We have something really exciting for you today from Disney legend Bob Gurr. He’s starting a new series of articles for you which focus on his amazing travels. You knew Bob was a brilliant designer, but you may not have known that he’s also an avid adventurer and fantastic photographer as well (is there nothing this man can’t do). Welcome to episode one of Bob’s True-Life Adventures!
Today’s Wheel of Adventures stopped at 2013, so here we go.
Twenty six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance
So sang the Four Preps in 1957, their ode to a fantastical place once seemed so far away, but so close today. With a very interesting history, Catalina Island, located off the coast of Southern California was a booming visitor destination in the 1930s.
Press play to set a musical tone for today’s article:
My father took our family to the island by steamship in 1937, later I enjoyed a week at YMCA Camp Fox in 1939. I marveled at the SS Catalina, a real steamship which had a triple expansion three cylinder steam engine located such that there was a viewing balcony so folks could watch all the fascinating mechanical motion-work, which kept me mesmerized.
Avalon, the harbor town, was jammed with sightseers, big band enthusiasts filled the Casino Dance Hall where music programs were beamed to the mainland by radio. Catalina seemed to be a magical south sea island during those years, only to fade almost completely away during the WWII years, never recovering it’s former glory
I revisited postwar Catalina in 1948 by Grumman Goose seaplane, then again in 1958 by private yacht, but it was not the glamourous place of my childhood memories. Then came another family visit in 1991, this by a fast jet boat, followed in October 2013 by an overnight stay – this time I found Catalina to be a wonderful adventure. Join me for two days of exploration.
Along with mountain biking buddy Fred Morgan, we zipped rapidly from the Port of Long Beach to Avalon Harbor in less than an hour by Catalina Express jet boat. Avalon today has a quaint and friendly waterfront filled with numerous restaurants and watering holes, even a small pier where water adventures may be chartered.
The first thing a new visitor will notice is the near absence of automobiles, which have been restricted to only a few. The main private transportation is by gasoline powered golf carts. One gets the impression of a Mediterranean village what with the constant putt-putting sounds everywhere similar to motor scooters.
The town center has a great number of historic old wooden hotels and B&Bs, some of them delightfully colorful and charming. We soon checked into the Catalina Island Inn before heading out for a town stroll. First off, we hiked up a steep hill to enjoy the view of the entire town and lovely harbor filled with all sizes and types of watercraft from kayaks to mega yachts.
What was surprising was the brilliant blue green water, more like the Caribbean than the local Pacific Ocean. Continuing on past the classic Casino, we next explored Descanso Beach, a fabulous cove filled with snorkelers, a scuba training operation, and kayak rentals. One can savor a fine lunch and libation on a sunny deck overlooking a fine white sandy beach. Can we really still be in Southern California, it’s more like the Mexican Riviera.
Other Catalina fun includes a submarine ride, glass bottom boats, parasails, and of course plenty of fishing charters. The one big adventure not to be missed is a four hour exploration of the mountains and back country on primitive roads by Hummer vehicles. Catalina away from civilization is a totally pristine wilderness punctuated by numerous bison sightings. The tour passed by old farms and vineyards with a stop at one of the spectacular beaches on the island west coast.
One can even enjoy a lunch of buffalo chili at the Airport in The Sky restaurant, a stop on the Hummer tour. Yes, one can also arrive by plane at a most interesting historic airport. Twice back in the Disney years, a few of us Imagineers would fly a private plane to Catalina for a long buffalo burger lunch, returning to work just a bit late! One of our engineers would let me perform the landings in his plane to give me the experience of a hilltop runway.
Catalina is slowly coming back to life, with plenty to do and see all year round. Travel to the island is provided by fast jet boats from Long Beach, Port of Los Angeles, and Dana Harbor in Orange county. While the town’s beachfront life is quite a party in summer, any time of year is perfect for a quiet getaway to what still remains from prior times – an island of romance.
Well folks, did you enjoy our first true-life adventure? Have you visited Catalina? What are your tips for this little treasure just off the coast of California?