Avalon, Catalina Island — It’s no more than a short cruise from busy Los Angeles, but once here, you’ll think you’ve sailed to a far-away paradise.
My first glance of dreamy Catalina Island came as our Catalina Express vessel entered the waters of Avalon Bay and we passed the iconic Casino building on the water’s edge.
Surrounded on one side by the clear blue waters of the bay and on the other by rugged hillsides with spectacular ocean views, Avalon is only about one square mile in size and home to about 3,700 permanent residents.
Once off the boat, we circled the bay on foot to Crescent Avenue, the town’s small, main artery filled with shops and cafés near the water.
When you think of Catalina Island, the first name that usually comes to mind is William Wrigley, Jr., who not only developed the island but also created a chewing gum empire and owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which he brought to the island for spring training.
Alison Wrigley Rusack, his great-granddaughter, noted that the Cubs were “cherished by my family up until they were sold in 1981. … Everyone loved being a part of the Chicago Cubs.”
Once, when the Cubs were doing spring training here, Ronald Reagan, who at the time was a young radio sports announcer, had to rush to the mainland for a screen test, and Catalina Express co-founder Doug Bombard was the one who ferried him over in his speedboat.
Since the early part of the 20th century, the Rhodes Jewish community in Los Angeles has made the crossing every summer. It sees in Catalina an image of the Greek island of Rhodes, ancestral home off the coast of Turkey.
Aron Hasson, a Los Angeles attorney who established the Jewish Museum of Rhodes at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue on Rhodes, remembers visiting Catalina every summer with his family when he was growing up.
His four grandparents were born on Rhodes and immigrated to Los Angeles between 1912 and 1920.
Catalina Island held out a special kind of attraction for the Rhodes immigrants, he said, since “the island is situated 26 miles away from the Los Angeles mainland, and Rhodes is about 26 miles away from the Turkish mainland.”
“I would say Rhodes is bigger,” Hasson said, “but the shape has some resemblance…”
Most of those early Jews had been members of a Los Angeles synagogue established in 1917 called the Peace and Progress Society, which changed in 1935 to the Sephardic Hebrew Center and later merged with Tifereth Israel Synagogue.
The distinctive Ladino sounds of those early visitors could be heard as they shared traditional Sephardic foods on the beach in Avalon. And during the Big Band era, they could gather on the top floor of the Casino to hear music greats like Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Harry James.
It’s easy to understand why anyone would be drawn here: the island is quite simply magical. The Casino where the Rhodeslis could hear Big Band music is still very much alive, a short walk from the new Descanso Beach cabanas.
In a “Behind the Scenes Tour” given by the Santa Catalina Island Company, visitors can also see the editing room where Cecil B. DeMille himself watched rushes of movies shot on the island.
Moviemaking has been very popular here over the years; the many films with scenes shot on Catalina include “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Charles Laughton and Clarke Gable, shot in 1935, and “Chinatown” (1974). More recently, aerial scenes for “Pearl Harbor” were shot here, as were scenes for “The Hunt for Red October.”
Today, Catalina Island is opening up a new chapter in its storied history, this one connected to wine, thanks to Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband Geoff. With their strong family attachment to Catalina Island, the couple was inspired to plant grapes here.
Some background: prior to Prohibition, vineyards and a winery had existed on Santa Cruz Island, one of California’s eight Channel Islands, which include Catalina. Seeking to “plant a little bit of … history,” said Alison, she and her husband got permission to take cuttings from some of the Santa Cruz Island pre-Prohibition vines — Zinfandel and Mission — which had “escaped into the hills,” and transplant them to Catalina Island.
With Steven Gerbac as winemaker, they planted the Zinfandel along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at El Rancho Escondido, an old horse ranch in Catalina’s interior, where Alison’s grandfather, Phillip K. Wrigley, raised Arabian horses. The soil at this ranch is actually better suited to growing Burgundy varietals of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Alison said, rather than the warmer-climate Zinfandel.
“But it’s made a wonderful Zinfandel,” she noted of the first harvest under the new Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards label, “and it has a totally different type of taste than other Zins … more earthy and less fruity.” The grapes are harvested at night and flown to Santa Ynez Airport on the mainland for processing at the Rusack’s winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.
One of the best ways to start sampling the island is to take a leisurely walk down Crescent Avenue, which is what we did after checking into the 22-room Casa Mariquita Hotel on nearby Metropole Avenue.
What you notice as soon as you land on the island is the scarcity of gasoline-powered autos. So how to people get around? Mainly by electric golf carts, which seem to be everywhere on Avalon.
“It is a magical place,” Alison said of the island. “It’s hard to describe what it is. … It just has this beautiful, old, historical, natural feel to it where you can do exciting things like the zip line; you can do relaxing things and sit on the beach, or you can go and experience nature and learn about things, or hike or bike.”