Catalina When It's cool

Winter Is The Off-Season — And Maybe The Best Time To Venture Off The California Coast

Alaska Beyond Magazine November 2019

By Bill Newcott

I am coasting down the 10-mile road from Catalina Island’s Airport in the Sky, the wind whistling through my bike helmet, the February sun warming my face despite the brisk air.

To my right, green slopes disappear into steep chasms. To my left, the sapphire blue of Catalina Channel — 30 miles wide from here to Long Beach, California — blends into the cloudless azure sky. And below me, catching updrafts of afternoon breeze, cormorants and red tail hawks do their aerial ballet. 

My total descent along rollercoaster-like Stagecoach Road — named for the horse-drawn carriages that once traversed Catalina’s rugged spine — is about 1,600 feet. Parts of the trip are uphill, steep enough to warrant hopping off my bike and walking it. Still, I can go miles without even pedaling.

Either way, I haven’t broken a sweat. This is Catalina in the dead of winter, when temperatures average in the low 60s.  

In summer, visitors can count on Catalina’s predictably warm, dry weather. Winter brings rains — enough to turn the hills green and give birth to a riot of wild blossoms with fanciful names like shooting star, red monkey, and Indian paintbrush. 

Here and there, seasonal waterfalls cascade down the steep hills. On the banks of a swollen mountain lake I spot two shaggy bison — descendants of a herd brought here for a western movie in 1926. 

The road takes a sharp right, revealing a Cinemascope view of the seaside town of Avalon.   

Far to my left stands the iconic, round Catalina Casino, topped with its red Spanish tile roof. No one has ever gambled at the casino — not legally, anyway. It houses a magnificent art deco 1929 theater, the first built for sound movies. Drop in an hour before the nightly film for a concert on the theater’s 1929 pipe organ. If you ask nicely in winter, the slow season, the guy at the door might let you sneak inside for a peek. 

The blue-green bay — crammed with pleasure boats in season but now sparsely populated — laps up on Avalon’s crescent waterfront.

Those quiet, narrow streets welcome me with open arms. Restaurant managers stand outside, happy to discuss today’s specials. At Steve’s Steakhouse, I waltz right upstairs and get one of the coveted window tables, overlooking the harbor. And there’s no wait for homemade candy at Lloyds of Avalon, where a teenaged Marilyn 

Monroe pulled taffy (Marilyn’s old house is still up the hill at 310 Metropole Street. Please don’t knock). 

Catalina’s longest lines can be for the famed glass bottom boat tour. It’s well worth the wait on the busiest summer day, but today it’s just me, a handful of others, the skipper, and those colorful fish. 

Avalon is a mighty small town — less than 4,000 year-round residents who head to the Post Office for their mail each day. Islanders keep their own hours: One morning I take the easy half-hour uphill stroll from downtown to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, arriving right in time for its 9 a.m. opening. A half-hour later the gate attendant shows up, greeting me with a cheerful “Good morning!” I smile back. I’m on island time. 

The memorial — an imposing tower built in 1934 — was the first final resting place of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. His body was moved to Pasadena in 1947.

I sit at the monument’s highest level, gazing east. Above the horizon hovers wintertime Catalina’s rarest treat: A tantalizing view of Southern California’s snow-capped mountains, 80 miles away.

I’m reminded of what islander Randy Lewis, the owner of Bike Catalina, said when I asked him if it was boring to 

live on Catalina when the crowds aren’t there. 

“Catalina is an island of contradictions,” he’d said, keeping his eyes on the road as we drove to the airport for my downhill adventure. 

“It has a tomb with no body, a casino with no gambling, and the post office doesn’t deliver but the grocery store does.

“Why would I live anywhere else?"