Island romance, Catalina-style

The Southern California gem makes a great couples retreat, but the kids will love it, too

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When we stop at the turnaround point of our tour, at the edge of a cliff on the remote, windward side of the island, I stand, feeling more exposed than I have in years. A thousand feet below us, the Pacific crashes and foams. Gulls wheel across the clouds like ash in the wind. The air smells of grass and brine. My hair whips in the breeze.

"Cold?" my husband asks, moving closer and settling his arm around my shoulder. I hold out a hand to Max.

"No," I reply quietly, looking toward the horizon, where sea blurs into sky. "Not with you here." And that, after 10 years of marriage, amounts to a wild shout of love.

The island of romance

You can find, of course, the more canned, ready-made types of romance on Catalina. There's no shortage of candlelit restaurants and in-room hot tubs, or massage therapists who will knead you at sunset as you lie on a table by the sea. You can even hire a driver for cruising around in a Rolls-Royce from Catalina Transportation Services, the island's lone taxi company, and toodle about Avalon in swank style. As that famous song promises, "Twenty-six miles across the sea/Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me/ Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance."

But what I will remember from our visit are the more private, idiosyncratic moments. The retro glamour of Avalon's casino; renting clunker bikes to ride to the old Wrigley mansion above town, and from that vantage, watching the sailboats bob in the harbor and hearing the disembodied noises of downtown Avalon like the ghosts of distant joy; paddling our kayaks along the rocky coast, with the ocean to ourselves, apart from a pair of bald eagles that lift with majestic ease from their midcliff aerie; and sitting below deck in a submarine, 5 feet beneath the ocean's surface, while neon-orange garibaldi, calico bass, and darty little blue fish flash kaleidoscopically past our sub. My son's face lights with surprise and delight as he dashes from viewing window to window, shouting each time for me to "look, look."

I do, too, but not at the fish. I look at my glowing boy and my smiling husband and think, This would be the perfect way to celebrate an 11th anniversary.

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