AVALON, CATALINA ISLAND – This lovely island is just ashort cruise from busy Los Angeles, but you’d think you were really miles and miles away.
My first glimpse of Catalina came as our Catalina Express vessel entered Avalon Bay and we passed the iconic Catalina Casino at the water’s edge.
Avalon itself is an intimate place, one square mile in size with a population of about 3,700 people, surrounded on one side by the clear blue waters of the bay and on the other by rugged hillsides with spectacular ocean views.
Once off the boat, we circled the bay on foot to Crescent Avenue, the town’s small, main artery, which is filled with shops and cafes by the water.
Since the early part of the 20th century, members of the Rhodes Jewish community of Los Angeles have made the crossing every summer to Catalina Island, which they see as an image of their ancestral home off the coast of Turkey.
Aron Hasson, a Los Angeles attorney who established the Jewish Museum of Rhodes at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue on Rhodes, remembers visiting Catalina every summer with his family when he was growing up. His four grandparents were born on Rhodes and immigrated to Los Angeles between 1912 and 1920.
Catalina Island held out a special kind of attraction for the Rhodes immigrants, he said, since “the island is situated 26 miles away from the Los Angeles mainland, and Rhodes is about 26 miles away from the Turkish mainland.”
But beyond the comparison with Rhodes, it’s easy to understand why anyone would be drawn here: the island is quite simply magical, giving you a feeling of having discovered some far-away land.
In reality, of course, you’re only a little more than an hour away from Los Angeles, now but a hazy smudge on the horizon.
As my wife and I sailed into Avalon harbor from Long Beach, I thought about those early vacationers, whose distinctive Ladino sounds could be heard as they shared traditional Sephardic foods in Avalon.
During the Big Band era, they could gather on the top floor of the casino to hear music greats like Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Harry James.
That bygone casino is still very much a living place, just a short walk from the new Descanso Beach cabanas. A “Discover the Casino Tour” is offered by the Santa Catalina Island Company and gives an introduction to the casino, which has a museum, an overhanging balcony, and a 25-foot lantern cupola above a tiled roof.
In the tour,”visitors can also see the editing room where Cecil B. DeMille himself watched “rushes” of movies shot on the island.
Movie-making here goes back to the silent film era with films like Treasure Island, shot in 1918. As a matter of fact, Hollywood liked Catalina so much as a South Seas setting that it planted palm trees at the Isthmus near Two Harbors on the northern part of the island. These trees are still seen today.
When sound came to film, the island continued to be a popular movie venue, and it was turned into Tahiti with productions like Mutiny on the Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clarke Gable in 1935. More recently, aerial scenes for Pearl Harbor were shot here, as were scenes from The Hunt for Red October and Rosemary’s Baby.
You can still watch movies in the Casino’s Avalon Theatre, which also has the original 4-manual, 16-rank pipe organ, built by the Page Pipe Organ Company of Lima, Ohio, and played every Friday and Saturday evening.
Today, Catalina is opening up a new chapter in its storied history, this one connected to wine, thanks to Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband Geoff.
The Wrigley name is synonymous with Catalina Island. William Wrigley Jr. devoted so much loving attention to preserving and improving the island. Wrigley’s name is also synonymous with the chewing gum empire he created as well as with the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which he would bring to the island for spring training.
Wrigley’s wife, Ada, for whom the island’s Mt. Ada is named, built a memorial to her husband surrounded by a botanical garden, now managed by the Catalina Conservancy.
Rusack said she would love to have known her great-grandfather “because he did so much and he had such personality.”
Back in 1983, Rusack and her husband went horseback riding on the island and Geoff remarked that the hills would be a great place to plant grapes.
They “didn’t know the slightest thing about running a vineyard and winery at that point,” Rusack admitted, but they purchased an old winery in 1992. “We knew we’d regret it if we didn’t try,” she said.
They planted Zinfandel grapes along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in March of 2007 at El Rancho Escondido, an old horse ranch in Catalina’s beautiful interior, where Rusack’s grandfather, Phillip K.
Wrigley, raised Arabian horses.
The soil at the ranch is actually better suited to growing Burgundy varietals of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, rather than the warmer-climate Zinfandel, Rusack said, “But it’s made a wonderful Zinfandel,” she added of the first harvest under the Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards label, “and it has a totally different type of taste than other Zins… more earthy and less fruity” The Rusack Vineyards in California’s Santa Ynez Valley is quite successful today, and according to Rusack, known primarily for “the incredible Rhone varietals that we’re able to grow in the Ballard Canyon area.”
So much about the new Catalina Island wines is unconventional, not the least of which is the way the grapes get to the Rusack winery in the Santa Ynez Valley: they’re harvested at night and flown to Santa Ynez Airport on the mainland.
The Rusacks also have plans for restoring the old horse ranch and “keeping all the wonderful historical elements.”
“It was built a long time ago and it hasn’t really ever been completely restored,” she said. Plans include having space for tasting rooms and wine storage, all the while keeping the “old, wonderful California feel,” like the historic stage coaches her family owned.
The Rusacks work closely with the Catalina Island Company to take things “to a new level” and bring back a new golden era, like the newly-added zip line adventure and the biofuel hummer tours, the Descanso Beach Club, and the addition of new restaurants.
One of the best ways to sample the wonderful simplicity and romantic feel of the island is a leisurely walk down Crescent Avenue, which is what we did after checking into the Casa Mariquita Hotel on nearby Metropole Avenue.
What you notice as soon as you land on the island is the scarcity of gasoline-powered autos, and for good reason: the idea is to keep the number of cars down to a bare minimum.
In fact, if a local wants to bring a car here, there’s a 15-year waiting list, and if you do have a gas-powered car, well, the cost of filling up was a little over $7 a gallon at the island’s only gas station during our visit. So how do people get around on the island? Mainly by electric golf carts, which seem to be everywhere in Avalon.
While checking out Crescent Avenue, we stopped at CC Gallagher, which was displaying the Rusack Catalina wine. The shop has hot espresso in the morning along with pastries and a daytime menu including sandwiches, focaccia bread, vegetarian soups, and wines, while the evening menu offers sushi, sake and beer.
At the Avalon Grille, one finds American cuisine and regional dishes, along with wines, micro-brew beers and specialty cocktails, breakfast Saturday and Sunday, and all in a pleasant wicker setting.
One afternoon, we sampled happy hour at the Bluewater Avalon restaurant, with small plates of tasty grilled fish tacos and garlic fries, all served with some really pleasant ambiance.
The Avalon Scenic Drive, an hour bus tour given by the Catalina Island Company, afforded a wonderful view of the bay from the hills surrounding Avalon.
The company offers a wide range of other tours, too, including golfing, a sundown isthmus cruise, a flying fish voyage, and a tour to Two Harbors with dining, swimming and shopping.
“It is a magical place,” Rusack said of Catalina Island. “It’s hard to describe what it is… It just has this beautiful, old historical, natural feel to it where you can do exciting things like the zip line, you can do relaxing things and sit on the beach, or you can go and experience nature and learn about things or hike or bike.
“It’s a wonderful combination of things, and we’re working constantly with everybody – the conservancy and the island company – to make sure it stays that way.”