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Taking the Undersea Sub Expedition on Catalina Island brings passengers up close and personal to various species that inhabit the island’s coastal waters. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Catalina keeping visitors entertained — and safe

Here’s an interesting fact about Avalon, the single town on Catalina Island: It has the only beach in California where you can see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean.

On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to see the sun set from Catalina unless you take a boat to the western side of the island, which is what we did on the first night of a recent visit.

The Sunset Seal Rocks Cruise leaves Avalon Harbor each evening at the optimum time to give passengers a ring-side seat for nature’s celestial show. The hour-long cruise also affords views of the island’s rugged coastline that are inaccessible except by boat.

The sunset cruise is just one of many outdoor activities available on Catalina that offers ways to have fun while social distancing during these less-than-normal times.

Camera-worthy sunsets greet visitors who take the Sunset Seal Rocks Cruise out of Catalina Island’s Avalon Harbor. Passengers also will see some of the island’s topography that is only visible from a boat. Photo by Jerry Ondash

 

No, traveling is not what it used to be.

For one thing, the pandemic has made spontaneity is a thing of the past — at least for the foreseeable future. Travelers must plan, plan, plan because the number of destination choices has decreased; reservations often are required where they once weren’t; and restaurants and hotels/motels must operate at smaller capacities. Businesses also must implement extensive (and sometimes expensive) sanitation measures.

The people of Catalina Island seem to have figured out how to adapt to this new world and how to host safely. It starts when you step on the Catalina Express, the ferry that runs between the island and mainland several times a day. (Closest port for North County is Dana Point.) During the welcoming monologue, the crew emphasizes that it is serious about wearing masks.

“We aren’t like restaurants,” one crewman explained. “You can take off your mask to take a bite or a drink, but it must be placed over your face while you chew and swallow.”

And should you cheat a bit, you’ll find a crew member politely but firmly commanding you to, “Mask up!”

An adult and child in tandem set off on the first leg of the Zip Line Eco Tour on Catalina Island. The zip line has five segments and begins at the top of a 600-foot canyon. Participants are rewarded with spectacular views of the coastline and learn about the environment from guides. Photo by Jerry Ondash

 

In Avalon, a large banner spanning Crescent Avenue welcomes visitors in both Spanish and English and thanks them for wearing masks. Additional signs are posted everywhere. As we walked toward the historic Hotel Atwater, named after William Wrigley Jr.’s daughter-in-law, mask-wearing appeared to be universal and bottles of hand sanitizer were perched on outdoor counters everywhere.

Still a bit sticky from the salt air and boat ride, the cool, dry air of the Atwater’s grand lobby was welcomed. Our eyes immediately zeroed in on the palatial, curving double staircase, an ornate accordion and a gold harp, the last two belonging to Helen Atwater Wrigley.

“The family had a history of empowering its women,” explained design director Hector Gonzalez, who with “a very diverse” review committee, was responsible for creating the hotel’s ambience when it was renovated in 2019. This includes artwork throughout the hotel, like the historic black-and-white photos with colorful graphic overlays that hang in every hallway. The result is playful and eye-catching.

“We were able to find the original negatives of these photos,” Gonzalez said. “They had been locked for 90 years in a Wrigley safe. We chose 14 pieces from original 100.”

Hotel Atwater sits in the center of walkable Avalon, making it easy to access attractions at either end of town. To the south is the pier where we caught the Undersea Sub Expedition to Lover’s Cove and thousands of fish that inhabit the waters off Catalina’s shore. The ride gives the feel of being in a submarine, and the narrator and charts on the wall help to identify the species. And to the delight of passengers, a little food tossed overboard creates a feeding frenzy.

At the opposite end of the town is the staging area for the Zip Line Eco Tour, a good way to see canyon fauna and flora and panoramic views of the coastline. Participants ride three legs of cable at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. One of the first to try the zip line 10 years ago when it opened, I had just as much fun this time around. (No athletic ability required.) Zippers must wear masks except while zipping and the number of participants is limited.

For more info, www.visitcatalinaisland.com

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