You may not have heard of Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina as it's popularly called, but chances are you've seen it. In the past 90 years, the scrubby isle 22 miles (35 km) off the Los Angeles coast has been a backdrop in more than 300 films, standing in for places from Tahiti to North Africa.
Catalina's popularity as a filming location was at its peak during the early and middle part of the past century. So was its cachet as a film-star getaway. The days when big bands played the crowded ballroom of the S.S. Catalina as she plied the choppy waters between San Pedro and the harbor at Avalon, Catalina's main town, are gone. But the island is still popular with families and couples who pack today's high-speed ferries making the same journey. Kids lean over the railings to watch for flying fish, as their parents toss back Bloody Marys and keep an eye out for Catalina's jagged brown cliffs. Before long, Avalon's multicolored cottages come into view through the ferry's salt-crusted windows.
With its small-town langor and tiny population (less than 5,000), Catalina embodies faded seaside glamour. Charred vegetation from last season's wildfires fringes the golf greens. Some of the bed-and-breakfast places walk a perilously fine line between charming and down-at-heel. But unlike L.A.'s other beach cities, Avalon has not been overwhelmed by big retail names there's no Starbucks or Noah's Bagels. The city doggedly holds on to its motley parade of mom-and-pop ice-cream parlors and trinket shops. Even the automobile loses its dominance: golf carts are the preferred mode of transport in Avalon, perfect for navigating the steep backstreets. Tourists can rent them, but carts are not allowed outside the city limits.
If you want to see Catalina's interior, try the Classic Inland Motor Tour, offered by Discovery Tours. Visitors are shown around the island in a gorgeously restored, chocolate-brown 1953 Flxible bus, passing sites like the Airport in the Sky that Charlie Chaplin used to land at (the facility gets its name because of its mountaintop location), and the remote cove where Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart used to rendezvous. But if old celebrity stomping grounds are not to your taste, the island has worthier landmarks in the form of chewing-gum mogul William Wrigley's elaborate memorial (circa 1935) as well as the Catalina Casino a white, 12-storey Art Deco building at the edge of the harbor, featuring ornate wall murals and original Tiffany chandeliers.
As evening falls, Avalon's scruffy beachside bars fill up with weather-beaten surfer types. On their way to the evening ferry, departing weekenders pass a young woman telling a stranger she had been married earlier in the day. This isn't the silver-screen Catalina that the local chamber of commerce would prefer you to think about. But it is classic Los Angeles. And as the new bride swigs from a beer bottle and lights a cigarette in her bare feet, the waterfront that has appeared in so many films as some other place finally takes on a filmic quality all its own.
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