Published : Tuesday, September 24, 2019 | 2:40 PM
Motoring across the channel from Long Beach, the Catalina Island Express made its way to Southern California’s own island paradise, Catalina. Humming 26 Miles and enjoying a bit of bubbly, I could feel the tension start to drain from my body. My shoulders began to unknot and my mind began to slow, the trip over to Catalina has always had that effect on me. The Channel that day was smooth as glass, as was the ship. I always enjoy being on the water and the Catalina Island Express makes the trip effortless. My personal tip is to cough up the extra $15.00 for the Commodore Lounge, it really makes a great start to a vacation.
Soon the iconic Casino and harbor dotted with boats came into view. The sky was cloudless and the ocean azure blue, a gentle breeze tickled the hair on my head as I disembarked. My destination? The newly remodeled Hotel Atwater.
Opening its doors in 1920, the Hotel Atwater was named after Helen Atwater Wrigley, wife of Philip Knight Wrigley. Since its opening, according to some locals I talked to, the hotel became a bit worn. Not anymore. The Hotel Atwater has had a complete makeover with a beautiful airy lobby and new guest rooms and suites. It opened to the public on August 11, and I got to spend a couple of nights there to experience the new digs.
Since it bills itself as having “resort-style” amenities expect to get a bit more bang for your buck. A requisite destination fee of $30.00 gets guests a $40.00 food and beverage credit per night (in specified restaurants), two splits of sparkling wine on arrival day, Discover the Casino Tour, Glass Bottom Boat Voyage, use of a bicycle, fitness classes at Island Spa Catalina, beach towels, access to Descanso Beach Club, and luggage service from the ferry terminal in Avalon. The rooms are beachy with an Art Deco vibe. The rooms will have refrigerators (when they arrive), Digital concierge tablets, high-speed Wi-Fi and smart TVs.
We stayed in a standard room with a king bed that seemed to dominate the room. The artwork and decorations were very pleasing. There was a floating mirror that delineated the washroom from the sleeping area and two really cool hanging lamps. The shower with a gigantic shower head and toilet were in a separate room. The window overlooked the other wing. What I missed in this scenario was coffee. There wasn’t coffee in the room nor any in the lobby. There was a coffee shop in the arcade that adjoins the hotel but I really need coffee to even think about getting dressed. Thank goodness my companion was an early riser and could satisfy my need for caffeine.
We had lunch reservations at Mt. Ada that day so we grabbed a cab (you need either a cab or a golf cart unless you are fond of long, steep walks). Perched upon a hill and situated to see the sunrise and sunset from the wrap-around porch, Mt. Ada is the former island escape of William Wrigley Jr. and his wife Ada. At lunch they offer an all inclusive meal on the beautiful porch and surrounding rooms to everyone on the island, not just guests. We got three courses and our choice of drinks (Prosecco for me, wine for my companion). The view is exquisite and food divine. If you are lucky the resident cat, Big Foot, a six-toed ball of fluff will pay you a visit to share a bit of food with you and a belly rub. Be sure to make reservations because they are required. What a wonderful treat our lunch was. Be sure and look around for some history and pictures from long ago.
It always amazes me how much there is to do on the island. We’ve been on boat tours, tours of the interior of the island, the glass-bottom boat, and there are still so many things we haven’t experienced. This trip we indulged in some of the indoor activities, the first was a tour of the Catalina Island Museum. What a beautiful building! It was opened in late 2016. Prior to that the Catalina Island Museum didn’t have a permanent home. Since the building’s opening it has hosted many major exhibits by Chihuly, Peter Shire and currently Elizabeth Turk: Tipping Point. Chihuly designed a special chandelier for the museum and it is on permanent display.
Two large pieces are on view on the roof of the museum. One represents “Echoes of Extinction” highlighting the sounds of some of this continents birds that are on the verge of extinction. The actual sculpture represents the sound recordings of the birds. A recording can be accessed through a USP code next to each sound tower. There are also intricate panels that can be moved and a mirrored center that can be accessed by viewers.
We weren’t there for the Esther Williams exhibit, they were still working on it, but it contains movie memorabilia, costumes, photographs and never-before-seen personal home movies. The museum also has space dedicated to the Centennial Celebration of William Wrigley Jr. and the execution of his vision for Catalina Island, paying special attention to his first year of ownership: 1919. One interesting fact I learned about the fortune that chewing gum built is that the gum was added to bars of soap as an extra. Soon people were buying the soap for the gum alone. The soap was dropped and the rest is history.
We also went on the Discover the Casino, walking tour. A 45-minute narrated tour of Catalina’ most well-know landmark. Built in 1929, the movie Theatre was one of the first to be built for “Talkies”. I remembered watching Footloose in that theatre, just a “few” years ago. It’s a beautiful space with black walnut panels, Art Deco furniture and Tiffany-type lighting. We also looked through the ballroom and took in the view on the Romance Promenade. This tour is included with a stay at the Hotel Atwater.
Dinner with a view was in order. The Blue Water Grill has one of the best views on the Island. We sat out on the back patio with a fantastic view of the harbor and Casino. We started our meal with the baked crab and artichoke dip. It’s gooey and cheesy, rich and flavorful. Tortilla chips are provided to scoop up the oozing deliciousness.
It was snapper for me and shrimp and scallop skewer for my companion, we both opted for the scalloped potatoes and sauteed spinach as our sides. I love snapper and order it whenever I can. The Blue Water Grill’s snapper had a light char and just the right seasonings. It was delicious. My companion on the other hand has never met a shellfish he didn’t like, so the shrimp and scallop skewers were just right for him. We sat and watched as the sun disappeared behind the hills, sipping our wine and enjoying the ocean breeze. It was a leisurely meal that ended with a stroll through Avalon.
A night spent in the king-sized bed, recharged our batteries and set the scene for our next adventure. It was off to Descanso Beach and our very own lounge chairs. An extra umbrella set just right kept the sun off us while we noshed, drank and read our way through the day. The beach is lovely with a gentle cove to swim in. I can’t tell you how much I needed this and what a treat it was. Our waiter was attentive without being cloying. It was just a wonderful, relaxing day.
That evening we went to one of my favorite restaurants on the island, The Lobster Trap. Owned by a commercial lobster fisherman, the restaurant features some of the freshest of fish and the most awesome smoked albacore. Their chowder is also great, New England, with a whole lot of clams and a creamy finish. It’s a funky place decorated with all manner of coastal stuff including half a boat as a seating area.
We got an order of the aforementioned smoked albacore and a cup of chowder. The albacore was smoky and salty and just heavenly. I have to go back at least once a year to get my smoked albacore fix.
The fresh fish selections were served our way with either; crisp macadamia nut breading, blackened, fresh tropical mango salsa, lemon caper sauce, garlic mushroom, Rosie’s special marinade (teriyaki), or a tomato, basil, cream sauce. I opted for the sea bass with the lemon caper sauce and my companion got the seafood kabob for an assortment of tastes. Dinners are served with either baked potato or rice and fresh vegetables. The fish was so delicious, moist and flaky and totally fresh. The lemon caper sauce had plenty of garlic and capers and when I asked for extra it was no problem. My companion enjoyed his seafood kabob with plenty of the Lobster Trap’s tartar sauce. I wish I could have packed up my leftovers, everything was fresh and yummy.
It was our last night on the island so we wandered around town for a while, stared at the glistening harbor and just generally soaked up as much of the island vibe we could. A restful evening in the Hotel Atwater and we were reluctantly ready to head back to the mainland and reality.
But we had lunch before that at the recently-opened Toyon Grill. Located at the Trailhead Visitor Center, the restaurant had a full bar, a coffee bar and menu of tasty bites and full meals. There are also grab-and-go picnic boxes for those who go-a-wandering. The restaurant had beautiful views of the harbor. You order first, then take your number to a table where they will serve it to you.
We started our meal with a smoked salmon dip that was served with red onion and fried capers. It was rich and delicious and the fried capers added a whimsical note of briny crunchiness. I decided on the Grilled Fish Tacos and my companion, Fried Mary’s Chicken. The tacos were stuffed full of flaky-grilled fish and topped with avocado, cabbage, tomato, tomatillo salsa and cotija cheese. The fried chicken, a Toyon Grill favorite, was proclaimed “yummy,” by my companion. We sat on one of the patios and as we enjoyed our meal we had a spectator watching us for any missed morsel.
Our ride back on the Catalina Express was smooth and easy. I was hoping for a few dolphins but had to content myself with the deep blue ocean. What a wonderful trip we had on So. Cal’s very own island paradise.
Catalina Island Express, 320 Golden Shore, Long Beach
(800) 995-4386, www.catalinaexpress.com
Hotel Atwater, 125 Sumner Avenue, Avalon
(877) 778-8322, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/lodging/avalon/hotel-atwater
Lunch at Mt. Ada, 398 Wrigley Road, Avalon
(877) 778-9395, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/dining/avalon/lunch-at-mt-ada
Catalina Island Museum, 217 Metropole Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-2414, www.catalinamuseum.org
Discover the Casino Tour, 1 Casino Way, Avalon
(310) 510-7400, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/catalina-casino/walking-tour
Bluewater Avalon, 306 Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-3474, www.bluewatergrill.com
Descanso Beach Club, 1 Saint Catherine Way, Avalon
(310) 510-7410, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/descanso-beach-club
The Lobster Trap, 128 Catalina Street, Avalon
(310) 510-8585, www.catalinalobstertrap.com
Toyon Grill, 708 Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-8599, www.toyongrill.com