Travel Through Time, Catalina Style

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you didn't get enough vacation this summer or if, like me, you think of work as something that keeps interrupting your vacation, you might want to head for Catalina. In fall, the weather's still warm but the summer crowds have thinned out. Time doesn't exactly stand still there, but it slows to a stroll.

From the moment I board the boat to go those famous 26 miles across the sea, I have the feeling of traveling backward--maybe because I actually am traveling backward, watching Long Beach slip away. And when I disembark in Avalon, my deja vu grows even stronger.

Avalon is a beachfront town reminiscent of every other beachfront town you've ever been in, from Key West to Provincetown, the salty air permeated with smell of fried foods, fudge and outboard motor exhaust. The main drag, Crescent Avenue, faces an actual beach, with a stall where you can rent umbrellas, beach chairs and sand toys. The beach is the preferred hangout of what an old Catalina hand calls "the cooler people," not because they're cool but because they bring large coolers over on the boat.

My only problem is, I'm not sure what decade I'm in. It doesn't seem to be the '90s. Nor, thank God, can I discern anything that smacks of the '80s. Not only is Avalon a Starbucks-free zone, it's also irony-free--the kind of resort town, like Honolulu, where newlyweds can dare to dress in matching outfits without causing a raised eyebrow.

But I can't decide. Should I stop by Catalina by the Sea at 405 Crescent Ave. for a real coconut shell carved in the shape of a monkey's head, only $7.95, just like the ones I remember from my Florida childhood in the '50s?

Perhaps I should pick up some cotton candy from Lloyd's of Avalon, 315 Crescent Ave., and travel back in time to my first sugar-sticky kiss at the Firemen's Carnival in upstate New York in the '60s. Or maybe I should just sink into a booth at Larry's Luau, 509 Crescent Ave., order a tequila sunrise and revisit the '70s.

This time warp is not news to the locals. When I cautiously mention to longtime Catalina resident Elaine Minnis that in some ways Catalina seemed to be stuck in the '70s, she laughs. "Oh, I thought it was the '50s," she says.

Her view is bolstered by a sign outside the original Antonio's Pizzeria, 114 Sumner Ave., just off Crescent Avenue: "This restaurant has been declared a genuine Catalina Bomb Shelter. Come on in and bask in the decaying 1950s while the world passes on. Your host, Jack Tucey."

In further confirmation of Antonio's throwback status, another notice proclaims, "Shirts and shoes required, bra and panties optional." On the wall not far from the giant moose head is a yellowing photo of a young (and shirtless) Clint Eastwood, but it's unclear if he dined there or is just an icon.

Putting all P.C. considerations aside, I sample a delightfully greasy cheese-and-pepperoni-laden slice, $1.75 from the takeout window, and am promptly wafted back to a certain summer on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1972. The '70s, the '50s . . . my sister, my daughter . . . All I know is, I'm Someplace Else, in Some Other Time. And isn't that what a vacation, even a mini-one, is supposed to be?

If you're looking for a trendy cutting-edge experience, forget Catalina. But if you're a nostalgia fan who'd like an escapist day at the beach, with maybe a little shopping and snacking and a nice cold umbrella drink, then Santa Catalina is the place to be.

It's easy to go to Catalina for the day. If your private yacht is in dry dock, take the freeway to San Pedro or Long Beach and hop on a boat or, if you're in a real hurry, a helicopter, for the short trip across. You can also opt to leave by boat from Newport Beach. (See box for details.)

My suggestion for a Catalina T-shirt slogan: "I'll sleep on the boat home." Prop up those eyelids with toothpicks and get to the island as early as possible. If you're in need of a reviving breakfast, there are plenty of options. My personal favorite is the Pancake Cottage, 118 Catalina Ave., just off Crescent Avenue, which advertises "authentic cuisine" and opens at 6 a.m. on weekends.

Your next move is to acquire the one essential item of beach equipment for Catalina's pebbly shores: plastic-soled swim socks from China. High Tide Traders, 415 Crescent Ave., stocks them for men in sober navy and for women and children in eyeball-shattering pink and blue neon, for $12.95. The surfer dude behind the counter says, "Batteries not included." But trust me, you'll be glad you have them even if they clash with your outfit. While you're there, check out the giant model sailfish on the back wall.

If you forgot your towel, you can pick up one with a dramatic shark motif for $16.99 at Catalina Kids, 201 Crescent Ave., where a little kid barrels in with the news that "they have really cool stuffed sharks in here!" He's right, the lemon-yellow foot-long stuffed shark, $19.95 from Angelitos, is a winner.

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But save the shopping for later (most Avalon stores stay open until 9 p.m. or so through November). It's time to head for the beach. There are only 550 cars on the island, and none is for rent. So take a cab, rent a golf cart or a bicycle or go on walk past the casino to Descanso Beach Club, which is open to the public, and stake out your patch of sand. Down by the water line, the beach is pebbly, verging on rocky--here's where those swim socks come in handy--but the water is crystal-clear and the waves are gentle.

Lie on the sand and think about renting a kayak or snorkeling or playing volleyball or tossing horseshoes. Do none of those things. If you get too hot, take a pleasant dip. Soon it will be time for lunch at Descano's beachfront restaurant, where many of the male customers seem as if they either are still in college or just have never bothered to graduate. They while away the day ogling the occasional Baywatch babes with severe bikini waxes.

I order lunch from Bob the bartender, who shakes up an excellent daiquiri and makes a mean margarita. He tells me the ceviche, $7.95, is fresh. It is. In a wave of longing for the fried foods of my youth, I order onion rings, $4.50, on the side. I'm in heaven.

If you're determined to shop, the little outdoor boutique Tattoo This at Descanso Beach has a great selection of Indonesian cotton sundresses for less than the shops in town: $24 short, $28 long. I pick a blue one with cream and rust fish on it. When it's time to leave the beach, I take an outdoor shower and change into my new outfit in a dressing room. On the way back to town, I see you can spiff up more thoroughly at the Casino Way Showers, at $2 for a five-minute shower, $3 for 10 minutes and $4 for a luxurious 15. It's great to get rid of that gritty, sandy feeling.

Try to peel yourself away from the beach, or the bar, in time to take a tour of the casino, offered daily at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Tickets are $8.50 for adults, children $4.25, seniors $7.50. The enormous Art Deco structure looming over the harbor was built in 1929 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley and his wife, Ada. Despite its name, no gambling ever took place there--at least not officially. Once a radio ballroom where Jimmy Dorsey and his band broadcast live, it's now available for special events, such as the six-day jazz festival in October.

The casino's gorgeous tiled murals, including the one depicting a willowy mermaid on the facade, were recently restored by Richard Thomas Kelt Studios. Catalina decorative tiles, the basis of a thriving industry in the '30s, are no longer manufactured on the island. But the Perico Gallery in the Metropole Marketplace at Crescent and Metropole avenues has a good selection of replicas, for $19 unframed or $26 framed, so I take home a mermaid of my own.

The casino also holds a movie theater, a health spa and a museum. The museum is bite-size, and worth visiting if only to collect the island's best T-shirt from the gift shop: It features a classic '30s luggage sticker, $15.95 for the short-sleeved, $21.95 for the long-sleeved version.

The second-best T-shirt might be the one with the Titanic's White Star line logo, $18 at Avalon Bay Co., 407 Crescent Ave., where a spiffy 1957 Chris Craft Sportsman cruiser provides suitably nautical seats for trying on your Sperry Topsiders.

Another strong contender in the shirt sweepstakes is the Retro Catalina shirt, as worn by Jimmy Buffett on the cover of his new bestseller, "A Pirate Looks at Fifty." An aloha shirt featuring Catalina scenes rather than Hawaiiana, in predominantly cream, teal or powder blue, it's $46 and available only at Buoys and Gulls Sportswear, 417 Crescent Ave.

At Catalina Shirt and Shade, in the Metropole Marketplace, there's the muscle T adorned with local bar signs and the slogan "So Many Bars . . . So Little Time." As it happens, right upstairs is the Blue Parrot, an excellent bar for people-watching thanks to its big windows facing the harbor. It's a little slice of the tropics, and the Blue Parrot cocktail is really blue.

After that, you could stroll over to Discovery Tours on the pier and sign up for any number of tours, including a classic glass-bottom boat trip or a tour of the Wrigley Botanical Gardens.

You could shop till you drop. Especially if you're a grandmother who's susceptible to cute outfits for the grandkids, like the "Got Milk?" onesie for $19 at Mary, Mary, 101 Marilla Ave., in the El Encanto Center. Or the sweet little sundress with colored Popsicles on a black background for $50 at Latitude 33, 307 Crescent Ave., the store with the Grummond Goose seaplane half in and half out of its front window. And we won't even talk about the adorable bears, dolls and dollhouses at Catalina Confetti, 417 Crescent Ave.

You could buy a real buffalo head for $1,800 at Catalina Souvenir, 413 Crescent Ave. Or a fake buffalo head, plus its hind quarters to hang on the other side of the wall, for $100 apiece at Catalina Crafters, 115 Sumner Ave.

Perhaps, like a friend of mine who likes to frequent local barbershops wherever he travels, you could get a haircut. Lolo's barbershop, hidden away at 128 B Summer Street, is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except on Sundays. Just about everybody who's ever passed through appears to have his photo up on the wall. Brothers Frank and Lolo Saldana will cut your hair for $7, or $8 if it's long.

Lolo Saldana says, "They grow it, we mow it." Along with the haircut you get spirited conversation about everything that happens on the island--but not gossip, because "only girls gossip," says Frank Saldana. Lolo's is a true time capsule within the time capsule that is Catalina.

Or you could simply do nothing. One of the most pleasant activities available in Catalina is just finding a weathered wooden bench on the pier, plunking yourself down on it and watching the passing parade.

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Eventually it will be time for dinner. You could find sustenance right there on the dock, under the big "Fish and Chips" sign, at Earl and Rosie's Avalon Seafood to Go. An eight-piece combo of shrimp, calamari and scallops will set you back only $7. And it's pretty tasty, too. Plus they serve up a fine fish sandwich for $3.

But if you're looking for someplace with cutlery, head back to Crescent Avenue. And remember that you're out of your decade. Catalina is the kind of place where they like to serve things in a bread bowl, even at a "fancy" restaurant like the Channel House, 205 Crescent Ave. The Blue Parrot offers something called "Loaf-o-soup" for $4.95.

Whoever has the red-checked tablecloth supply business must be doing well. There are several red-sauce Italian restaurants, of which the Villa Portofino, 101 Crescent Ave., is probably the best-known.

Or you might try the new kid in town, Rick's Cafe Catalina, upstairs at 417 Crescent Ave. The menu's simple, the fish is fresh, there's a breeze blowing in the open windows off the ocean and I've never minded staring at big blowups from "Casablanca" while I eat. What year is it again, 1973?

But, just like Bogie and Bergman's romance, all good things must come to an end. You don't want to miss the last boat or you could find yourself sleeping on the beach--literally, since Catalina's hotel rooms tend to fill up every weekend. It's time to go. But don't worry. We'll always have Catalina.

* SURF TO CATALINA

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