The Real Southern California: A Frazzled but Fond Farewell from Catalina Island
National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott is trekking through the Los Angeles area with his family in search of the real Southern California. This is his seventh and final dispatch; read the previous one here.
Nothing brings a family together like a little adversity, so it’s probably no wonder that our oldest son, Aren, is still a little clingy after zipping down Catalina Island strapped to his mother.
It’s perfectly safe, they assured us before we signed the waivers at Catalina Zip Line Eco Tours, but that didn’t do much to calm him. He saw the two cables dropping off the side of the mountain, and said — and we have this on video, so he can’t deny it — “no way!”
Mom persuaded him to try it, and as it turns out, he loved it. It is more than an adrenaline rush; you’re also afforded some terrific views of Descanso Canyon and the towering Art Deco Catalina Casino, and on clear days, Los Angeles and Orange County. The knowledgeable, quirky guides also fill you on the island wildlife and conservation efforts.
We enlisted my parents, who happen to live in Southern California, to join us as designated babysitters, and an argument broke out between my father, who thought Avalon looked like Italy, and Aren, who insisted it resembled China. Viewed from the right angle, I suppose they both have a valid point.
Like the Channel Islands, where we’d been only a few days before, Catalina is a world away from Southern California, but in a different way. There are houses, restaurants and hotels here with a rich if not controversial history. Catalina’s separation from the mainland is psychological and geographical. The catamarans run by Catalina Island Express can only carry a finite number of visitors. The rest have to make it here by boat or helicopter.
But you’re left with a sense that the distance between here and the port of Long Beach is more than one hour by ferry. Most of the islanders drive golf carts or walk to their destination, and there’s a friendliness that seems a little less forced than on the mainland.
Another fun family activity is the undersea tour, which lets you get as close as possible to the marine life without strapping on a mask and snorkel and braving the 65 degree water. On our 45-minute trip, we saw sea bass, ray, the California State fish, the Garibaldi, and plenty of lime-green kelp undulating in the gentle current.
Mostly, the kids loved the fact that there seemed to be an ice cream shop around every corner and that Avalon is incredibly compact and pedestrian-friendly. Our hotel was only a few steps away from great dining options, including the Country Club and the just-opened Avalon Grill.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
We made one final stop on the mainland at another new resort, the Terranea, before flying back home. I’ve been asked along the way if I think we discovered the real Southern California during the last two weeks. To which I say: without a doubt. I lived here five years and never saw any of the places we visited, and now I can’t wait to go back.
Neither can the kids.
Photo: Chris Elliott