Santa Catalina Island's Enchanted Environment

This green-and-golden strip of land, one scenic hour by ferryboat from Long Beach, is owned by the Catalina Conservancy, whose mission is to keep it wild.


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The Santa Catalina scenery is wild and beautiful, and the Catalinia Conservancy plans to keep it that way.

Photo by Kristan Lawson

Studded with sagebrush, sun-bleached wagon wheels and browsing bison, Santa Catalina Island's eminently hikeable backcountry evokes vintage Westerns. Its cormorant-crowned cliffs and dazzling coves lapped by sapphire seas might look familiar, too.

That's because Catalina has appeared in dozens of films, including Mutiny on the Bounty, Treasure Island, Sands of Iwo Jima, and Chinatown.

But even the most stunning cinematography can't match the real thing: a 75-square-mile concentrate of Southern California's best features'beaches, boating, celebrity-spotting, and year-round sunshine'but none of its worst: A whopping 88 percent of this green-and-golden strip one scenic hour by ferryboat from Long Beach is owned by the Catalina Conservancy, whose mission is to keep Catalina wild.

Thus no strip malls mar these windswept peaks. No skyscrapers shadow these pristine reefs whose eelgrass forests swirl with seabass, perch, and shocking-orange garibaldi.

And although its magnificent Art Deco ballroom is still the island's top tourist attraction, luring Clark Gable, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, and their flashy friends, today's stars aren't allowed to buy vast tracts of land here or erect private estates.

 

Technically part of California, Catalina as it's called has a twisty history. Sun-worshipping Tongva tribespeople canoed to and from the mainland. Explorers claimed and named the island for Spain in 1542 and 1602, preceding waves of smugglers, pirates, prospectors, and monks. Russian fur-trappers ravaged the indigenous otter population; their native Aleutian helpers battled the Tongva, whose last surviving members were shipped out in the 19th century to build mainland missions. By then, the island was privately owned and emerging as a year-round resort. Winston Churchill belonged to its tony Tuna Club, where modern sportfishing was born: Millionaire novelist Zane Grey wrote avidly of 700-pound swordfish, sunfish, marlin, and sharks. During World War II, spies-in-training crept among Catalina's lilies and ironwood, past the shaggy descendants of bison that had been shipped here decades earlier to appear in a silent Western but were left behind when the film crew sailed home.

Most visitors explore only Avalon, that tiny, shiny crescent comprising hotels, homes, restaurants, and shops. Catalina's wilds are its best-kept secret.

Connecting visitors with the countryside while keeping it fit, the Catalina Conservancy operates bracing eco-tours via open-air Jeep. Its Volunteer Vacations program lets participants sleep at a cozy hotel and perform eco-chores such as beach cleanup and native-plant restoration.

Catalina's most deliciously eclectic hostelry is the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel. All creamy stucco and Hopi-style rough-hewn wooden beams, Grey's former home exudes Catalina's heady mix of glamour and howdy-pardner. Grey called Catalina "an environment that means enchantment to me. Sea and mountain! Breeze and roar of surf! Music of birds! Solitude and tranquility! A place for rest, dream, peace, sleep."

That elegy still applies.

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