July 14, 2008


HOME on the range – bison (buffalo) descended from fourteen taken to Catalina Island for the making of The Last American

TIME warp: Catalina Island's Marlin Bar still sports its 1940s decoré
WORLD's only casino that outlaws gambling is on Catalina Island off California

david ellis

POP group The Four Preps assured us in 1958 that Catalina Island was twenty-six miles across the sea… or in metric parlance, forty kilometres in a leaky old boat…                

We've believed them all these years, even though they were wrong on both counts: Santa Catalina is in fact 22-miles across the sea, which converts to just 35-kilometres. But, hey, what sounds better when put to music?

And in any case, Catalina Island is all about the contrary: where else will you find a casino where you can't gamble, a post office that doesn't deliver the mail (the grocer will do it for you with your home-delivery order,) a bird park that has no birds, a town with a Third Street but no First or Second Streets, pizzerias that send your dinner home by golf cart, and a grand mausoleum with no one in it?

Or where the less-than 4000 locals are outnumbered 250-1 by 1-million visitors a year, primarily retirees who pour ashore mid-week from day ferries in their 'sensible' slacks, walking shoes and golf caps to reminisce in yesteryear?

At weekends a younger crowd flocks to the island that despite being just an hour or so off California's coast, is almost-1950s time-warp in architecture and pace of life – and is the only place in America to govern the number of cars on its roads.

Locals have got around this disconcerting legislation that sees them waiting up to ten years for a permit to import a car, by taking to the streets aboard an armada of golf carts that hugely outnumber cars and trucks and give the streets of the main town of Avalon, a look somewhat akin to Fred Flintstone territory.

Visitors too can hire a cart to get around. Or walk.

Most day-visitors make a bee-line for the biggest building in town, that vast dome-shaped Casino where they can't gamble.

Its builders reckoned "casino" meant "gathering place," and when this one opened in the 1920s it was to gather for dancing and dining, with Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Harry James and Benny Goodman pulling the crowds.

Today it's still home to dancing, dining, movies and concerts.

And while Catalina's Bird Park was once one of America's biggest with 8000 species in 500 cages covering 4ha, it was scaled down during the Second War when the island was taken over as a troop base; it never recovered and  closed in 1966.

Visitors to the park today go there to walk or cycle its vast grounds.

Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr had a house on Catalina Island and built his own marble mausoleum, but it too is empty: while he was laid there for a short while, he is buried at Forest Lawn, and his mausoleum is now a memorial.

In the 1920s fourteen bison (buffalo) were shipped to Catalina Island for a movie The Vanishing American based on a novel by Zane Grey who wrote the novel while living there; when filming ended the beasts were abandoned and numbers exploded to around 600.

Today 200 roam free, with regularly culling seeing excess numbers sent to mainland national parks.

For long-stay visitors there are bus tours over the mountain from Avalon to Two Harbors, wildlife spotting for bison, foxes or dolphins, glass-bottom boats, golf (Catalina's was Southern California's first golf course in 1892,) sea caving, diving on wrecks including a one-time Chinese smuggler's ship, horse-riding, Jeep Eco-touring and a fascinating museum.

Catalina also has excellent seafood and international-favourite restaurants, countless ice-cream and waffle parlours, and the circa-1946 Marlin Bar, the oldest on the island still sports its 1940s décor including an ancient sign: I am not an alcoholic – alcoholics hold meetings.

Oddly Catalina Island's Constitution was written in pencil, Winston Churchill once caught a marlin here, actress Natalie Wood drowned off the island in 1981 while boating with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Phil Hartman was murdered here by his wife in 1998…

And a young radio announcer who won himself a Hollywood acting contract while temporarily working here in 1936 went on become President of the United States.

His name was Ronald Regan.

For information about day-visits or longer-stays on Catalina Island contact Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or www.canada-alaska.com.au


(photos: Rraheb/dreamstime, David Ellis Heather, Jones/dreamstime)

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