This past October my wife & I decided to visit Catalina Island in Southern California. It’s a location I’ve heard of in the past but knew very little of. All I knew was that it was a small island a ferry ride from Long Beach. Little did I know that it had a rich background. It was originally owned by the Wrigley family of the Wrigley gum fame (no they didn’t hand out gum on the ferry), it was a getaway for the rich and famous (Natalie Wood drowned off the island), movies were filmed here (that’s why there are buffalos roaming the island), the Chicago Cubs baseball team used to have spring training here (also owned by the Wrigleys), and many other trivial facts.
Because we took a week off from work, we took our time and didn’t rush around. I really hate those rush trips where you’re on a tight schedule. For god’s sake it’s a vacation not the gameshow Amazing Race! So the plan was to take us to LA via hwy 101.This is the more leisurely and more scenic route than the usual hwy 5. Along the way we stopped by Paso Robles (near SanLuis Obispo) and Santa Barbara.
Paso Robles is a big wine making region in southern CA located between SF & LA. It’s overshadowed by the famous (i.e. touristy, crowded, pricey) Napa Valley. My wife & I fell in love with this lesser known region ever since we first visited it last year. Paso Robles is a bit off the beaten path but is more down to earth with really friendly locals working the wineries, has great wines (Wine Spectator 2010 winery of the year is located here), and has cheap but excellent wine tastings (I haven’t found one that cost more than $5). The main negative to this area is that it can’t touch Napa in terms of fine dining options. I’ll have to explore this further next time I stop by.
Continuing south we stayed overnight in beautiful Santa Barbara with it’s mission style architecture. We arrived on a Saturday night so it had a bit of the college party atmosphere in downtown courtesey of the nearby university. Sunday morning in downtown was a complete opposite with it’s tranquil atmosphere. I’m sure it’s mainly because the party kids were hungover and still asleep. As I quite often do in my travels I did explore off the beaten path and drove around a beautiful residential neighborhood next to the Santa Barbara Mission (church). I’ll have to explore this town a bit more next time I’m in the area.
After Santa Barbara I tried to hit the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu. Unfortunately my GPS decided to lead me on a “scenic route” and I didn’t make it on my scheduled time. This museum has a free admittance but there are time slots you must choose to enter. No worries Malibu has a great beach so I made the best of the situation and enjoyed the ocean scenery. I was secretly hoping to have some celebrity sightings too. No luck.
LA isn’t my favorite town so I’ll keep this short. It’s big, spread out, and a bit dumpy. But I got to admit it has some great Thai and Korean food this side of Asia. I did hit my usual ethic food spots. My wife got to visit her friends. I’m not a mall rat but I have to admit Fashion Island in Costa Mesa is a beautiful outdoor mall with some unique shops. We stayed in Newport Beach which is a bit out of the way when driving to and from LA area but the town has a nice laid back vibe that we enjoyed. It’s more of a beach/surf town with lots of vacation homes along the water.We toyed with the idea of getting a group of friends and renting one of these for a long weekend. Anyone interested?
The other reason we stayed in Newport Beach is because the Catalina island ferry departs from here. About 30 dolphins saw us off as we left the harbor area which was a treat. Other than that it was an uneventful 1:15 hr ride. It was hard to believe the guide books when they mentioned the island had some of the clearest waters around, but the moment I stepped off the boat at the harbor I was a believer. There were kelp beds everywhere and vibrantly colored fish that could be clearly seen.
Because it was the off season, we got a great rate (1/3 of summer rates) at the Pavilion Hotel ideally located at the center of the harbor area. Superlatives come to mind when describing this hotel. Plus there’s complimentary wine and cheese in the evenings.Wow!
We were hungry and I spied a small fish & chips joint across from the hotel. What a find! Great food at great prices! And I also had their excellent (and dirt cheap) Bloody Mary’s. Because it was offseason, not only were the crowds (tourists) small but many of the attractions were easy to book. We first tried the semi-submarine which took us to the marine preserve which was teeming with fish. Of course the skipper threw food overboard which made the fish seem more like rabid piranhas that haven’t been fed for a week. This was fascinating yet disturbing. Because the island had only one small town, we were able to explore it on foot afterwards. Yes you can rent golf carts or bicycles to explore other parts of the island. You’ll notice that there are very few if any cars in the island photos. That’s because there are very few of them. Most people get around on souped-up golf carts.
The next day we did two activities: zip-line & kayaking. Susy (my wife) wanted to try zip-lining which I hesitantly agreed to. It turned out to be a lot of fun. It’s a five staged zip-line course that offers beautiful views of the island. Susy got bit more than she bargained for when she failed to reach the end of one of the stages. She ended up dangling in the middle of the line hundreds of feet above the ground. I’m sure she had an extra great view.
In the afternoon we decided on a more leisurely kayaking. Originally I was thinking of snorkeling. But the combination of the freezing waters and already seeing the aquatic life up close on the sub made me change my mind. But I was still able to get some good shots with my camera in its underwater housing.
Here’s some food tips for this island. Because this was off season, you never know which places will be open or when they will close. I did ask once and they replied they close when customers leave. But you can have really good food without breaking the bank. I did find the Lobster Trap which is a locals hangout that serves wonderful locally caught lobsters & seafood. I also found out they ran the fish & chips shack I ate for lunch earlier.
After getting back to the mainland, I was able to visit the Getty Villa. Here’s a museum I’ve been wanting to see for over 10 years. It’s basically a reproduction of a Roman villa that houses the Getty’s Greek & Roman art collection. Afterwards I also had time to check out an area of Venice Beach. Last but not least I stopped by Harris Ranch (off hwy5) to pick up their famed porterhouse steak meats. Wow their meats were beautiful and they packed them well for the drive home.
As you can probably tell, I highly recommend a trip to Catalina Island especially during the off season. I hear that the summer crowds are horrendous. Feel free to let me know what you think of these places or to contact me if you have questions about any of the places I went to. I plan to visit Catalina Island again in the near future.