure Tours, Green Pleasure Pier, P.O. Box 797, Avalon, CA 90704; (310) 510-2888, http://www.catalinaadventuretours.com .
Discovery Tours, Santa Catalina Island Co., P.O. Box 737, Avalon, CA 90704; (800) 626-1496, http://www.scico.com .
Avalon Theatre, (310) 510-0179.