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CATALINA IS ADVENTURE ISLAND FOR FAMILIES.

Byline: Jerry Rice Staff Writer

AVALON - Catalina Island is a lot like Disneyland.

That was the sales pitch I gave my three elementary school-age boys so they would look forward to a daylong outing across the San Pedro Channel.

They're familiar with the rides and attractions at the Happiest Place on Earth. And while the only teacups on Catalina are the ones you sip from, the island - like Disneyland - has many attractions that kids will love.

Certainly, there are some major differences that I also told them about. A boat, for instance, doesn't travel well under its own power down Interstate 5 to the place that Mickey Mouse built, but it is the most popular way to get to the land 22 miles off the Southern California coast.

The beginning of our island adventure helped us appreciate the day ahead. Traffic on the westbound 91 Freeway was creeping along as usual on a weekday, but it cleared enough in the car-pool lanes for us to arrive at the Catalina Express terminal near the Queen Mary in Long Beach by 8:15 a.m. - the recommended 30 minutes before our scheduled departure.

Good thing, because the company's next catamaran from here wouldn't leave for two hours and it was already fully booked.

The 300-passenger boats, which also depart from San Pedro and Dana Point, have fairly simple amenities. Seats and tables fill two decks. A small television flickered with spotty reception from Los Angeles stations. But all that was OK because the best views were outside.

Once the boat cleared the breakwater, the channel was wide open. We saw dolphins and porpoises cut through the water, helping make the hourlong journey to Avalon go by quickly.

Since we were only going to spend the day on the island, we decided two activities would give us a good sample of what Catalina has to offer. We chose the 45-minute Undersea Tour, a ride aboard a semi-submersible vessel, and the two-hour Skyline Drive Tour, which takes riders from Avalon through part of the island's remote interior. In other words, a surf and turf experience.

It was a short walk from the boat landing to the Discovery Tours center where you can get tickets for 11 different tours.

Catalina Adventure Tours, which has a small office at the boat landing and another one on the green Pleasure Pier, has 12 tours. Some of its adventures, like the Seal Rock Luncheon and the Sing-Along Bus, are offered only during the peak tourist months of May through September.

With an area of one square mile, just about everything in Avalon is close-by. You can walk along Crescent Avenue from the boat landing to the Art Deco landmark Casino building - and pass most of the shops, restaurants and other businesses en route - in a few minutes, or about as long as it takes at Disneyland to get from the south end of Main Street USA to It's a Small World.

On a busy day, as many as 15,000 people may arrive from the mainland to take in Catalina's relaxed pace. You won't find a traffic signal, but there's no need for one, as the number of cars and commercial vehicles is regulated. Most of Avalon's 3,200 residents walk, bike or drive golf carts.

For kids, of course, ``relaxed'' could mean ``boring,'' but that wasn't the case on this summer day. Pedal boats and kayaks, which are available for rental, appeared to be the most popular choices. And toddlers really enjoyed digging in the sand as their parents sunbathed on a postage- stamp-size beach facing Avalon Bay, which was perfectly suited for the little ones because it faces east, making for small waves. Descanso Beach, on the opposite side of the Casino building, is considerably bigger, but the sand there is a little more gravelly.

Others spent the late morning putting on the miniature golf course or rollerblading.

For us, those activities would have to wait for another trip to the island - the Undersea Tour was about to get underway.

A quick look showed that the vessel was similar to the ones Disneyland used for its submarine voyage, an attraction the theme park closed five years ago. But there was one important difference: This one didn't leak.

The semi-submersibles are relatively new to Catalina, dating back to 1994, but the better-known glass-bottom boats have a much longer history on the island.

``In the 1890s, abalone fishermen put a piece of glass down from their row boats to find abalone easier,'' said Brandon, one of the deck hands on the Emerald, which we were about to board. ``Soon they found out they could make more money by taking tourists out than they could fishing.''

After stepping onto the vessel, passengers pass through a hatch opening and walk down a few steps into a cabin that is about 5 feet below the water's surface.

Once we were situated, Brandon offered everyone a quick warning. ``You don't want to get sick down here because it will turn into a group activity real quickly,'' he said. That didn't happen, fortunately, and there was little chance of it, anyway. The semi-submersibles move slowly and smoothly as they make the short trip to the giant kelp beds at Lovers Cove Marine Preserve.

Once the vessel arrived, the engine noise and vibration were like a ringing dinner bell. Not to disappoint the fish that swam a few feet away - and to attract hundreds more - Brandon and another deck hand tossed them some fish food. Garibaldi, calico bass, mackerel, opaleye, sargo and topsmelt were easy for the kids to spot, thanks to the clear waters and a Catalina Island Fish Finder brochure filled with colorful drawings that everyone received as they boarded.

Brandon was asked why several other varieties on the flier, including sheephead, rockfish, scorpionfish and blackfish, were no-shows on this trip. ``I'm not God, and this isn't Disneyland, so I can't control what we see,'' he said.

Back on dry land, it was time to fuel up before the 20-mile Skyline Drive Tour.

Avalon features a wide variety of places to eat - some with a view, some without. Steak, seafood, Mexican and Italian are among the options. Then there are grilled-cheese sandwiches with potato chips for $4.50 at Joe's Place. Perfect for three-fifths of our entourage. For the remainder, Joe's has a menu that includes pancakes, hamburgers and full meals.

Lunch finished, it was a short hike to the Island Plaza, where four different bus tours depart. The Skyline tour and the much lengthier Inland Motor Tour are great ways to explore the island's interior, most of which is owned and managed by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a private, nonprofit conservation organization.

The area is largely undeveloped and the place where wild boar, goats, deer, quail and other species roam free, along with the island's famous bison, which were first brought over to serve as extras in the 1924 movie ``The Vanishing American.''

Even in the remote interior, there was no escaping elements of Disneyland. Once out of Avalon, the roads are narrow and unpaved, and, as they climb into the mountains, have plenty of hairpin turns - not unlike Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

And Dave Larsen, who narrated the tour, could easily go pun-to-pun with any Jungle Cruise guide. For example, as we passed a dozen or so bison grazing in an open field, he said, ``We tried to hang bells on them because their horns don't always work.'' At the dinky Airport-in-the-Sky, situated atop a leveled-off mountain, he quipped: ``To land here, you really have to be committed. That's why we have a lot more crashes by male pilots than female pilots.''

Between wisecracks, Larsen, who has worked eight years as a tour guide, was an encyclopedia of island information. He offered facts about several of the 396 species of plants found on Catalina, including nine indigenous ones. Briefly stopped on a rise with a spectacular view of the San Pedro Channel, Larsen pointed out that it is the world's deepest. Even the Civil War made it into his spiel when he said that Union troops took over the island to thwart the work of miners thought to be supporting the South.

Near the end of the tour, he summed up the Catalina experience with this gem: ``We have fish that fly and birds that swim. We have a Third Street, but no First, Second or Fourth. We have a liquor store that delivers. Our Vons (grocery store) delivers. Every single establishment on our island delivers - except the post office.''

(He wasn't kidding on that last point.)

Our day nearly over, there was time for dinner and a stroll to the boat landing and the return home. Gift shops screamed out at us, just like they do near the exits at Disneyland, with T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains and other items waiting to be purchased.

The only thing not available was a hat with round mouse ears on top. I guess we'll have to go to Disneyland for that one.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Three boat companies service Catalina Island. Catalina Express has up to 30 daily departures from Long Beach, San Pedro (travel time is about 1 hour) and Dana Point (travel time is about 90 minutes). Cost (round trip from Long Beach or San Pedro): $43 for adults; $33 for children ages 2 to 11. Information: (310) 519-1212 or (800) 618-5533; www.catalinaexpress.com. Catalina Explorer offers daily service from Long Beach and Dana Point. Cost (round trip from Long Beach): $38 for adults; $28 for children 3 to 11; $5 for children 2 and younger. Information: (877) 432-6276; www.catalinaferry.com. Catalina Flyer offers daily departures from Newport Beach. Cost (round trip): $37 for adults; $21 for children 3 to 12; $3 for children 2 and younger. Information: (949) 673-5245 or (800) 830-7744; www.catalinainfo.com.

A quicker way to and from Catalina is via the Island Express helicopter service. Travel time is about 15 minutes from Long Beach or San Pedro. Cost is $121 per person for a round trip. There's a $160 package that includes the Casino Tour and Glass Bottom Boat. Information: (800) 228-2566; www.islandexpress.com.

TOURS: The Santa Catalina Island Co. offers 11 outings under the Discovery Tours banner. They explore several aspects of what the island has to offer. Among the most popular ones are the Avalon Scenic Tour, a nine-mile narrated journey through town; the Glass Bottom Boat; and the Undersea Tour (aboard a semi-submersible), which offers guests a chance to get an up-close look at marine life without getting wet. Others include the Casino Tour, Flying Fish Trip, Moonlight Drive and Sundown Isthmus Cruise. Prices vary, but there is a 25 percent discount if two or more tours are booked at the same time. Information: (800) 414-2754; www.scico.com.

Catalina Adventure Tours counters with 12 outings. Some of those, such as the Avalon Explorer and the Sea View (glass bottom boat), are similar to what Discovery Tours offers. Catalina Adventure Tours also has peak-season outings: Seal Rock Luncheon, Sing-Along Bus and Sunset Cocktail Cruise. Information: (310) 510-2888; www.catalinaadventuretours.com.

ACTIVITIES:

--Bicycle rentals from Brown's Bikes. Information: (310) 510-0986.

--The Catalina Island Museum, on the ground floor of the Casino building, has artifacts that explore the island's history. Information: (310) 510-2414.

--Horseback riding for adults and kids 8 years and older. Three options are available from Catalina Stables, including a 30-minute introductory trail ride for $30. Information: (310) 510-0478.

--Kayaking and snorkeling, including guided kayak expeditions, from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports. Information: (310) 510-1226; www.kayakcatalinaisland.com. Guided kayak tours from Catalina Kayak Adventures, including one on the remote west side of the island. Information: (310) 510-2229; www.catalinakayaks.com.

--Guided snorkeling trips away from Avalon are offered by Joe's Rent-a- Boat. Information: (310) 510-0455.

--Miniature golf on an 18-hole course at Golf Gardens. Information: (310) 510-1200.

--Rollerblading and roller hockey in the old Las Casitas Tennis Courts, which have been converted into a rink. Information: (310) 510-1987.

--The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, with a monument honoring the memory of island benefactor and chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and nearly 38 acres of plant species that can only be found on California islands, including Catalina. Information: (310) 510-2595; www.catalinaconservancy.org.

INFORMATION: (310) 510-1520; www.catalina.com.

ISLE OF FUN

On Catalina Island, there are many activities parents can do with their kids - some educational, and all of them fun:

--Swing Camp Catalina, June 5-8. Dance classes in East Coast, Jitterbug Swing, Lindy Hop, Smooth Lindy and more. Information: (626) 799-5689.

--50th anniversary celebration of the Catalina Island Museum, June 21-22. Activities include big-band music, gourmet desserts, a screening of ``Mutiny on the Bounty'' (which was partially filmed on the island) and the 16th annual Silent Film Benefit. The museum houses more than 100,000 items in its collection, which are put on rotating display, and active educational programs. Information: (310) 510-2414.

--Catalina Summer Arts Camp, June 22-28. Overnight camp for kids entering fifth through 10th grades with artists and educators leading sessions in music, dance theater and visual arts. Other activities include swimming, kayaking, hiking and fishing. Information: (310) 510-7469.

--Conservancy Summer Naturalist Programs, various dates June 28 through Labor Day. Nature walks, hikes and campfire programs led by Catalina Island Conservancy naturalists. Information: www.catalinaconservancy.org.

--Catalina Theatre Festival, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August. Theater performances appealing to adults and kids alike at different Avalon venues. Information: (310) 510-7469.

--Luau Explosion, Aug. 16. South Seas dancing and music with island-style buffet dinner in the Casino ballroom. Tickets: $38 and $65 for adults; $25 and $38 for children. Information: (310) 510-1520; www.westwindproductions.com.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- color) The harrowing hairpin turns of Catalina Skyline Drive Tour will take your breath away, but so will the view of Avalon Bay.

(2 -- color) Paddling around the gentle waters of Avalon Bay in a rented kayak is popular with kids.

(3 -- color) The Undersea Tour reveals a world of tropical fish.

(4) Bicycles provide one of the best ways to get around on Catalina Island for children and adults.

(5) Tours and rentals of all kinds are available at Pleasure Pier.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

(6) Among the art deco-styled Casino building's offerings are the Catalina Island Museum.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer

Box:

(1) IF YOU GO (see text)

(2) ISLE OF FUN (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 4, 2003
Words:2414
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