Friday, May 18, 2007

Ahoy! We Return to Santa Catalina

Many years ago, at home from college one summer, I was invited with friends to boat from Marina Del Rey to Catalina Island. I knew nothing of the boat, nor the particulars of the voyage, but I sort of trusted our captain, Wayne, and the conveyance looked seaworthy. This craft was a speed boat Wayne had purchased with his dad at a police auction. (It was not hard to imagine that it was used in the Mexican drug trade, as secret compartments were aplenty.) Our voyage was delayed by the Coast Guard pointing out that we lacked some paperwork or license (though we did have the proper number of life preservers). We set out from MDR after dark. Wayne said all we needed to get to Catalina was to stay on a particular compass reading and we'd reach the island (some 30 miles away in the dark). We were near full throttle, about a mile out, when Wayne noticed that we were not planing, as a speedboat should. I took the helm (gulp!), and Wayne opened the engine compartment. Wayne shouted to us something, but I could not hear what he said. I could see my brother's reaction and soon realized we were in trouble. In fact, we were fast taking on water. This was not good. Wayne signaled for me to cut the engine, and he ran to activate the bilge pump. In that brief moment of quiet, before we started cursing out Wayne, I looked back to the distant lights on shore. If we had to ditch the boat, I knew I could swim that distance. But it would not be easy. I had done it once before, to achieve the mile swim badge as a Boy Scout at Camp Emerald Bay in Catalina (during and following which I experienced mild hypothermia due to the cold water currents around the island). Lucky for us, we chugged back into harbor, safe but somewhat timid of sea voyages.

The good news is that one does not have to endure such travails to get there and back again.

How can I get to Santa Catalina Island?
  • Let's begin with the fastest way: helicopter. I've heard that Hollywood executives sometimes chopper to the airport for an afternoon lunch of buffalo burgers at the Buffalo Springs Station restaurant. Round trip chopper fare to the Airport in the Sky is only $156+tax on Island Express Helicopters. The "Big Buffalo" ("a third pound, all natural buffalo burger served on grilled sourdough") is only $8.75.
  • There are passenger ferries that operate out of San Pedro (I think this is the most common port of call), Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and Marina Del Rey (Catalina Express, Catalina Explorer, Catalina Flyer, or Marina Flyer), but be sure to make a reservation well ahead of time for a specific departure time and site. We tried planning a trip out of another location once on a new ferry service, and they canceled just before the trip due to "mechanical problems." I gathered that it was more due to not enough passengers booking on the new ferry, so they decided that it wasn't worth buying the fuel to take us over. I'm reluctant to name the company, just to give them a small benefit of the doubt. But I bet there are others who have had a similar experience.
  • Of course you can get to the island via your own private boat or aircraft. (Check each link for details.) Be sure to trust your captain or pilot. According to the Chamber of Commerce there are "approximately 400 moorings at Avalon, [and] approximately 720 moorings elsewhere in Catalina, including 249 at Isthmus Cove."
When to go?
  • As soon as possible.
  • I've heard that the one of the best things Western Civilization has to offer is Buccaneer Days at Catalina. This year, on October 6th, they're planning the 18th annual event. I've never been, but common lore is that everyone on land or sea dresses up as pirate, and there is much gallivanting going on.
  • According to the Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau the weather is mostly sunny:
    Temperature and rainfall vary in different parts of Catalina but U.S. Weather Bureau records have general application to the entire island. Based on these records: Sunny or partly sunny days average of 267 per year. June through October, average Avalon high temperature is 76.1 degrees; average low is 58.4 degrees. November through May, average high is 63.2 degrees; average low is 49.4 degrees. Rainfall averages approximately 14 inches per year, nearly all of it occurring between mid-October and mid-April. Generally speaking, the daytime temperature rarely goes above 80 degrees in the summer, below 50 degrees in the winter. Water temperature ranges from 64 to 73 degrees in the summer and 54 to 59 degrees in winter.
What to do?
  • Most everyone starts in Avalon, but to be honest, I've never been. I've always avoided that side of the island. I've arrived at Two Harbors or the Boy Scout camp and explored from there.
  • Catalina is a very popular hiking and camping spot.
  • Avalon offers most amenities you can find at any tourist destination.
Why isn't this the most popular destination in Southern California?
  • My guess is that it's difficult to get to, there are no theme park rides (which I have nothing against theme parks—to each his own), and it's a little pricey to get yourself onto the island and full of food and drink once you're there. We always carry in what we need, for the most part, but that's difficult too.
Aren't the locals and other travelers going to be upset that you're reporting on their well kept secret?
  • Maybe. But to keep the numbers down, I must disclose that there are rattlesnakes on the island. I've never seen one there (though, I have seen one in the hills around San Diego, and we cooked that sucker on the barbecue. It tastes like shrimp, but maybe that's because we sautéed it in butter and garlic).

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