Island romance, Catalina-style

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

Catalina view

Twenty-two miles from the California mainland Catalina is a kingdom unto itself.

Dave Lauridsen

 

  • Splashing at Avalon Beach

Romantic getaways can be tricky. Trust me on this. My husband and I have indulged in our share. The secluded hotels, low candlelight, champagne, and outsize expectations for the boudoir are all pleasant, no doubt, but also fundamentally generic.

Truly romantic experiences, I've found, are singular, often serendipitous, and tailored to exactly one couple: you.

Which makes Southern California's Catalina Island, with its remarkable variety of landscapes, views, activities, and fleeting, beguiling moments ― the kind that make a person's heart swell and her sweetheart's hand migrate tantalizingly to her knee ― one of the most romantic spots in the West.

A one-of-a-kind island

My husband, Russell, and I had come to Catalina to celebrate our 10th anniversary, just the two of us ― a plan hobbled somewhat by the presence of our son, Max. (No babysitter. It happens.) But as it turns out, his company was crucial. Anyone who wants to see Catalina at its most alluring should bring a child.

Our trip, like most to Catalina, began in the harbor town of Avalon. This is also where most visits end; the vast majority of island tourists never leave the town's cobblestoned main street and small, white beach. I understand why. You can fill many happy hours shopping, snacking, making sandcastles, and dangling your toes in the sea. But inertia, I suspect, also holds people. To leave Avalon, you must climb.

 

Catalina, as you perhaps know but I did not, is a geographic anomaly. Unlike California's other seven Channel Islands, it didn't break away from the mainland, but was formed by the upward heave of tectonic plates. It is, in fact, a mountain, and would be the highest in California if three-fourths of it weren't beneath the sea.

Instead, it's all tip, a vertiginous place of sea and soar, where long, narrow strips of pebbly sand yield abruptly to ruddy cliffs topped with brushy kiwi fuzz. There's not a lot of middle ground, no gradual altitude gain. You're at sea level or at the summit (a rather nice visual metaphor, if you think about it, for the vagaries of romantic love).

Because we, as a couple and a family, are adventurous (or so I like to think), we decided, within a day of arriving in Avalon, to strike out for the summit.

"We call this stretch the China Wall," our guide is saying, as he pulls our open Jeep to a stop along a narrow dirt track. "It's the highest drop on the island." Beside us, the road's shoulder plummets more than 1,200 feet, as sharply as if it had been scythed. My husband and son lean out over the side of the Jeep, peering down with interest. I squeeze my eyes shut. A while later, when I reopen them, we've left behind the ledge and now are driving through a wide, mesalike space. Rounded, Rubenesque hills flow toward the horizon. I sigh happily. The country-side feels deeply peaceful, far removed from the human bustle of Avalon.

We are about midway through a four-hour Jeep tour of the interior of Catalina, having ascended out of Avalon on Stage Road, the only major route into the backcountry. Catalina's geography means that most of the island is interior, and because of the magnanimity of its onetime owner, chewing gum and baseball baron William Wrigley Jr., most of this ― 42,000 acres, or about 88 percent of the entire island ― has been designated a nature preserve. Bald eagles, foxes, squirrels, quails, and a few other lucky species live here, along with the famous Catalina bison, which are not indigenous, although don't tell them that. When our Jeep halts before a few of the hulking, scruffy animals in a broad meadow, they glance our way, then with almost palpable disdain, return to their grazing. We have been dismissed. (The original herd was brought over in the 1920s for the movie The Vanishing American. They were cut from the film; bison don't respond to direction.)

 

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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