We climb into the double kayak and start paddling away from Descanso Beach. It’s a bit choppier than we had anticipated and it’s not long before we’re soaking wet. It could be warmer, but a seal just to the right of our bow distracts us from the chill. With a fish about a third of its size halfway down its throat, the seal plunges in and out of the water, obviously relishing its hearty lunch. He (or she) finally disappears into the dark ocean for good.
For the seal, this is all in a day’s work; for us, it’s a little thrill to have a ring-side seat to just one of thousands of nature’s miracles that occur every day in the waters off Catalina Island.
It’s a Wednesday in mid-March, and except for a few spring-breakers on Descanso Beach celebrating their week’s freedom, the island is relatively quiet. But by the time we leave Friday, the Catalina Express will be depositing boatloads of mainlanders looking for island for R&R.
Over drinks and lunch at the Descanso Beach Club an hour earlier, we contemplate our good fortune to have a place like Catalina so close to home.
In the last few years, the island has undergone a facelift and perhaps a bit of a personality change.
It wants to showcase its history and heritage as much as its crystal-clear ocean waters and cool climate that attracts over-heated Angelinos who long to breath clean air.
Many hotels, like the ultra-contemporary Aurora, just a few minutes’ walk from downtown, have been renovated. There are new restaurants, a fabulous new museum, new activities like eco tours, historic tours, climbing walls and a zipline, and a popular jazz festival that keeps the visitors coming past Labor Day.
On Friday, we bring our 50-hour visit on Catalina to a close with an exquisite lunch at the Inn at Mt. Ada. Perched 400 feet above Avalon and the harbor, the former Wrigley mansion is now an exclusive bed-and-breakfast.
We take numerous photos of the beautifully landscaped entry, an artistic mix of succulents and other ground cover. Yes, I am jealous.
Out on the wrap-around patio, we can see, even with a bit of fog, the sweep of the circular harbor, the distinctive blue-tile roofs of the hillside homes, and the lush vegetation that is the by-product of this winter’s rains.
Executive Chef Roberto Hernandez, in charge of all Catalina Island Company restaurants (including this one), sits and chats for a bit. He is all smiles as he tells us about the recently redesigned the menu with its emphasis on “fresh foods instead of heavy sauces” and the “seasonal vegetables, local produce and more seafood.”
After assuming his position a few months ago, Hernandez says, “we saw that we needed to take a different route…We also learned that people like comfortable food, not complicated. We have a menu that people can understand.”
Hernandez loves living on the island — “No commuting; I’m only five minutes from work” — but it has forced him to become “very organized” because supplies arrive by boat only once a week and seafood must be flown in.
“You can’t just pick up the phone anytime and order what you need,” he explains.
Back on the Catalina Express, heading toward Dana Point, we start making a list of all we need to see and explore on our next trip to the island that is actually only 22 miles across the sea.
Visit these websites for further information:
Aurora Hotel auroracatalina.com; Catalina Express catalinaexpress.com; Catalina Island Company (for activates, camping, dining and lodging) visitcatalinaisland.com; Catalina Island Museum catalinamuseum.org; Inn at Mt. Ada visitcatalinaisland.com/hotels-packages/avalon/mt-ada.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org.