The Reel Fantasy Island

A cocktail at 10 in the morning? Why not, especially when you’re on your way to Capri, California-style. Plus it’s free. ”Bloody Marys with none of that sissy celery,” booms the ferry’s loudspeaker. ”There are real jalapenos in ours.” Oh, all right, twist my arm.

Even better, the hostie is a Kiwi who shows me to the best seat in Catalina Flyer’s Commodore Lounge for the 1 1/4-hour voyage from Newport Beach, and apologises for Americanisms such as the word ”trash”.

Me? Mind? One more Bloody Mary and I’m ready to marry Catalina Island. Hope I like it when I get there.

Hooray. I do. I do. It doesn’t matter that it’s really just a big dry rock in the middle of the ocean. The island is so dinky and bright I want to hug it and take it home. Its cosy cove of bobbing boats, prettily painted wooden houses, parping little golf carts, tiled signs and green pleasure pier humming with jolly folk fills me with joy. Perhaps it’s the lack of cars that does it. On Catalina, two cars have to leave the island for one car to come. The little pedestrian-friendly island is so pint-sized, colourful and cute, it could be a movie set.

Of course it has been. Catalina might be part of Orange County but Hollywood is palpable. Ben Hur, The Bounty, Jaws, Waterworld, Treasure Island and The Aviator are a few of the 500 flicks that have been filmed here. There are even herds of bison roaming the island now, left behind after some nameless 1920s shoot.

Movie stars have been discovered here. Big stars like Marilyn Monroe, who was Norma Jean Dougherty, a 16-year-old bride when she lived here with her 21-year-old husband, a merchant marine shipped to the Pacific during World War II. The story goes that sailors were the first fellows to wolf-whistle N J, thus awakening her inner sex goddess.

Ronald Reagan was also discovered here. He was a radio sports announcer in Catalina when some fool suggested he’d be good on screen. He was right. Reagan became a terrific B movie actor.

Oh yes, Catalina has been hip. The likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Natalie Wood holidayed on Catalina, rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi who obeyed an unwritten rule that these luminaries should be left alone. Imagine.

But rotten journalists spoiled that. So, now, when Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Heidi Klum come (and come they do), they keep a low profile.

Oddly, it’s been both hip and egalitarian at the same time. While the stars of the silver screen lolled about the beaches, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley was turning the non-nature reserve part of the island (all 14 per cent of it) into a place of recreation for the poor. He ran the place at a loss for the working man and woman. The Wrigley company still owns most of the island but a quick glance at prices tells you they’ve ditched the loss-making ethos.
So that was yesteryear.

What do you do on the island now? Plenty. You can swim in the 21 degrees Celsius ocean, snorkel or board an underwater submarine to spy on fish in the marine reserve; fish like the orange garibaldi, calico bass and zebra perch, and occasionally even a sea lion slipping in and out of monstrously tall seaweed forests.

Or you can zipline across gorges, hike in the national park (spy the bison, avoid rattlesnakes), promenade along the jaunty seashore street and spot vivid tiled scenes on walls and paths reminding folk that Catalina once had a tile and ceramic industry.

A little further and you arrive at Avalon casino. In that lovely circular building jutting into the sea, bands once played and people danced. Radio broadcasts with the words ”Live from Avalon casino” sent shivers down listeners’ spines.

Today the Deco-cum-Mediterranean-revival style building houses the museum, art gallery and movie theatre. Nearby, the Tuna Club is the oldest game fishing club in the world.

Finally, it is mandatory to knock back a glass of Buffalo Milk, the island’s signature drink made from vodka, creme de cacao, banana liqueur, coffee liqueur, whipped cream and nutmeg. And not available on the ferry over as far as I’m aware.

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