“Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea…”

In the late 1950s, The Four Preps, a popular quartet of the era, made a hit record called 26 Miles.  This catchy tune heralded the beauty of the island then commonly referred to as Santa Catalina.  While in actuality only 22 miles off the mainland, Catalina, as it is now called, attracts nearly a million tourists each year.  Most of them take a short boat ride from several spots in and around Long Beach in southern California, but flights are also available.  Having observed the rocky island for years from the shores of Los Angeles, we decided to spend a few days there in August. 

Our hopes were high when we sailed to the island out of San Pedro on a beautiful summer day.  Because of cleaner waters, the sea life in the area has been revived.  On the one-hour crossing we were treated to the sight of two blue whales spouting near the front of the catamaran.  Dozens of small dolphins, too, were frolicking all around.  And we even saw a seal as we were pulling into the harbor at Avalon.  Other animals, too, populate the bay and the island itself.  At night visitors can take an excursion to see flying fish; there are also glass-bottom boat tours, day and night, to see the kelp forests and the fish, spiny lobsters, moray eels, and horn sharks that inhabit them.  We came upon several deer which have been partially tamed by all of the tourists.  Because of a film made in 1924, bison were introduced on the island and trips exist to visit their herd, which now numbers several hundred.  It did seem that The Four Preps had it right: Catalina was a “tropical heaven.”

But a lot has changed in the past half-
century; in many ways Catalina no longer lives up to the reputation of the song.  First of all, the costs of visiting the island are exorbitant: everything—from the boat ride to hotel accommodations—is very expensive.  Tickets for the two of us and our five-year-old granddaughter round-trip on the Catalina Express came to $189.00; our hotel room, which was not air-conditioned, cost us $200 a night.   While limiting the number of cars on the island was a good plan, the introduction of noisy, smelly golf carts which circulate day and night was not the best idea.  Water in the bay off downtown is heavily polluted; in fact, it is the worst in Los Angeles County.  Prominent signs warn visitors who want to swim there.  Food, while not really that costly, is lacking in quality.  It is fine, I suppose, if all you want to have is hot dogs and pizza.  We tried hard to find something the least bit refined to eat, but were sorely disappointed in the culinary wasteland.

I do wonder if other visitors to Catalina are as dissatisfied as we were.  Does the current reality (of Avalon, anyway) clash with the “island dream” they were expecting?

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