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Along for the ride

Special to The Times

Seeing the sparkling white Catalina Express catamaran waiting at the dock, it’s hard not to hustle as quickly as decorum allows to take your place in the boarding queue. It’s not so much about hurrying up to get to Catalina, a sleepy island with a seemingly easy-to-exhaust list of exciting activities. Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.

As long as your name isn’t Gilligan, there’s something infinitely relaxing about taking a brief afternoon jaunt on the water. (It’s just about an hour from Long Beach to Catalina.) You can curl up on a covered deck and watch the waves churn behind the boat’s purring engine. Or you can sit inside, reading a book and letting the gentle movement of the boat lull you into a light slumber. You can even turn off your cellphone and later tell miffed callers you couldn’t get reception “at sea.” You can do what no one seems to do in Los Angeles: relax.

Or you can do what I did, which was order a $1.75 cup of orange juice, put my head between my knees and mutter repeatedly, “I think I’m going to throw up.”

It’s an important lesson: Reading a book when the boat is moving in choppy waters is unwise even for the most cast-iron of stomachs. But this unhappy fact may be about the only information Catalina Express, which has the art of island hopping down to a science, doesn’t put in the fine print when you plunk down $49 for a round-trip ticket.

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The cruise line, which sails from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro, is just one of several ship services that travel to Catalina.

The Long Beach-based Catalina Explorer is less expensive but has a limited seasonal schedule, as does the San Pedro-based Catalina Classic Cruises. Travelers with deeper pockets can also sail out of Marina del Rey on the Catalina-Marina del Rey Flyer, or helicopter over on Island Express. But with eight daily departure times out of downtown Long Beach, the Catalina Express boat is the likely choice for last-minute or off-season travelers. Unless they like to swim.

Not that the abundance of departure times should trick anyone into a cavalier attitude about jumping a boat to Catalina, however. Call the Express’ toll-free number to book tickets, and you will be informed at great length that your ticket becomes nonrefundable at 6 p.m. the day before your scheduled departure. You are also instructed to arrive one hour early and bring no more than two pieces of luggage, and then there are the warnings that your ticket will be no good if you’re not in line or on the boat 15 minutes before departure. These guys literally run a tight ship.

Once on board, you can take your pick of prime seating. Grab a seat on the deck and watch Los Angeles recede into the distance, an option that’s soul soothing for so many reasons. Find a booth for four and eat lunch as you watch the salty spray of the water splash onto the window next to you.

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No matter where you sit, there’s something to see.

Despite the million-dollar views, there’s no mistaking this for an intimate luxury sea cruise. Of all the boats that travel to Catalina, not many have fewer than 150 seats, and some top out at 500. But given that you’re elbow to elbow with fellow passengers either looking forward to unwinding or having already done so, no one is in the mood to grump over a lack of legroom.

On one recent trip, couples played cards on the deck (bring your own, unless you’d like to pay $3.50 for a pack on Express ships) while kids quietly tinkered with toys. One man and his matching black dogs (yes, pets are allowed) snoozed in the sun. Only one workaholic pulled out his laptop to frantically type away.

The hour drifts by, and the end of the trip comes sooner than you want it to. Unless, of course, you’re seasick. In that case, Catalina starts looking a lot like paradise.

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Island hopping

* Catalina Express, departs from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro, $49 round trip, year-round, (800) 481-3470

* Catalina Explorer, departs from Long Beach, $38 round trip plus a $3 wharfing tax, March to November, (877) 432-6276

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* Catalina Classic Cruises, departs from San Pedro, $31.50 round trip, beginning Saturday, (800) 641-1004

* Catalina-Marina del Rey Flyer, $63 round trip, beginning Friday, (310) 305-7250

In a rush? You can wing it too.

* Island Express helicopter, $140 round trip, (800) 228-2566

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