Saturday, March 2, 2013

Catalina and its bum rap

AVALON, California -- When I used to think of Catalina, what came to mind was a three- or four-day party-boat cruise (which I have never taken, but heard about). I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

In fact, our two short days (lengthened, unexpectedly and fortuitously by a minor medical emergency), were as restful and darn near perfect as you can have a right to expect. It didn't hurt, of course, that I had brilliantly picked the two warmest days of the year to visit and that my choice of lodging was, well, darn near perfect.

We all know about Santa Catalina, an island about 22 miles across the channel from San Pedro on the mainland south of Los Angeles. The founder of Wrigley chewing gum bought up the whole place a little less than a century ago and his progeny -- g' bless 'em -- essentially created a conservancy of 88 percent of the island. So, most of the island's 4,000 residents live on Avalon, with its storied harbor and casino (where gambling does not now, nor ever has, occurred). On the other end of the island, a couple hundred people live in the incredibly laid-back settlement of Two Harbors which has -- wait for it -- two harbors, separated by a small isthmus. We got to spend a whole afternoon there, unplanned, and it was a darn near perfect five or six hours.

Our visit came at the end of February, which is still off-season. A lot of the shops were closed (wahoo!), but most of the restaurants were open. We needed only one of the latter -- the Ristorante Villa Portofino, which was conveniently attached to our hotel. Victor, our waiter, has a day job running the local Tommy Bahama store. The food was spectacular and we nearly had the place to ourselves, including the second night, which was Kathleen's birthday.

Crosby, Stills and Nash did a song called "Southern Cross," which is about a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere. So, why does it include the line, "In a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you." I digress, but it should be noted that Stephen Stills and David Crosby are noted sailors and undoubtedly hoisted a few from all the noisy bars in Avalon a time or two. For the record, Stills wrote those lyrics around the time Crosby got arrested for drug possession. Again, I digress, except I should say that none of the bars on Avalon were noisy on the days of our visit, which was a good thing.

The Villa Portofino (I mention it again because it was most spectacular) has a magnificent roof patio that affords a splendid (I'm running out of adjectives) view of the harbor and surrounding hills, plus the aforementioned casino, which is basically an enormous movie theater and ballroom large enough to host the island's entire population for cocktails. Nearby, chimes from a hillside tower echo over the town every quarter hour. Most of the vehicles on the island are golf carts (the island has a strict limit on actual automobiles), so even the sound of traffic is relaxing.

I took the time to walk up the hills on both sides of the village, mostly to get pictures but also to walk off the veal and calamari steak that made up my two meals at the Ristorante Villa Portofino (see how I got it in there again?).

The view from the deck in Two Harbors.
Anyway, after one complete day and parts of two others in Avalon in which much time was spent doing absolutely nothing but forgetting about the Idaho winter, we got on board the ferry to return to the mainland via Two Harbors. Just before arriving at Two Harbors, a journey of about 30 minutes, one of us (I will not mention who) had a minor medical emergency (I will not mention what), which required some medical attention from two young and disturbingly handsome paramedics. This meant that we had to let the boat leave without us, which left us stranded on this little piece of paradise for roughly six hours until the next ferry would arrive. I really won't say who had the small emergency, but I could just kiss her on the lips. Two Harbors has exactly one general store, one restaurant, one hotel and a deck with a view of the mainland-facing harbor (there are two, remember), where they ALLOW YOU TO SMOKE CIGARS! And, here's the really cool thing -- the little general store HAS CIGARS FOR SALE! Good ones, even.

So, we sat on the deck, chatted with some folks who were moored in the harbor (one of whom claimed to write for TV shows, and who are we to argue, this being southern California and all), and had a splendid time. I got on my smart phone and moved our reservations in Cambria and Carmel back a day, and everything worked out more than dandy.

So, here's how much I liked Avalon and that hotel I may have mentioned -- we're going back next year for a week. Maybe five days, but for awhile.

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