Where the Buffalo Roam: Visiting Santa Catalina Island in California
Standing on the pier in the heart of Avalon, Catalina’s quaint little largest town, you can see the brownish orange glow of what is the dingy, smog engulfed “mainland” of Los Angeles County. Breathing deep, it is hard not to become struck by world of difference provided by the short trip across the water. The traffic jams have been replaced by the occasional golf cart, tandem bicycle, or moped (cars are not allowed on the island by non-residents, and few residents bother to own one). Foot is actually the most utilized mode of transportation in Avalon.
Even the most popular and upscale restaurants, and there are a surprising number of them along the water, are usually available with little or no wait for diners walking in off the beach. Reservations, guest lists, and VIP lounges are the stuff of the city. Santa Catalina has no use for such contrivances, regardless of the fact, or perhaps because of it, that the island is a favorite weekend spot for refugee Angeleans. Sitting over drinks at a table on a balcony, looking at the rows of brightly colored houses, and small shops with strings of lights, it is hard to believe you have not stepped right out of California and into the hillside villages of Italy.
So who would guess that just a few miles away you can venture right into a scene that resembles nothing so much as a step right back into the wild west? The enigma of Catalina is one that was created back in the 1920s when a film crew from Hollywood traveled to the small, conveniently located island to shoot a Western and brought with them fourteen buffalo for authenticity. They got their shots, the buffalo had their fifteen minutes, and then the film crew departed, leaving the fourteen displaced buffalo behind.
They were not fourteen buffalo for long. Far from miserable in their new surroundings, fourteen buffalo quickly became forty, which were soon four hundred, which in no time wereÃ¢Â?Â¦ well, you get the point. The island is known for two things, Avalon and buffalo. The entire island is pretty much owned by them. They have become fairly docile, accustomed to living among people, whom they mostly ignore. They are so acclimated, in fact, that there is a Girl Scout camp on the island that accepts the fact that the herds of mighty bison will regularly move through camp, cruising around (and sometimes through) the young campers’ tents. Upon arrival, the girls are taught proper buffalo protocol, and coexist harmoniously with them throughout the summer.
The villages of Italy, of Buffalo Bill’s prairie land? Is that really Los Angeles just over there?
There are a couple of tour companies in Avalon if you want to get out and get your taste of the Wild West from your quaint village vacation. They are Discovery Tours (310) 510-TOUR and Catalina Adventure Tours (310) 510-0409. They also provide tours of Avalon, glass bottom boat tours, garden tours and the like.
Getting to the island is simple- there is only one choice unless you have a private boat, plane, or helicopter. Fortunately, the trips to and from the island are half the experience. The Catalina Flyer departs from the Balboa Pavilion once daily at 9:00am. It leaves Avalon daily at 4:30pm. This schedule is convenient whether you want to plan a weekend or just a day trip. The Balboa Pavilion is located at 400 Main Street, Newport Beach, CA. (949) 673-5245. Reservations are recommended.
If you want to stay overnight in Avalon, there a number of hotels and inns available. Call the Catalina Visitors Bureau at (310) 510-1520 or go on line at www.catalinainfo.com for help selecting a hotel to su