Last updated: 03:59 PM ET, Thu June 02 2016

Santa Catalina Island’s Fall Luxury Cruise Calls

Destination & Tourism | Melinda Crow | May 31, 2016

Santa Catalina Island’s Fall Luxury Cruise Calls

PHOTO: The Euro-feeling harbor greets cruise passengers arriving on Catalina Island. (Photo by Gary Crow)

Ah, Santa Catalina Island, always the dichotomy between wealth and the common people, the land and the sea, development and conservancy.

Carnival ships unload fun seekers weekly throughout the year, but this fall two luxury liners have scheduled stops in Avalon, the Euro-feeling port town with a long history of Hollywood glam. The Crystal Symphony arrives for the day on Nov. 24, while Oceania's Sirena makes two stops on Dec. 12th and 22nd.

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Jason Laseki, Senior Director of Communications for NCL, Oceania's parent company, described Catalina as, "a perfect port of call for our Mexican Riviera cruises departing from Los Angeles," adding that the decision to make the stops in Avalon during Sirena's all-important maiden season was due to the array of options available to the line's guests. "Catalina has many of the experiences our guests want from a port of call — activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, or playing golf, plus great shopping experiences, art galleries, and a robust collection of fine dining options."     

Where the Stars Shine Bright

The island's 20th century history revolves around chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.'s desire to develop a resort island that would be available to all. He built the landmark Catalina Casino in 1929, not as a gambling casino, but as a gathering place. It features an ornate theater with murals painted by the same artist who painted Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Above the theater is an enormous circular ballroom where island visitors once danced to the music of big band greats like Glenn Miller, Harry James and Kay Kaiser. 

PHOTO: Descanso Beach Club is the place to hang, even in the off season. (Photo Courtesy of Descano Beach Club)

The theater brought Hollywood's Golden Era stars to the island for premiers in the exotic setting that feels far more removed from coastal California than a mere 26 miles. The island and the ocean surrounding it have provided the backdrop for filming of a long list of notable movies including: “Jaws,” “Apollo 13,” “Amistad,” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

As part of the continuing Wrigley legacy, approximately 88 percent of the island is held in a land trust managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, established in 1972 to ensure that the majority of the island's wild inland region is preserved.   

More Than a Beach

While many hear the siren call of Catalina's pebbly beaches, others go for adventure. The clear water and kelp forests along the island's shore have long been known to scuba divers worldwide as the place to swim with seals, sea lions and the brilliant orange Garibaldi fish. Today's Catalina adventurers also hike, bike, and kayak, as well as scream their way across a five-line zip line tour that drops from 600 feet above sea level.

Your Cruise Day on Santa Catalina

Ships anchor off the coast of Avalon, primarily utilizing the port's large tenders to move passengers to shore quickly. Don't expect a port terminal with typical "cruise ship" shopping. Because ferries are the primary transportation method to the island, the pier has a slightly more utilitarian feel than the average cruise port. You disembark just blocks from the center of Avalon, easily accessible on foot or via nearby rental golf carts or taxis.

Arriving on either of the luxury ships in the fall offers the opportunity to enjoy both the off season and off days. The tiny town sees upwards of 6,000 day visitors on peak summer weekends. Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Jim Luttjohann, said that "compared to the day trippers arriving by ferry on weekends, even Carnival's mid-week port days seem quiet."

Carnival's ships deliver just over 2,000 passengers when they are in port, so imagine the experience of Symphony and Sirena's guests, each with capacities under 1,000. Passengers will have the opportunity to experience Avalon almost like a local when they arrive on weekdays as the only ship in port.

If you happen to be among those lucky passengers, you can easily squeeze in a tour of the Casino building, fish tacos in one of many fabulous restaurants in town or at Descanso Beach Club, with time left for an afternoon activity like sea kayaking if the weather allows, zip lining, or a Jeep tour of the backcountry before you return to the ship.

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PHOTO: Fish tacos from Bluewater Grill. (photo by Gary Crow)

There is a nine-hole golf course, wildlife tours, and the new facilities of the Catalina Island Museum to explore. Shopping includes a mix of local art and artisanal jewelry. And of course, this is California, so there will be wine. Imagine visiting Santorini without having to shoulder your way through thousands of other tourists and you begin to get a feel for what these stops on Catalina will offer — a day filled with art, glamor, history, adventure, and amazing views of the sea. And wine. We did mention the wine, right? 

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