A bit of Mediterranean in California

It’s not very honourable, but you can cheat at hiking. You see, pressed for time and wanting to see as much of beautiful Catalina Island as possible, my wife and I cut the recommended six-km Divide hike in half by taking a taxi to and from a transition point.

With its white buildings clinging to palm-treed mountainsides around a pretty harbour

With its white buildings clinging to palm-treed mountainsides around a pretty harbour

AVALON, Calif. — It’s not very honourable, but you can cheat at hiking.

You see, pressed for time and wanting to see as much of beautiful Catalina Island as possible, my wife and I cut the recommended six-km Divide hike in half by taking a taxi to and from a transition point.

By doing so we avoided some steep terrain but still hiked the important final foot traffic-only ascent and descent to the 700-metre pinnacle.

It’s called the Divide because to the east are incredible views of Catalina’s main town — Avalon — below and the San Pedro Channel and Los Angeles beyond. To the west is the wild Pacific Ocean.

Cheating or not, the hike almost never happened.

As he dropped us off, in a gesture of being helpful our taxi driver Mario told us to beware of the rattlesnakes.

My wife headed back to the cab ready to scrub the whole exercise. But she was eventually talked back onto the trail with reassurances from Mario that rattlers only bite when provoked.

And we certainly had no plans to provoke a poisonous snake.

The views we enjoyed from the top exemplified Catalina Island’s unique locale.

This accessible-by-ferry little chunk of paradise is only 35 km off the coast of Los Angeles, but it has the look and feel of the Mediterranean coast.

It also feeds off its Caribbean vibe with its motto: Relax, you’re on island time.

The white buildings of Avalon cling to palm-treed mountainsides around a boat-filled harbour.

The pace is dialled back to revolve around relaxing in the sun and water, eating seafood, drinking California wines and sleeping at boutique hotels.

All these attributes attract about 900,000 tourists a year, mainly from nearby southern California, but also from around the world and on the cruise ships that stop twice a week.

“My grandfather came to Catalina as a tuna fisherman from Croatia and never went back because it reminded him so much of the fishing village on the Mediterranean island of Split where he grew up,” said Kathleen Vojkovich-Bombard, the chef at The Country Club restaurant where we ate her halibut and flank steak creations.

While she wasn’t born on Catalina, programs manager Michelle Warner from the chamber of commerce is one of the island’s biggest advocates.

“Yes, we get the Mediterranean comparisons all the time,” she admitted.

“But we have the tourism offerings to back it all up. Catalina is a compact mecca for sightseeing, adventure, beaches, dining and shopping.”

Fast-tracking our hike meant we had the time to enjoy all that Warner recommended.

We boarded a high-speed dingy to go snorkelling with Catalina Ocean Rafting.

A kilometre down the coast from Avalon is a kelp garden that attracts snorkellers and scuba divers from around the world for its rich marine life. Catalina doesn’t have any coral reefs, but the kelp (seaweed) that grows in the marine preserve there looks like 15-metre-tall underwater palm trees.

The water is clear and revealed schools of California’s official state fish — the bright orange Garibaldi — along with calico bass, opaleye, half moon and blacksmith fish and even a couple of sea lions.

Our snorkel guide Josh Dawes didn’t tell us until we were safely back on the boat that the stretch of water is actually called Shark Alley for its populations of leopard and horn sharks.

Luckily we didn’t see any; otherwise, our entire group might have made an exodus from the water.

But even if we did spot sharks, Dawes said there was nothing to worry about.

“They eat shrimp and crabs, not people,” he stated reassuringly.

We strolled the streets of Avalon, stopping at Descanso Beach to sun and swim; shopped the pedestrian-only three-block stretch of Crescent Avenue; and ate and stayed in style.

If you go

l General information is available at www.catalinachamber.com and www.visitcalifornia.com.

l Catalina Island is accessible by one-hour ferry from five L.A. suburbs — Marina del Ray, San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point — for US$33.25 each way. www.catalinaexpress.com.

Steve MacNaull visited Catalina Island as a guest of the California Travel and Tourism Commission.

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