`THERE'S our Safeway grocery; they deliver. There's our post office; they don't,'' says the shuttle driver, Bob, on the 12 o'clock leg of Catalina Island's ``Town of Avalon Tour.'' He grinds gears on San Francisco-like hills, wrestles the steering wheel as the bus negotiates hairpin turns on one-way roads lined by palm and eucalyptus trees. Eventually, from a vantage point high above the small harbor, you look down at a square mile of whitewashed bungalows on stilts, Victorian bed-and-breakfast inns, and Spanish-style haciendas with glinting cobalt or burnt auburn roofs. This seaside southern California quaintness seems poured over the steep slopes of but one craggy cove of this otherwise untouched island.
Twenty-one miles long and anywhere from one-half to eight miles wide, Catalina is twice the size of Manhattan, but rugged, mountainous, and rustic. The only town, Avalon (pop. 2,200, with 800 registered cars), might fit on a single large city block. With no buildings more than a few stories high, the town is an architectural mix of rustic Spanish, brightly painted box cottages, and funky California ranch houses with highly individualized designs: tiling, skylights, gazebos, patios, porches, trellises, gates.
The rest of the island is a geologic monolith of scrubby coastal plants, cactuses, shrubs, and contorted hybrid oaks. Ironwood trees grow in the rocky cliff areas, which feature steep dropoffs to inaccessible pebble beaches. Hundreds of bison and thousands of goats, snakes, and foxes roam freely with, surprisingly, a large population of ravens overhead. Fourteen bison were brought to Catalina for co-starring roles in ``The Vanishing American,'' filmed here in 1924; they have since multipled to about 600. Other Hollywood films were made here, including ``Mutiny on the Bounty'' (1935), scenes from numerous Old West and South Sea movies, and the opening segment of the ``Fantasy Island'' television series.
Catalina has the most vegetation and wildlife of the eight channel islands - all formed by wrenching faults 25 million years ago. Eight plants are endemic and unique to the island - the Catalina cherry tree and St. Catherine's lace among them - and tour guides liken the island to the rest of southern California before development. Back in town, guides also play up what Avalon doesn't have: traffic lights, fast-food franchises, and portable stereos (the latter are illegal).
It was the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing from Spain, who first claimed the island in 1542, naming it San Salvador. Sixty years later, another Spaniard named the island Santa Catalina for St. Catherine of Alexandria.
Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley is credited with beginning Catalina's rise as a world-renowned playground. After purchasing the controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company, which owned all the property in 1919, Wrigley invested huge sums of money to attract visitors. Projects included an enormous ballroom casino - the first round structure in southern California. There was also a bird park with ``the largest bird cage in the world.'' Wrigley added thousands of extraordinary birds and invited the public, free. He also set up a baseball field, where his Chicago Cubs trained each spring. Catalina soon became a favorite vacation spot for stars in Hollywood's golden era, and not long thereafter became accessible to the public.
Today, construction on the island is severely restricted by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns 86 percent of the island and seeks to preserve its natural wonder. Housing is so scarce that government-financed developments had to be built to accommodate government employees.
The number of daily cruise ships visiting Catalina from three mainland ports - Long Beach, San Pedro, and Newport - has increased in recent years, according to the Chamber of Commerce. This reflects a general boom that saw the populace grow by one-third since the early 1970s, along with a host of condominium projects, including a federal one offering low-income housing. Some of of these projects have left huge scars in the terrain. ``For years, town planners have heralded a major master plan for the development of Catalina housing, but I've yet to see anything they say pan out,'' scoffs one 45-year resident.
Thirty hotels accommodate 3,000 visitors, many required to stay in three- or four-day intervals owing to the enormous demand that books the entire island for six-month seasons. Visitors must book hotels six months in advance, hotel owners say. The population on a given weekday is 5,000, and it's 10,000 on weekends during the summer, half that during winter. There are also 800 moorings and innumerable anchorings for yachting enthusiasts. A heliport and airport are handling more flights each season, but a seaplane service has been discontinued.
Once on shore, the short-time visitor has numerous attractions. Among these are the small harborside beach, tours of town, island, and bay, and bicycles or golf carts to get around in. There is a riding stable and a nine-hole golf course. All types of restaurants abound, as do both serious and frivolous shops and clothing boutiques. Some are in commercialized arcades, which have an unfortunate sameness. Others are highly individualized, waiting around corners and down alleyways to be discovered spontaneously.
For the hiker, backpacker, and camper, Catalina is considered a paradise, though some have had run-ins with bison and all must make it to designated camping areas - Two Harbors or Blackjack Campsite recommended - before dark. Catalina is also considered one of the prime scuba and skin diving destinations in California, with clear waters, deep kelp beds, and aquatic life forms not seen elsewhere.
Debarking at 11:45 a.m. from the earliest two-hour voyage offered from Long Beach by Catalina Cruises, we signed up for three separate tours, which would nearly fill the time before the last cruise ship returned to the island at 4:30 p.m. We signed up for town and island tours and a glass-bottom boat tour of the harbor. All three move quickly and are full of information, professionally conveyed with lots of humor.
That left just a bit of time to walk the town, sample its stores, and rush back to the cruise ship. Besides restaurants, we missed one prime attraction, the 12-story Avalon Casino, built in 1929 by William Wrigley. Tours take you to the stately rotunda with an art gallery, museum, 1,200-seat theater, and a ballroom that used to swing to the sounds of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and where their modern counterparts carry on the tradition. But not seeing everything in one fell swoop keeps the interest piqued enough to begin planning return visits. Practical information
Santa Catalina Island is 25 miles off the coast of California near Los Angeles. Cruises to the island depart from downtown docks in Long Beach and San Pedro and take about two hours. Fares are $20 for adults and $10 for children. Telephone (213) 514-3838 for exact locations and schedule. For more information on island activities, write to Santa Catalina Island, PO Box 217, Avalon, CA 90704, or call the Chamber of Commerce at (213) 510-1520.