Zipping around Catalina Island a great rush

My friend Patty and I stood on the precipice of the first of five platforms of Catalina Island’s Zip Line Eco Tour.
“Suicidal,” Patty mumbled more than once as we waited our turn to step into thin air a few hundred feet above the floor of the island’s backcountry.
I was too nervous to utter anything. I just kept repeating what our zip line guide, Don Findlay, had told us: “When it’s time to go, don’t think. Just jump or you’ll change your mind.”
That and “Once you do it, you’ll love it. By the fifth leg, you’ll be a different person.”
I won’t say that this newly opened adventure changed my life, but I will say that after a couple of legs, I quit screaming and really enjoyed myself. Flying high above canyons, hills and trees on the heavy-duty cables was a thrill that made all seven “zippers” in our group smile — then smile some more.
This activity is not for the faint-hearted, but you also don’t have to be an athlete. You just step off, sit, fly and enjoy the ride and view — if you have the courage to look. Requirements: You must weigh be between 60 pounds and 245 pounds. (For a video preview, visit http://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/avalon/video.php?src=zipline&title=Catalina%20Zip%20Line%20Eco%20Tour.)
I’ve been on a few zip lines, but this one outclasses them all in height, length and setting. The five legs total nearly 4,000 feet and the “eco tour” part is a short lecture on each platform about the area’s flora and island’s history.
The Zip Line Eco Tour is one of several new activities that opened April 1 on Catalina Island, which is enjoying a mini-renaissance of sorts. The Santa Catalina Island Company, owner of much of Avalon’s commercial real estate, has renovated the Pavilion Hotel (on the boardwalk); opened the Avalon Grille a few doors down (sounds crazy, but don’t miss the Crispy Brussels Sprouts made with cranberries, almonds, pancetta and mustard vinaigrette); and pumped new life into Descanso Beach (just past the landmark Casino). The beach features a large grassy area, cabanas, chaise lounges, fire rings, new changing rooms and restrooms, and lots of water sports nearby. Be as active or as laidback as you want.
There are several new tours, too: two underwater adventures that use unique diving equipment and require no diving experience; several bus tours around the island; a GPS-guided walking tour; a sundown cruise to the island’s isthmus; and a behind-the-scenes tour of the historic Casino.
We chose to do the latter and found it fascinating.
Our guide was more than informative about the Casino’s history and the story of the Wrigley family who once owned the entire island. In 1997, the Wrigleys gave 88 percent of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy. This land can never be developed.
The unique circular, 12-story Casino was constructed in 1929 by 500 workers in only 14 months. If you like Art Deco, you’ll love combing the behind-the-scenes spaces and public places in and around the fabulous still-used movie theater and magnificent upper-story ballroom. All of the equipment (backstage rigging and lighting, projection equipment etc.) still works, and vintage photographs provide a sense of the Big Band era. Our guide had plenty of gossipy anecdotes, too, to round out the tour.
The ballroom swells with music every October with the three-week jazz festival. Seats are already going. Visit
jazztrax.com.
If you stay at the Pavilion Hotel (71 beautifully appointed “boutique” rooms a two-minute walk from the boat dock), don’t miss the daily complimentary wine-and-cheese tasting at 5 p.m. Guests can sit at protected tables in the garden courtyard just steps from the boardwalk and bay. Staying at the hotel also qualifies guests for free tours, movie tickets and other activities, and half-price tickets ($45) for the zip line and underwater adventures.
For more information, visit VisitCatalinaIsland.com.

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