Avalon fills the windows cinematically. The engines slow. Travelers begin to shuffle. The boat eases into Catalina’s main harbor and though I’ve spent so many summer weekends here, my pulse quickens like it’s the first time.
Instantly, I’m reminded of all the friends who grew up in Southern California and told me in the last week how they’ve never been here. Or that they haven’t returned since summer camp when they were 10 years old. I step off the landing and stroll down Crescent Avenue through a highlight reel of personal memories. The sounds of the island’s main boulevard, the smells of the street cafes, the inescapable yin and yang of scrubby hills balanced against the undulating of the boats in the harbor tickle my brain. Especially in summer, the boats become Avalon’s “East Side.”
Though I’m back for all the usual reasons, I’m also here for a new one. Catalina Island with music and moonlight is an idea so simple and romantic it’s hard to believe it’s not what the island is known for.
It’s actually had a lot of music performed by a lot of talented musicians over the decades, from big band swing to jazz to folk and rock and blues. The iconic casino was built in 1929 with dance music in mind. One of my summer weekends was spent here for an all-day reggae and ska fest back in 1984.
This summer what I hope will be a long-running new tradition has started. The Catalina Conservancy partnered with Fullerton’s Steamer’s Café, L.A.’s Koffeehouse and Ketel One Vodka for a summer-long series of weekend shows that wrap up Oct. 1. Singer-songwriters and jazz acts perform at the Catalina Country Club on Thursdays and Fridays respectively, and DJs spin electronica at the newly renovated (and supremely upgraded) Descanso Beach Club on Saturday evenings.
Late summer weekends can be truly special here. As the days get hotter and Santa Ana winds begin to blow, Avalon escapes the brunt of it.
This is the Martha’s Vineyard of the West Coast. Subtract the Kennedys and other East Coast elite and the islands share a lot. Both serve as unique rustic island retreats near large cities and as havens for boaters and fishermen, but then things begin to diverge.
Catalina is more remote, less populated and cheaper to visit, with a greater variety of outdoor activities that can be carried out in carefully protected wild space. Spend all day hiking, biking, stand up paddleboarding, ziplining, or skindiving. Spend the evening at a seaside restaurant; enjoy some after-dinner cocktails and get a good night’s sleep in island quiet.
The Pavilion Hotel is an island mainstay and after years of saying I would get around to staying there, I finally did, and found a recent renovation has really given the centrally located spot new life. The courtyard has been remade into a lush garden with shaded and un-shaded seating all around. The Pavilion’s afternoon wine and cheese buffet is a must. Watch the native and fellow travelers go by from the courtyard while you reflect on the day or plan your evening.
On Thursday and Friday evening, just as the sun was setting, I made the easy five-minute walk up canyon to the Catalina Country Club. This was once the clubhouse for the Chicago Cubs when they spent their spring trainings here. The building has since become the island’s most upscale restaurant and provides the perfect contrast to the informality of the shoreline. The performers are handpicked dinner treats, like chocolate-dipped strawberries. Thursday’s singer-songwriters are hip up-and-comers, yet appropriate for the setting. Friday’s jazz is more traditional with pop overtones.
Saturday night was decidedly different with beach side electronica at the Descanso Beach Club. The new beach club is nearly unrecognizable to what little was here for my day of ragga in the '80s. But that was a long time ago. This little beach now features cabanas, beachside bar and outdoor café, large lawn area, and modern restrooms. Bare and basic has been replaced by casual and a sort of Riviera-like luxury. For a younger crowd, it’s hard to top the experience of beachside beats in twilight.
No matter how much they try to modernize Catalina, it’s always the older things that bring me back. But with so many acts to see each summer, any music lover now has extra incentive to spend their days in action and their nights in song.