I recently spent three wonderful days on Catalina Island. Cool temperatures and a balmy breeze at my back accompanied me as I meandered down Avalon’s main street, aptly named Crescent Avenue. Here, fountains adorned with beautiful mosaics of Catalina tile, fired from the red clay of the island’s interior, dotted the pedestrian promenade that fronts Avalon Harbor. While you can have a pleasant one-day trip to Catalina, a longer stay will allow you to explore 74 square miles of back country and learn more about the island’s fascinating history. Best of all, you’ll have a chance to unwind. Day One.

My friend Debby and I left from Dana Point at 9:30 a.m. aboard the Catalina Express, which also makes daily departures from San Pedro and Long Beach, for a ride of just over an hour to Avalon. About halfway across the channel, the morning fog lifted and the clouds gave way to blue skies and the faint outline of the rug- ged Catalina coast that grew more inviting by the minute. We headed straight into Avalon Harbor, with its iconic casino at the north end of the crescent-shaped bay. Avalon is about two miles square, and 99 percent of Catalina’s 4,300 residents live there.

Tightly clustered homes set back just feet from the curb rise sharply on facing hillsides, connected by community staircases and curvy streets, with the preferred transportation being golf carts. We stayed at the newly renovated Bellanca Hotel which sits near the sand and the historic Green Pier and Casino. Before checking in, we grabbed lunch at the hotel’s Naughty Fox restau- rant, its name in reference to the small red foxes that live on the island. The coastal cuisine by Chef Russell Hayden was as tasty as it was innovative. We opted to dine on the patio, but there’s also an inside bar and tables that bring the beach in via large folding doors. This was Debby’s first visit to Catalina. She has lived along the Florida coast, the Caribbean and Hawaii, and she was impressed with how clean Avalon is.

An avid scuba diver, Debby also scout- ed out the Casino Point Underwater Park, where scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts come from all over the world. I’ve been to Catalina six times, but I keep discovering more about the island that fascinates me. We enjoyed an afternoon of shopping before checking into our hotel. We were both intrigued by the pretty Spanish-style building next door with its cascading bougainvillea. The next day I discovered this was the Island Spa, Catalina’s only destination spa, occupying the historic El Encanto Building, circa 1933. Inside the 15,000-square-foot facility, guests can opt for a spa treatment and then spend the rest of the day there, relaxing by the soaking pool, enjoying a eucalyptus steam and an organic lunch at the in-house café, or whiling away the hours on the vista deck overlooking the harbor.

The Bellanca Hotel features an inviting rooftop deck, with comfortable seating, umbrella tables and ample room for sunbathing. Guests may bring their own food and drinks, or order them from the Naughty Fox and enjoy them as they take in the view. Day Two. After breakfast, we headed out on The Bison Expedition via a bio-fueled Hummer. We did spy some bison, but we also learned a lot about the island’s history. The island was first discovered by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Sixty years later, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on the island, naming it “Santa Catalina,” and claiming it for Spain and its territory, Mexico.

The island became part of the United States when Pio Pico, Mexico’s last Governor of California, issued Boston native Thomas Robbins a land grant, making him the island’s first private owner. Robbins sold the island to the James Lick Trust in 1867, which leased the island land for grazing for goats, sheep and cattle. George Shatto, an early land investor in Los Angeles, next bought the island in 1887. Then along came the Banning family. Phineas Banning arrived in Los Angeles via a cargo ship in 1851 at age 21. Upon arriving at San Pedro, he observed that ships had to anchor offshore, and one day he would find a solution. While initially working as a store clerk and a stagecoach driver, he later established his own stage company and a ship-to-shore transportation business.

Next came a shipyard and a wharf. Today he is known as the Father of the Port of Los Angeles. Phineas made his first visit to Catalina Island in 1859, and shortly after began taking family and friends there on excursions. During the Civil War, he was employed to construct barracks for Union soldiers on the island. In 1866 he was named a California State Senator. The City of Banning was named after Phineas Banning, not because of his port activities but because of the stagecoach company he and his partner, George Alexander, established that passed through the area, carrying passengers and goods between Los Angeles and San Bernardino, Salt Lake City, Utah and Yuma, Arizona. As our bison tour guide drove us up a winding road with sheer drop- offs and breathtaking views, he explained that in 1892, Phineas’s sons William, Joseph and Hancock had taken over their father’s business interests upon his death in 1885. They purchased most of Santa Cata- lina Island for $128,740 from Shatto and formed the Santa Catalina Island Company. The brothers quickly built ‘The Old Stage Road,” the same road we were on today, to take tourists on stagecoach rides.

Originally just six feet wide and carved right out of the mountainside, the road today is flanked by mature eucalyptus trees, planted by the brothers over a century ago. But, thank goodness, today’s roadway is twice as wide and paved. After a 1915 fire destroyed much of Avalon, the Bannings sold the island to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in 1919. With deep pockets, Wrigley built cottages and bungalows, the Green “Pleasure Pier,” the Wrigley Botanical Garden (still in operation today), the Catalina Island Bird Park (closed in the ’60s when its resident birds were moved to the LA Zoo) and the Catalina Casino. Wrigley’s descendents took steps to protect the island’s vast interior, establishing the Catalina Island Conservancy in 1972, which is charged with preserving and protecting 88 percent of the island for future gen- erations. Now about those bison: In 1924 Wrigley allowed a motion picture company to bring a herd of 14 bison to the island to be featured in a silent film version of the Zane Grey novel The Vanishing American.

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