Catalina is a local destination I’d never visited before. The occasion? A day trip with a dear friend who was celebrating her birthday. Since she’s more in the know than I am, she had acquired a free boat pass courtesy of the birthday promotion at CatalinaExpress.com. (Take a look! The offer is legitimate and it is good through April 2012.)
I booked my passage online to complement hers, departing San Pedro. There is a rather youthful senior-citizen rate (ahem, 55 and up), and if you wish to phone in reservations, AAA offers a $7.50 discount for up to six in a party. The boat terminal is located 45 minutes south of Pasadena. Parking for the day costs $12. Now if the facility looks vaguely familiar, perhaps it’s because you’ve made some joyous drops here in the misty past, sending kids off to summer camp. I have, and that was my only association with the terminal. Now it was my turn to sail away.
Waiting in what feels like a small-town airport—friendly staff, no sense of impending terrorism—I read maps and recommendations and the correction that Catalina Island is not 26 miles away; it is 22. The ride over takes 75 smooth minutes. Docking in Avalon calls for a Southern California brain change; walking is the norm here! Almost all transport is by foot, golf cart ($40 per hour rental) or wheel (bikes, Segways). The other adjustment is accepting that everything is on a tinier scale, more akin to Main Street Disneyland or Brugge. Small clapboard houses, narrow alleys, dinky splashes of gardens. First we located a deli and bought sandwiches. We took our lunch and walked toward the curvilinear casino, a 1920s Mediterranean landmark that houses performance space, a cinema and a museum. Soon we sat on a bench to people-watch and read aloud all the boat-names we could see in the slips. After lunch we got serious about walking.
Through the town there are charming flatlander neighborhood streets. We went into St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, whose stained glass windows cast their nautical glow into the silent sanctuary. Then we headed upland in search of Wrigley Gardens. This route was more rustic, among eucalyptus, a campground, the sunny summer smell that results from sunshine falling on trees. We never did reach the botanical gardens, but we did find a golf course with a snack shop offering dollar tacos. Sold! We fortified ourselves before heading back to the dock.
Thirty minutes before departure is the line-up formation. The return ride was simple, though I did spy some campers going home after their Catalina adventure. But they weren’t my campers, and I coasted back to the mainland without a care in the world.
Reservations and information: 310. 519.1212 or 800.422.9159, CatalinaExpress.com