From Mt. Ada to Harbor Sands, Explore Santa Catalina Island

It all starts with a helicopter ride…

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  • Written by
    Linda Grasso

I’d been peering curiously at “Catalina,” as most of us call it, for the past 25 years. Every time we were down in the South Bay visiting family, I’d think about going there some day. The time finally came in June. My husband and I drove to Long Beach to IEX Helicopter. It was also my very first chopper ride. Afraid I might lose my chops, I was a bit nervous, but moving swiftly over the water was surprisingly calming. Less than half an hour later, we arrived.

Catalina Island Company was established in 1894 by the Banning brothers, who bought the island with the intent of transforming it into a resort destination. In 1919, after a run of bad luck, they were forced to sell shares of the property to a group of investors that included William Wrigley Jr. The chewing gum magnate eventually gained controlling interest in the company, investing millions in infrastructure and tourist attractions.

Popular activities include zip-lining, hiking, boating, scuba diving, kayaking and—as strange as it sounds—wild buffalo spotting. The bison were apparently brought over for a movie shoot in the 1920s and now roam along the interior of the island.

For our stay, we choose Mt. Ada, the former estate of Wrigley and his wife, Ada. The colonial-style mansion has six en suite guest rooms, each offering breathtaking ocean views, as Mt. Ada is perched on the highest point of the island.

Included with every room: a sumptuous full breakfast and a gourmet lunch, which can be enjoyed on a spectacular wrap-around terrace.

GREAT ESCAPE Mt. Ada overlooking Avalon Bay; Main Image Above: Bison that live along the island’s interior

Day 1

Get one of Mt. Ada’s complimentary golf carts and explore Avalon. (Very few people on the island have car permits.) The shopping is mostly what you find in a casual SoCal beach town, but it is still fun to grab a coffee and pastry at Ben’s Bakery and stroll.

Check out the Descanso Beach Club. Rent a cabana or lounge chair, swim in the ocean and enjoy a cocktail. Note: may not the best place to dive into a good book. With lots of pumpin’ music and twentysomethings partying, it’s better for people watching.

For anyone who loves the summer TV show American Ninja Warriors, Catalina Aerial Adventure is a dream come true. Climb, swing and slide on a series of obstacles, suspended in a grove of towering eucalyptus. Advice: only do the advanced course if you are in tiptop shape. You are tethered by a safety rope but, trust me, falling is not fun.

For pampering, visit the Island Spa Catalina. The facility boasts ocean-view treatment rooms, a rooftop relaxation deck and courtyard soaking pool. Enjoy a couples massage (ours was 5-star) and then order lunch from Encanto Café.

Visit the landmark 11-story Catalina Casino and go on a twilight tour of the art deco masterpiece. In the world’s largest circular ballroom, you can take a spin on the dance floor to the sound of big band music.

Cap off the perfect day with dinner at Bluewater Avalon, a local favorite for fresh, sustainably caught seafood.

The view from Harbor Sands beach

Day 2

The goal: exploration. Jump aboard a cyclone powerboat for a 40-minute cruise north to Two Harbors. Make your way to the Harbor Sands beach. Grab a palapa or a lounge chair and order lunch. With gorgeous views and swaying palms, this is where you can read that book.

For adventure, there’s a recreation center stocked with kayaks, mountain bikes, scuba and snorkel gear, and fishing equipment.

Have dinner at the Avalon Grille, which features contemporary American cuisine with a seasonal focus. There’s a terrific selection of wines and micro-brew beers, and the open-air eatery has a fun, festive vibe.

Ensconced back at the stately and serene Mt. Ada, indulge in the inn’s sundae bar—open to guests 24/7. Don’t miss the homemade chocolate chip cookies. Heaven.

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