NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Modern utopia: A visit to Santa Catalina Island

My alarm goes off playing the Captain America theme song on my mobile phone, I reach over to turn the volume off and check the time. Its 5:30am, why would anyone be getting up this early unless they had to be at work?

As I look at the time, I begin to feel a wave of excitement as I counted down the hours till my girlfriend Lauren and I were going to board a boat from the New Port Harbor, which was heading to an island off the coast of California.

An Island I had not been to since I was about the age of six. Santa Catalina Island is just off the coast of California where over one million tourist take their Summer and Spring Break vacations to get away from the busy life of Los Angeles or Long Beach, depending on where you take off from. This 22-mile-long island with its eight miles from its widest point, had everything I needed to get away and spend a relaxation getaway, with Lauren.

As we packed the last of our bags, double and tripled checked our belongings, my mind became more excited with the thought of knowing that I was going to an Island that was not only was rich with tourists, souvenir shops, but also rich in history as well.

This place, this Island in which over one million people flock to every year, is one of California’s, sought out vacation getaways. As we back out of the driveway, and Lauren at the wheel, we began to make our way to New Port Beach. An hour later we arrived, checked the car in and walked less than a mile to the dock where a boat, called the CATALINA FLYER was awaiting to take myself and Lauren to our vacation getaway, Avalon.

Lauren and I made our way on to the CATALINA FLYER were we and other passengers set our bags in the baggage area of this taxi on the water, made our way up the stairs to sit out on the top deck of the boat. As eight o’ clock rolled around the boat begin to move and just like that we were off!

With a forty-seven-minute boat ride ahead of us, I staredout into the open ocean and started to think about the history of the island. Weeks before we started packing, I did my research about the Island, because naturally that is what you do when you do not know much about your destination.

What I found out and what I learned about the Island was astounding. Back to 1919, which was a very transformative year for the United States, U.S. troops were coming home from World War I; the treaty of Versailles was being signed, and a man by the name of William Wrigley Jr. had just purchased Santa Catalina Island somewhere in the vicinity of 4 million dollars which was reported by Riverside Daily Press, Volume XXXIV, Number 38, 13 February 1919. That’s right, the man of Wrigley chewing gum had just bought an Island that would soon become a very popular vacation destination not only for tourists, and many celebrities, but also the players of the Chicago Cubs would be doing their spring training as well, “An island Utopia in a modern, busy, everyday world. A land where there are neither rich nor poor. A heaven on earth – without a fence around it.” These were the words Wrigley Jr. said as he was working to make Santa Catalina Island a place for all those you want to get away.

As the boat made its way closer to the Island, I could hear those very words echoing in my head as I stated to see people looking towards the front of the boat with smiles on their faces and their eyes lighting up as paradise that awaits them. To the left side of the boat wild dolphins started to make their presents known at the same time, the operator or captain of our vessel made the announcement as to why we were seeing so many dolphins. As I stated earlier about researching your destination, I came upon information that stated, “Catalina is part of the Channel Islands archipelago. The eight islands that make up the archipelago are divided into two groups — the Northern Channel Islands and the Southern Channel Islands. Catalina Island is one of the four Southern Channel Islands.” [] With this information I had also learned from a blog, “dolphins and massive whales are often spotted between the mainland and the island, with more than a dozen species regularly spotted. One of the more common sights are pods of Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which travel and hunt around the island year-round.” [] T

he sight was just as wonderful as the time I went whale watching in Massachusetts, but that is a story for another time. As the boat continues to get closer to docking port number 4, I could see boats just floating on the water, parked as though they were in a parking lot made by the ocean. As the Catalina Flyer came to a stop, we made our way back down to the deck where we left our bags, grabbed them, and began to walk off the boat down a metal ramp and on to the Island.

The sound of golf carts  driving by and families laughing and talking about the first things they wanted to do flooded my ears. Lauren, being the ever so clever and organized one, had already made an itinerary of what the day was going to look like, and I could not have been more thrilled. We grabbed our bags and as the sound of the rollers on the bottom of the bags went metal to cement pathway to pathway, weaving in and around the concrete sea of tourists who arrived with us, my eyes kept looking around at all the sights and sounds. Golf cart, after golf cart whizzing by.

Eventually we made our way to the hotel only to discover that our room had not been ready yet. So, we dropped our bags off and made out way out into the town of Avalon where we grabbed a bite to eat at one of the many well know restaurants on the Island. With our feet a little more well rested and our stomachs full of a delicious Mexican lunch, we soon realized we had time, before our first tour, the glass bottom boat tour.

A tour that has been around since the 1890’s, “Charley Feige [Faggie] used a box with a glass pane in the bottom that he held over the side of his boat to better see beneath the surface of Avalon Bay. He then installed a glass pane in the bottom of one of his rowboats.” [] These boats are amazing and when they say glass bottom, they mean a glass window that is an inch in thickness and divided into four compartments.

Around the immense water glass are an arrangement of comfortable seats. Before all that, we made our way to the golf cart rental shack, were once again Lauren was behind the while and drove an amazing one-hour tour of the island. Not the whole Island, but on a guided pathway that took us to breath-taking views overlooking Avalon Bay. It is no wonder why people make their way to this beautiful island. But it still did not answer my question as to why people come to this Island. Perhaps, my answer will come on the next part of this Island Adventure.

Once Lauren and I made it back to the hotel, our room was ready, and we headed up to the very nice but very small room and relaxed the rest of the evening. The next morning, we awoke to at a little bit of a later start, had hearty breakfast and made out way to the first part of our adventure tour, called The Bison Tour.

Bison on an Island? Yes, this Island is known for having Bison which turns out was due to the Hollywood film industry leaving them behind. Bison or the American Buffalo, found in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in the National Bison Range at the Flathead Valley of Montana and are not native to Catalina Island. That was until a director from Hollywood, Zane Grey, wanted to film a movie on the Island, “There are many stories about how they came to be but the most told tale is that they were brought over for the filming of one of Zane Grey‘s feature film in 1924, either The Vanishing American or The Thundering Herd. Fifteen head of bison were used to portray scenes of the American West. As the story goes, the parts of the film that contained the bison ended up on the editing room floor. However, with limited means to remove and wrangle the bison, Mr. William Wrigley, owner of Catalina Island, allowed the transplants to stay.” []

The funny thing is these Bison never appeared in the film! Today with the help of the Catalina Island Conservancy who help maintain Catalina’s American bison herd at about 150 to protect both the bison and the island’s landscape. The tour, in which you enter a hummer with an open back, covered with a canopy and seats with very little leg room, which is a 12-passenger eco-friendly H1 Hummer, takes you on an amazing tour from the city of Avalon up into the beautiful roads which eventually become a dirt roads that takes you into the heart of the valleys and hills of Catalina. With our trusty tour guide behind the while, and her countless comedic jokes, the ride was not bad! With all the lush’s nature and greenery, my thoughts of why people come to this Island began flooding back.

The adventure of traveling to an Island full of nature and countless different plant life really makes you appreciate your time on the Island. Also, a tour about Bison could very well be the reason. Discovering or rediscovering a place full of history and gaining new knowledge about the trivial things may very well be the reason too. The tour did inform us that there was a high chance that a Bison making its presence know where pretty low. Even though it was springtime, it was begging to get warm out and the Bison, I imagine were doing their best to stay in the shade. However, as our hilarious driver was, and managing to entertain us with her driving skills, in and around bends of the dirt road, all while playing the Indian Jones theme song, I kept a sharp eye out. You would think a Bison who weighs between 660-2,200 lbs. would be easy to spot? As our tour guide was beginning to inform us that we would be making our way down the hills, it happened! As the Hummer made it way pass an area of the hills known as the China Wall, a man on our tour stated aloud, “Bison!” Our tour guide as gently as she could, put her foot on the breaks and asked where the man saw it. As we all looked to the right of the vehicle, down below roughly 150 feet from the H1 Eco friendly Hummer…was a Bison, just lay there in the sun. The 660-2,220 lb. animal laying out in the sun, back facing us, but with my trusty camera and my finger on the zoom button I was able to grab a photo. I could not have been happier.

As we made our back to the where the Bison tour had started and stepped off the Eco friendly H1 Hummer, Lauren and I were still full of excitement as we talked about seeing a Bison on our way to get lunch. We were going to need to refuel our stomachs before the second part of our day two adventure in Catalina. That afternoon we had a guided snorkeling tour on near the popular landmark known as the Casino. This 93-year-old build has been the bacon and a historical landmark of Catalina since it was erected On May 29, 1929. Not know for a place of gambling, “ the Avalon landscape from its regal perch on the edge of Avalon Bay, the Casino exemplifies the style and romance of Catalina Island. It gets its name from the Italian language, where “casino” means a gathering place. There has never been gambling at Catalina Casino.” [] However it is a popular spot to visit with its breath-taking architectural design, this twelve-story building, movie theater on the first floor and a 20,00 square foot ball room which still hold the world record for the largest ball room is a stunning reminder of Catalina’s past. On the other side of this majestic building is a Beach Club called Descanso Beach where Lauren I made our way to on day three of our Catalina Island adventure. This very popular Beach Club is the perfect place after two days of adventuring. With lounge chairs, umbrellas and beachside service, this club was the perfect spot to stop and think about my main question again. As Lauren laid to the left of me in her beach front lounge chair, slowly drifting off into full relaxation, I as well laid on my very comfortable lounge chair and thought about what it was like in the 1920’s being here on this Island, and as I began to lay there and think I slowly closed my eyes and at that very moment a light bulb clicked.

When people go on vacation, they do not just go around looking for that one thing that makes the vacation. Depending on your destination, which is the vacation! Vacation is watching other passengers faces light up at the sight of their destination.

Vacation is discovering the petty things you never knew about or forgot about. When people make their way to Catalina Island they are here about tranquility and relaxation. Easing the mind away from the office or having to grade papers. They vacation to release all that anxiety or find the courage to try something they were afraid to do. Catalina Island has reasons as to why different people from around the world make their way to this Island of fun, excitement, mystery, and bliss. This paradise of fun, off the coast of California has much to offer. For a town with a population of 4,000 residents it sure is a busy one. When William Wrigley Jr. bought this Island, he did not just do it because he wanted to, or that he gave the Chicago Cubs a place to do their spring training, he did it for those looking to find a utopia in a modern busy, everyday world.