Think "Catalina," and you picture blue sea, beaches and rugged backcountry. Now there's a new reason to hop on the Catalina Express to what William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum tycoon who bought Santa Catalina in 1919, dubbed "the island of romance." The dazzling blown-glass sculptures of acclaimed artist Dale Chihuly are on exhibit at the new Catalina Island Museum (217 Metropole Ave., Avalon;  510-2414) through mid-December. My husband, Paul, and I were thrilled to experience Chihuly's nature-inspired installations shimmering in the sunlight on the museum terrace, and later, magically aglow under the star-filled sky. During our stay on Catalina, we also discovered more colorful history and unspoiled nature than we could have imagined.
The tab for one night: $240 for hotel; $133 for boat passage; $185 for meals; and $260 for tours and museum, plus taxes.
Avalon, the lively hub of this 22 mile-long island, offers an array of hotels, many dating to the Golden Age of Hollywood when Catalina was a playground for Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and other stars. We stopped by the stately six-room Mt. Ada bed and breakfast to enjoy the spectacular view from what was once Wrigley's hilltop home. The 72-room Pavilion Hotel (513 Crescent Ave., Avalon;  778-8322) was less expensive and ideally located on the harbor promenade. We joined guests in the courtyard for complimentary afternoon wine and cheese and, the next morning, for a generous complimentary breakfast.
Avalon has few cars but plenty of restaurants. We savored fresh local sand dabs at the Bluewater Grill (306 Crescent Ave., Avalon;  510-3474), overlooking Avalon Bay, and tuna tartare at the upscale Avalon Grille (423 Crescent Ave., Avalon;  510-7494). The next day we strolled along the waterfront to the Descanso Beach Club. We felt as if we were on Maui — not a mere 20-odd miles across the sea from Los Angeles — as we had lunch under the palm trees and gazed at the glittering water.
We marveled at the Art Deco murals during a tour of the Catalina Casino, where as many as 6,000 dancers once swayed to a big-band beat in the ballroom. The ornate 1,184-seat theater still shows movies nightly. Later, jouncing along in a bio-fueled Humvee, we explored the wild 88% of the island the Wrigley family deeded to the Catalina Conservancy for preservation. Besides the occasional backpacker and trail biker, we spotted a woolly bison and a Catalina Island fox that was smaller than our cat.
The lesson learned
With so much to do on Catalina — scenic tours, zip-lining, scuba, parasailing and massages in the chic Island Spa Catalina — trip expenses can easily add up. I realized, too late, that I could have saved by pre-purchasing hotel and activity packages at Visit Catalina. Catalina Express offers another irresistible deal: Two-for-one boat tickets if you travel on your birthday.