Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Joie de Vivre: Joy of Living in Long Beach and Catalina Island

         SoCal So Cool: 50 Miles of Pure Pleasure

                                                          Part 3 of a series 
 LONG BEACH:  This harbor-side city, 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, was given its name in 1888 because of its 5.5-mile stretch of sandy beaches.  This was to be my gateway to Catalina Island on a Catalina Express catamaran. However, I thought, why not spend 24 hours here and see what Long Beach has to offer?  Well, I found out what Long Beach had to offer… plenty!

Karmel Shuttle transported me from Redondo Beach to the Hotel Maya in Long Beach.  And what a delightful surprise that was. This stylish
Joie de Vivre boutique hotel is a hidden gem on the California coastline.

Hotel Maya exudes the energy and hospitality of the Latin cultures.  Its affordable waterfront setting, lush tropical grounds and skyline views of downtown Long Beach came as an unexpected bonus.

The hotel’s Fuego Restaurant was an added bonus.  At Fuego I savored the cuisines of coastal Latin America as I enjoyed fine food, fine tequila, fine skyline views, and the fine view of the historic Queen Mary. 
Buen Provecho!
The Queen Mary was my other
raison de etre (reason for being) in Long Beach.  Although I have sailed on some 130 cruises, the sight of a cruise ship still ignites concupiscent feelings in me.  And, although she no longer sails, the Queen Mary still takes me away. 

The Queen Mary and Russian submarine docked in Long Beach

Once the largest luxury liner afloat, the Queen Mary has been Long Beach’s flagship attraction since its final voyage in 1967.  Once a World War II troops ship bigger than the Titanic, the Queen Mary is now a hotel.  You can tour the mighty ship, relax in its Art Deco lounge, or dine in its elegant Sir Winston’s Restaurant.

Adjacent to the ship, in the Queen Mary Seaport, is the Russian Foxtrot attack submarine Scorpion.  This genuine “Cold War Warrior” gives a sense of what it was like for the 78 Russian sailors who went to sea for three months at a time in this “shark of steel”.

Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific instills a sense of wonder, respect, and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants.  Home to over 11,000 animals you can get up close and personal with the ultimate predators of the ocean on Shark Lagoon nights at the Aquarium.

SANTA CATALINA ISLAND:  In less than an hour, a high-speed Catalina Express catamaran made the 22-mile trip between Long Beach and Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. Those of us who opted for a minimal price upgrade were afforded pre-boarding privileges, reclining seats, and a complementary beverage of choice served by a cabin attendant.

From the moment we docked in Avalon, it was obviously time to relax. No pulsing neon, no stoplights, no cars…golf carts, bicycles, and shoe leather are the favorable modes of transportation. We were on Island Time…time for romance, time for family fun, time for memories that last a lifetime. 

Welcome to Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island, often called Catalina Island, or just Catalina, is part of the eight Channel Islands archipelago.   Catalina is the only one of the eight islands with a significant permanent civilian settlement…the city of Avalon. Two Harbors is an unincorporated village that is 13.4 miles by boat or 23 miles by road from Avalon.
People have been living on Santa Catalina Island for at least 7,000 years.  But it was the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame) whose influence we enjoy on Catalina Island today. 
In 1919, sight unseen, William Wrigley Jr. purchased the majority of the island.  Soon after the purchase, he came to Catalina and fell in love with the island.  For the next ten years, Mr. Wrigley underwent an ambitious economic development program, building the Catalina Country Club, Bird Park, the
S.S. Avalon and S.S. Catalina, and the legendary Casino Building.

Wrigley’s son, P.K. Wrigley, continued developing the Island resort when he took over from his father and ushered in the Big Band era at the Casino.  He redesigned the beachfront Crescent Avenue with an Early California ambiance, and built the Airport in the Sky in 1946.   The Airport in the Sky occupies a 1,602-foot-tall mountaintop at the center of the island, 10 miles from the city of Avalon.

Many of the homes in Avalon were also built during this time period.  The original Wrigley mansion was built in 1921 atop a hill that Wrigley named Mt. Ada, after his wife Ada.  This restored Georgian Colonial home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now the Inn on Mt. Ada.  It’s worth the trip up the hill for a divine lunch at this Mobil 4-star, 6-room, inn.  The Quarry Burger is sensational!

Catalina Island as viewed from the Inn on Mt. Ada
In Avalon, my hotel of choice was the Villa Portofino, where Mediterranean charm meets the Pacific Ocean.  Our Bella Vista suite came complete with gas fireplace, Italian marble bath and a wrap-around balcony that offered both a hillside and full Avalon Bay view.

There are newer, sleeker hotels on the island, but at Villa Portofino I felt like I was tucked away off a courtyard somewhere on the Isle of Capri.  Consistently rated one of Avalon’s best hotels, the Hotel Villa Portofino carries on the traditions and high standards of a European seaside resort.

The adjacent Ristorante Villa Portofino is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants on the island.  With its Mediterranean d├ęcor and harbor views, dining at Ristorante Villa Portofino is like an ambient sojourn to the regional areas of Italy.

Lunch at the Avalon Grille was amazing.  For starters, you must try the Crispy Brussel Sprouts with Cranberries and Almonds, and the Ahi Tuna Tartare with Wasabi Guacamole.  You could stop right there and walk away happy.  But if you’re really hungry, the Seafood Benedict with Fried Green Tomatoes is divine.

A Salta Verde Margarita with Fresh Squeezed local Organic Tangerine Juice got dinner at M Restaurant off to a flying start.  Seared Wild White Sea Bass was the grand finale.
Catalina Island is a historic treasure. The Catalina Island Museum, located in the legendary Casino Building, has an outstanding collection of historic photographs, Catalina pottery, and archaeological artifacts excavated on the Island.
If you want to learn Catalina’s history in a more exciting way, opt to fly through the air on the Catalina Zip Line.  You will zip down 5 different Zip Line routes totaling 3,761 lineal feet cruising at speeds up to 45 miles an hour, and reaching heights of over 300 feet.  At each platform in between zips, you will learn about the Island’s history, ecology and culture. 
Catalina boasts a year-round Mediterranean climate, with warm, sunny days, perfect blue skies, and cool evening breezes. There are said to be only three places in the world with a Mediterranean climate: The Mediterranean…the coast of Chile around Santiago…and Catalina Island.

Catalina Island is an escape from the everyday hustle and bustle and stress of life.  It is the only place in Southern California where you can fully immerse yourself in the freedom, beauty, and relaxation that only an island can provide.

Take the time to discover your Island Time. And don’t forget your sunglasses! 

JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 38 national Travel Writer Awards and an International Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio.

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