Avalon on Catalina Island is a great place regardless of whether you're on a cruise or not

Cruising to Avalon, Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico

We needed to see water, walk along the beach, and smell the ocean. With all the good deals around we were certain we could find something, and a cruise seemed to be a good place for good deals.

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Avalon and Catalina Island

Although February and March are not season, the weather is definitely cooperative. Despite forecasts of rain, we had peek-a-boo sun and pleasant temperatures for our first port of call -- Catalina Island.

Located about 22 miles off the coast of southern California, harbor town of Avalon feels a bit Mediterranean with houses terraced up the side of the mountain, painted tile accents on fountains and walkways, and the calm waters of the harbor.

But Avalon is clearly its own place. There are rock strewn beaches and the mountains reaching down to the water's edge. The towering mountains, which look like green velvet from the sea, are really covered with low-growth bushes and plants -- even spineless cactus and succulents interspersed with flowers.

A block out of the center of the town, past the stores, the houses seem more like bungalows of a summer colony. The bigger houses that climb their way up the mountain seem reachable only by stairs, and the buildings of the town are flavored by styles from Mexican to Victorian. The effect is charming. The main streets, especially Crescent Avenue, are lined with restaurants, shops, and welcoming bars. And there is not a single traffic light on the island.

Avalon was founded in 1887 as a resort on the protected crescent of the island. But as early as 1911 the island was a popular location for movies, documentaries and even commercials. In 1919 William Wrigley (of chewing gum fame) bought a controlling interest in the corporation that owned the island, effectively taking over. Although today the island is no longer privately owned the Catalina Island Conservancy was deeded over 88% of the land by Philp K. (son of William Wrigley, Jr.) and his wife Helen Atwater Wrigley, along with Dorothy Wrigley Offield in February 1975. The purpose was to protect and restore the land and inhabitants, including a colony of bald eagles. Despite the murky origins, there's also a herd of bison that have made the island home since 1924.

As appropriate to an island paradise, there is no shortage of tours and water-based activities. You can make arrangements to kayak, parasail, snorkel, and scuba dive. There's glass bottom boat rides, and even a semi-submersible that allows visitors to climb down and view the fish through walls of the half submerged craft. More tours? There are tours by boat, by bus and by helicopter. Although the cruise line offers many tours, investigate first and you may be able to book something less expensive on the island itself. See CatalinaChamber.com

The low key skyline of the town is dominated by the Catalina Casino which has nothing to do with gambling, Built by Wrigley in 1928, the Moorish and Art Deco building is primarily a movie theater but with a museum and art gallery in the lower level and a ballroom atop the building. Tours are also available. Walk the tile-lined Casino Way pathway along the water to Descanso Beach. This rocky beach has a sandy section as well, but even the rocky section by the water is worth a stroll -- especially if you're a bit of a rock hound.

Besides strolling through town, attractions include the Chimes Tower (you can hear the lovely bells pealing in the background as you walk along Avalon harbor), and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens. Drive into the interior of the island (or take a tour) to see the views from the top of the ridge, look for buffalo (you'll see buffalo sculptures throughout town).

Visiting Catalina without the Cruise

The island has the full range of accommodations -- B& Bs to full service hotels, beachside to interior hotels and vacation cottages, and small inns. So, even if you con't come on a tour, you can certainly visit and enjoy the island charm.

Transportation around the island is limited. Golf type carts are the major form of transportation, both for residents and visitors. Rent a cart or a bicycle by the hour for riding around the island. As an alternative to organized tours and golf carts try bike rentals, or even the local bus.

Even if you're not taking a cruise you can still visit Catalina Island via ferry and helicopter from Long Beach and San Pedro.

Ensenada, Mexico

There's no missing Ensenada. Not only is this a large working port city, but gracing the harbor is a huge Mexican flag waving in the sea breeze which announces You're in Mexico.

Unlike tiny Avalon that had to be reached via shuttle boats, Ensenada boasts a large attractive pier for cruise ships making it easier to come and go from the ship. However, there is a walk, or a shuttle bus into downtown. We took the bus in, and walked our way from one end of downtown to the other, ending up near the ship. The cruise lines offer the full complement of tours, from horse riding to wine tasting. But the only real local attraction is La Bufadora -- The Blowhole which erupts with a huge geyser of ocean water every time a large wave hits the shore. Surrounding it is a marketplace for shopping. Passengers can purchase a tour on the ship, or the shuttle bus operator also sells tours from the bus drop off location.

Other than the tours, Ensenada is about shopping. The port town offers gorgeous jewelry, pottery, and decor items. Unusual hand made pots, wood furniture, glass sconces can be found in the shops.

The west end of the Lopez Mateos is more local shopping with hawkers aplenty. It became more upscale as we walked east. You can see the change in the paving of the street, and the appearance of hotels. And, of course, plenty of restaurants.

The day was sunny and pleasantly warm, but when the clouds moved in the cool winds became chilly. Spring is still a good time to visit, but bring a jacket, just in case. If we come again, we'll try to find the boardwalk for a stroll along the harbor and visit the history museum and cultural center.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: January 2, 2017

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