Avalon Ballroom, Avalon Theatre, Big Bands at Catalina Casino, Bluewater Avalon, Bluewater Avalon's Executive Chef Randy Savoie, Casino Dock Cafe, Catalina Casino, Catalina Flyer, Catalina Island Conservancy, Catalina Island Museum, Catalina's Tuna Club, City of Avalon, Descanso Beach Club, Director of Operations Robert Hyman, GM Shawnene Hill, Jim and Julie Anne Ulcickas, Jim Staunton, Lloyd's of Avalon, Luau Larry's, Renee's at Descanso Beach Club, Santa Catalina Island, Santa Catalina Island Company, Sean McAlpin, SS Catalina, Wiki Wacker drink
I visited Santa Catalina Island recently after not having been there in 15 years. It was a revelation! Things are hoppin’ on the island 26 miles from our shore. My friends Kathy and Noel Hamilton love the place and have a condo there that they visit often. I took them up on an invitation to join them and boarded the Catalina Flyer from Newport Beach early one morning, arriving safe and sound soon after.
Jim and Julie Ann Ulcickas had told me about their new restaurant on Catalina called Bluewater Avalon, so that was one place I wanted to be sure and visit. It opened in July and is such a beautiful eatery right on the waterfront. I’ll tell you more about my experience there later. Also new is the Descanso Beach Club on the road past the Catalina Casino (see the darling photo of the fawn I took on the way to Descanso). You could swear you were at a beach club in the Caribbean, Hawaii or some other island paradise. There is lots of expansive beach for soaking up the rays and a beautiful terrace overlooking the beach and water with umbrellaed tables and a top-notch wait staff. The pina coladas were delish! We enjoyed visiting the beach shop there called Renee’s, named after its owner Renee Hubbard. She has it stocked with fun fashions, accessories and gifts of all kinds. I bought a stunning sea shell ring there!
Walking around town with Kathy and her friend Kim Axene, we ducked into Luau Larry’s, known for its signature “Wiki Wacker” island drink. You order the drink, you get a straw hat! The place was hopping with tourists wearing straw hats! Later, when I was exploring on my own, I found Lloyd’s of Avalon, a confectionary store with ice cream, salt water taffy, cinnamon rolls, and caramel apples that was advertising cotton candy ice cream. I love cotton candy!! As I was enjoying my pink ice cream, I happened to run into the owner, Buddy Wilson, who said the store has been there since 1934. That’s impressive!
Dinner at Bluewater Avalon was really fabulous! The restaurant, which was extensively remodeled by the Santa Catalina Island Company as part of an ongoing renaissance of the island that includes new hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions, is in the historic waterfront building that once served as the arrival and departure point for the SS Avalon and SS Catalina steamers. Taking full advantage of its location, the indoor/outdoor space seats 250 people, and it was packed the Wednesday night we were there. Jim and Julie Anne are so proud of the restaurant, and it shows. From Executive Chef Randy Savoie, General Manager Shawnene Hill, Director of Operations Robert Hyman, bartender Sean McAlpin (he served a mean “Strawberry Smash!”) and our waitress Mary Schickling, everyone was warm, inviting and competent! Jim told me that the entire restaurant staff was hired from the island, which shows their commitment to the island. The Bluewater Grill restaurants in Southern California and Phoenix concentrate on the highest quality seafood in peak season, and there is a chalkboard of freshly caught seafood and shellfish available daily for both lunch and dinner. Our dinners that night – Kathy and her friend Christine Knowland were with me – were really delicious! We enjoyed sea bass, sand dabs and salmon, and it was all fresh and very tasty! If you don’t happen to like seafood, free range chicken and New York steak are on the menu. Oh, and I must not forget the Mud Pie dessert! Yum! And, the wine list is impressive as well. I also want to mention the decor. The working clock tower at the restaurant’s entrance is reminiscent of the Terminal Building where the steamers docked, and there’s a huge wall mural of Avalon Bay from yesteryear before the famous Catalina Casino was built, as well as wonderful black and white vintage photographs of people enjoying the local fishing and boating scene. Jim even has a plethora of fishing rods in the mix. Not only are Jim and his partner Jim Staunton avid boaters and fisherman but Jim says the modern sport fishing technique was created and refined on Catalina by the Tuna Club, which included legendary personalities like Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, and noted western author and adventurer Zane Grey, to name a few.
After dinner at Bluewater Avalon, Kathy, Christine, Julie Anne, and I had a chance to play a little pool at the Marlin Club. It wasn’t quite fair. Julie Anne won hands down, pool shark that she is!
I also had time to visit the famous Catalina Casino while I was there. Kathy and I caught a bite to eat at the Casino Dock Cafe, which is on the waterfront next to the Casino, right before my behind-the-scenes tour. Joe, our docent, gave our group a dose of history about the place, saying that the Casino, built in 1929, boasts a 1,184-seat theater with gorgeous Art Deco murals and its original 1929 pipe organ as well as a legendary ballroom, both still active. Evidently, first-run movies are shown every night on the theater’s massive screen, and the ballroom hosts 12 Big Band dances annually, as well as the island’s Jazz Festival, New Year’s Eve celebration and a myriad of private events. The Art Deco ballroom with its original arched 50-foot ceiling, five Tiffany chandeliers and circular maple and oak dance floor projected images to me of what it must have been like when Benny Goodman and all the Big Bands played there for thousands of adoring fans. Joe took us through the “green” rooms, where he said Errol Flynn and Cary Grant made an appearance. The editing room was where Cecil B. DeMille viewed rushes of the day’s movie shoot. I learned that more than 600 movies have been shot on Catalina – Mutiny on the Bounty, Old Ironsides, MacArthur, Gilligen’s Island’s first season, and many more. And did you know that the Wrigley’s, who owned the Chicago Cubs back in the day, brought the Cubs to the island for spring training from 1921 to 1951? The island, famous for other reasons as well, was where Winston Churchill fished, Natalie Wood died, and Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe, lived on the island for a year as a newlywed teen. Who knew?! The Catalina Island Museum, on the Casino premises, features a gift shop and a museum showing the island’s history. A video gives you the history of the island and there are a lots of photos and memorabilia detailing the same. I loved the enlarged photo of William Wrigley, Jr. with his favorite parrot in the early days after he had bought controlling interest in the island. I learned that the Wrigley family through its Catalina Island Conservancy continues to improve and maintain the infrastructure on the island to the delight of the island’s inhabitants.
Kathy and Noel took me on a golf cart ride (that’s how a lot of people get around on the island) up into the hills to the Avalon Pet Cemetery. Their sweet pooch, Duffy Reed, is buried there. Being the animal lover that I am – Doug and I have six cats! – it was pretty touching. I must tell you, the view of Avalon from the hills is stunning! The opening photo with me in the golf cart shows the panoramic view. Shortly after my pet cemetery visit, I was on the Catalina Flyer back to Newport Beach. It certainly won’t be 15 years before I visit again!! There’s lots more to see – The Inn on Mt. Ada (the 1921 home of chewing gum magnate and former island owner William Wrigley, Jr. and his wife Ada, now a six-unit lodge), the Cape Canyon Expedition, the zip line and climbing wall tower (probably not my style!), Dolphin Quest boat ride, Zane Grey Pueblo, the Chimes Tower, donated by the Wrigleys in 1925 and still chiming today, and lots of shopping at the darling island boutiques! Can’t wait!! Did I mention that Santa Catalina Island is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year? What a history!!