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Tongva (or Gabrieliño) Indians were the first people to travel the 32 kilometers between Santa Catalina Island and their villages on the Southern California coast. Modern linguists’ best guess is that those Tongva called themselves Pimuvit, and called the island Pimugna. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo “discovered” the island during the first European expedition to California in 1542. He named it San Salvador.
Sebastian Vizcaíno returned to San Salvador Island in 1602, having been hired by the Spanish king to map the coast of Spain’s new California territory. Vizcaíno had orders not to change the names of places Cabrillo had found. But he defiantly renamed every one of them, most often for the Catholic saint whose feast day it was when he arrived. Vizcaíno reached the island on 24 November, the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It thus became Santa Catalina Island forevermore. But everyone now just calls it Catalina.
The Catalina Island Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, owns 88% of the island. They keep it undeveloped for the enjoyment of hikers, campers, boaters, and ecologists, as well as the native flora and fauna.
The town of Avalon, which occupies about three of Catalina’s 194 square kilometers, is the only significant developed part of the island. Real estate promoter George Rufus Shatto began laying it out as a seaside resort destination in 1887. (Some of Avalon’s streets still have the names he gave them.) He had planned to name the new town after himself: Shattoville or Shattotown. But then he realized that if the seaside town became a rowdy haven for sailors, it would sully his good name. So different branding was needed.
Etta Whitney, Shatto’s sister-in-law, found the name Avalon in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a then-popular allegorical retelling of the legends of King Arthur. Avalon was the magical island where the sword Excalibur was forged. Arthur later returned there to recover from injuries after a battle with his traitorous son Mordred. The name likely derives from the Welsh affalon, meaning “place of apples.”
Shatto couldn’t make Avalon profitable. But his successors over the last century made it a popular seaside resort, promoted as “the island of romance.” They seem to have forgotten that Catalina was named for a martyred virgin who became the patron saint of spinsters!
Digression: The Catholic Church reveres Saint Catherine of Alexandria as a pious virgin whose fervent arguments for Christian faith convinced (and converted) even her enemies. When she was condemned to death, the toothed wheel that was supposed to tear the flesh off her bones— the “Catherine wheel”— miraculously disintegrated when it touched her. She was then martyred by beheading.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Catherine of Alexandria ever existed. Some historians even assert that her hagiography was an identity theft. Some of her story is suspiciously close to that of Hypatia of Alexandria, a 4th-century Greek pagan philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher. She was, ironically, kidnapped and murdered by a mob of Christian monks. We know that because their bishop commended them in his journal for “destroying the last remains of idolatry in the city.”
Catherine was one of 93 saints whose feast days were removed from the Catholic calendar in 1969, due to what the Vatican euphemistically called “insufficient evidence of historicity.” Also among those demoted saints were such popular figures as Christopher, Valentine, Nicholas, and Barbara. But even without “historicity,” the Vatican apparently found the fictional but inspirational story of Saint Catherine too useful to give up. She was quietly restored to the calendar of saints in 2002. (End of digression.)
You can get to Avalon on a boat from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point. The trip takes about an hour and a half. If you’re wealthy and in a hurry, a helicopter can get you to Avalon in 15 minutes.
From June through August Avalon is jam-packed with visitors. Catalina is one of Southern California’s “must-see” tourist attractions. Summer, particularly on weekends, is to Avalon what Christmas is to America’s retailers. On a nice Saturday in August— or on the days throughout the year when a cruise ship calls at Avalon on its way to Ensenada, Mexico— Avalon can indeed resemble a shopping mall in December. But in the the spring and autumn, the weather is still good and crowds are sparse. That’s when Avalon best shows its abundance of picturesque charm.
The town is built around a natural harbor. With very limited flat land near the beach, it has expanded up the hills that surround the bay. Unlike the beach cities on the Southern California mainland, with their clotted traffic and perpetual parking woes exacerbated by aggressive meter maids, Avalon is ideal for leisurely exploration on foot.
There are intentionally very few cars on the island; residents have to wait 14 years for a permit to “import” one. No rental cars are available for visitors, although there are “demand response” taxis. Locals make their “long distance” trips around town on golf carts, which affluent visitors can rent by the hour for an astronomical price, or on bicycles available for rent at a more reasonable price. For those without golf carts, the steep hills provide stunning vistas along with cardiovascular challenge.
As you might expect, boating, fishing, and diving are major attractions on Catalina. You can’t miss the Pleasure Pier in the center of Avalon Bay. It’s painted bright green. There you can rent fishing gear, diving equipment, and boats of various kinds. Catalina Underwater Park, with areas for scuba and snorkel diving, is just outside Avalon.
If you’re not keen on donning a wet suit and Aqua-Lung, you can view marine life through a glass darkly while remaining warm and dry. The Santa Catalina Island Company, which owns or operates most of Avalon’s tourist infrastructure, offers a glass bottom boat “voyage” and a 45-minute ride in a “semi-submersible vessel” that puts its passengers not quite 2 meters under the water.
The Catalina Casino, on a little peninsula that forms the west side of Avalon Bay, is Catalina’s most famous and prominent landmark. Completed in 1929, the building has never housed any of the dice games, roulette wheels, or slot machines usually associated with casinos. Except on certain Indian lands, casino gambling is illegal in California. The Casino’s name actually refers to an older sense of the word, a building used for social gathering or entertainment.
The ground floor of the Casino contains a museum and an opulent movie theatre. It was one of the first cinemas designed for sound films, the hottest new entertainment technology when the Casino was built. It also houses an impressive Page organ, originally intended to provide musical accompaniment for the older silent films. After years of disuse, the organ has been restored for public concerts.
The upper floor is the Casino Ballroom, where the likes of Glen Miller and Benny Goodman performed (and broadcast) in the years before World War II. With the Big Band era long gone, the Ballroom is now a venue for weddings, banquets, conferences, and other “upscale” private events.
Crescent Avenue is Avalon’s main tourist magnet. Think of it as a cobblestoned pedestrian-only mall lined with palm trees, paralleling a small sandy beach at the center of town. It has the expected array of restaurants and shops selling beachwear, postcards, and assorted souvenirs. Fortunately, the views of the harbor and the Casino don’t cost anything. But Avalon’s real charm— and its best views— are in the streets that lead off Crescent Avenue into the hills above the harbor.
Holly Hill House is a Queen Anne style “tower house” with a distinctive striped conical cupola. It’s on the east side of Avalon Bay overlooking Cabrillo Mole, the pier where boats from the mainland arrive and depart. Peter Gano, a civil engineer from Ohio, built it single-handedly in 1890, assisted only by his horse that hauled the wood from the dock.
Gano called it “Look Out House” (presumably because of the view), and intended to live there with his fiancée. But she left him after deciding that the isolation of Catalina wasn’t for her. Local legend has it that Gano lived in the house as a broken-hearted recluse through the 1920s, and posted signs around the property that warned “No Women Allowed.”
Gano also designed Avalon’s first fresh-water plumbing system. Southern California’s semi-arid climate has made water a perennial problem on the island. A desalination plant that now supplies one third of Avalon’s drinking water.
Directly across the bay is the former home of Zane Grey, author of numerous Western novels. He modeled it after a Hopi Indian pueblo. (You can see examples of actual Indian pueblos on the Indian Country page.) The Zane Grey home has been converted into a hotel with a great view of Avalon Bay.
If you take the time to wander Avalon’s little streets in the hills, you’ll notice that some houses are decorated with odd little tchotchkes that perhaps reflect their owners’ personalities. There are also many small gardens and planters filled with colorful flowers.
The Wrigley Memorial is in a canyon about 3 kilometers inland from the harbor. It’s a nice round-trip hike, but you can also ride a shuttle bus to and/or from Avalon town center. William J. Wrigley, Jr. was an industrialist who made his fortune from the chewing gum company that still bears his name. He bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919, which effectively made him the owner of the island.
Wrigley devoted much effort and money to Catalina. In Avalon, he built infrastructure, a hotel, ferry boats, a factory that made tiles, and the Casino. He also made plans to preserve the rest of the island in a wild state. His son, Philip K. Wrigley, realized that plan in 1972 when he established the Catalina Island Conservancy and transferred all the Wrigley-owned land to it.
The Memorial was built in 1934, two years after Wrigley’s death. It’s made mostly of materials found on Catalina, including painted tiles from Wrigley’s factory.