Travel Feature Story

Off is On in Avalon

By: Candice Merrill
Published: Thursday, March 10, 2016 | 12:17 PM

How could you not love Avalon on Catalina Island? Beautiful blue water in a circular harbor with hills adorned with quaint cottages, it’s all good. But in summer the crowds can be overwhelming. Why not try the off-season. Lodging is cheaper, restaurants are not as full but often the weather can be just as stunning. On a recent trip we experienced the charm of the town without all of the crowds.

Catalina Express at port in Long Beach

Getting to and from the island is a snap when you take the Catalina Express. Are you driving there? No worries, the Long Beach terminal has plenty of parking. We left on the 10:00 a.m. ship and upgraded to the Commodore Lounge which got us priority boarding and a complimentary beverage (a mimosa please) for only an additional $15.00. If it’s your birthday sail free and make a day of it with your friends and family. The crossing was like glass and we saw Dolphins and sea birds, it really was lovely and stressless.

The first night in Avalon we staying at the Pavilion Hotel for the Unlimited Fun Package which included $100.00 towards a meal at the Avalon Grille or Descanso Beach Club, round trip on the Catalina Express and unlimited Santa Catalina Island Company activities starting at $270.00/person (off-season) based on double occupancy.

Hotel Pavilion

The Hotel Pavilion is steps from the beach and offers one of the most lush lawn and gardens on the island. It has been recently re-designed and is just lovely. Our room was on the first floor and had a plush king sized bed with a semi-private courtyard lanai. High speed internet is available for no charge and an in room coffee maker and refrigerator are a welcome addition. We immediately set up camp on the lanai, I had a facial later in the afternoon and I wanted to take full advantage of our little oasis.

Every morning the Pavilion offers a complimentary European breakfast and every evening from 4:30 – 5:30 p.m., a wine and cheese reception out in the outdoor ocean view lounge. There’s also a fire ring where you can cozy up with your loved one.

Island Spa

After a bit of relaxing it was off to the Island Spa for a Sea Oxygen De-Age facial. Located on a wedge-shaped corner across from the Casino, the Island Spa is built on levels. Once you pass through the doors you enter a tranquil world of a soaking pool, hot tub, lounging areas, the vista deck, a cafe, fitness center and fantastic ocean views.

My facial was 80 minutes long and included a tension-easing neck, shoulder, arm and hand rub. Pure white algae, white wine, white tea, and copper peptides blended with marine-based anti-aging serums to visibly brighten my skin and help reduce pigmentation. Marine-based ingredients were custom-blended to gently remove impurities, hydrate and minimize the appearance of fine lines. I began my treatment looking tired, I finished my treatment looking refreshed.

Diver Scallops

I would have gladly spent another hour or two experiencing the pool and deck but I had dinner reservations and I didn’t want to miss them. We had dinner at he Avalon Grille about a block from the Pavilion Hotel with big windows that looked out onto Avalon Bay. The cuisine is new American and the dishes are based on ingredients that are available seasonally.

We began our dinner with an order of the green bean fries with black garlic aioli. The green beans were crisp-tender and the batter had just a touch of lemon zest. With the accompanied black garlic aioli this was a time I really wanted to eat my vegetables.

Executive Sous Chef, Roberto Hernandez displays Tuna Tartar

Executive Sous Chef, Roberto Hernandez brought a Tuna tartar to our table and explained a little of the restaurant’s philosophy which in a nutshell is quality seasonal ingredients, simply prepared. The Tuna tartar was a testament to that philosophy. Chunks of Ahi tuna sat upon a bed of fresh avocado-cilantro puree. Soy citrus vinaigrette added an acidic counter-point to the smooth rich Ahi.

We also enjoyed the Roasted Mixed Beet salad with a pool of herbed Goat cheese. Crispy kale dotted the top as did Heirloom tomatoes and pistachios. The Goat cheese and the beets were a perfect match and I loved the added crunch of kale and pistachios.

Avalon Hotel Balcony

For dinner I indulged in the Ahi Tuna Burger while my companion delighted in the Diver Scallops. The Ahi Burger was a taste sensation with wasabi aioli, soy glaze, pickled ginger and onion sprouts. The Ahi was chopped, seasoned, and formed into a burger that was cooked to medium, that was one of the things that made this so different. The addition of the pickled ginger was genius as it gave the burger a bite. I heard the patrons at the next table talking about ordering the Ahi Burger and I told them they should.

The Diver Scallops on the other hand were sweet with delicate flavors. Cauliflower puree, crisp apple, baby Heirloom carrots and a sherry glaze all combined to enhance the subtle sweet scallops.

Avalon Hotel, Ocean View Room

Our competent waitress was not going to let us leave without some dessert. Warm Toffee Pudding was awash in a toffee reduction and garnished with spiked raisin rum soaked ice cream. It was simply delicious and I had such a craving for rum raisin ice cream when I got home.

A short walk and we were back in our room ready to relax and unplug until our next day of fun.

The next morning we passed on breakfast although it did look delicious and settled for some coffee on our lanai. Birds darted among the flowers and the sun warmed the air. It really is an oasis off the boardwalk.

View from the Patio at Descanso Beach Club

We were due to check into the Avalon Hotel so we packed up and walked some blocks to our new abode. The Avalon Hotel is a boutique hotel with a completely refurbished interior with craftsman furniture and fixtures. It is a taste of old Catalina. There is a large patio on the roof with a 360 degree view of the harbor and surrounding hills.

Our room had a long patio with a bench and table and chairs and a beautiful view of the water. We had a cushy bed with a microwave and refrigerator and in room coffee maker. High speed internet is available for no extra charge. After acclimating ourselves we were off to lunch at Descanso Beach.

At the Descanso Beach Club you can choose to have a bite on their ocean view patio or rent a cabana or chaise and have it taken to you on the beach. We sat at a table with the most beautiful view. A cruise ship was in port and we had a wonderful view of the casino and beach. There are plenty of umbrellas if, like me, you’d rather not sit in the direct sun. They have a large variety of specialty cocktails, wine and beer.

Burger with all the fixins

We started with the Mochiko battered popcorn shrimp with garlic aioli. Battered shrimp fried to a crispy goodness filled a bucket. A squirt of lemon juice and a swipe of garlic aioli made a tasty combination and these shrimp disappeared quickly.

I ordered the Chili Lime Spiced Fish Tacos and my companion the Angus burger will all the trimings. My fish tacos were topped with avocado puree and cilantro slaw. The fish was marinated and grilled and the slaw was tart and savory. A touch of the roasted tomato salsa made the dish complete.

The burger on the other hand was piled high with bacon, avocado slices and cheese. The patty was substantial and grilled nicely.

We lingered as long as we could since the air was warm, the breeze cool and view amazing but we were off to an adventure; the Ocean Runner. Leaving the green pier the Ocean Runner is a trip into the Catalina Channel on a speedy Ribcraft-the same boat that the Navy SEALs use. The rigid inflatable boat speeds out into the Catalina Channel on the hunt for sealife. Click for Dolphin video

On our trip we saw two species of Dolphins and a Fin Whale! I was so excited I tried video taping the whale but I kept my finger over the lens. I’ve been out whale hunting before and this is the first time I’ve seen one. Of course the guides can make no promises on what you will see, but just the exhilarating trip into the channel alone is worth it. Be sure and bring a jacket because no matter how hot the day it does get cold on the water.

After our exciting trip I needed to get back to our room and see if I could comb the knots from my hair so we headed back to the Avalon Hotel. The cruise ship was getting ready to leave the harbor and it was fun to watch it make its slow turn and head out to sea. The sun was going down and I decided to head up to the rooftop deck to watch the show. After the sun when down a full-moon came up and it was time for us to have dinner at a local Mexican Restaurant; Maggie’s Blue Rose.

Duck Taquitos with Mole Sauce

Maggie’s Blue Rose has a full bar and a long list of Margaritas along with an extensive menu of Mexican specialties. I had done my homework on this restaurant and just knew that I had to start my meal with the Mole Braised Duck Taquitos. Tender duck legs were slowly braised in house-made spicy sweet mole sauce. Why has no one thought of duck and mole before? It’s a match made in heaven. The spicy sweet mole was the perfect foil for the rich duck meat. The duck-mole combination was also offered in enchiladas and it was all I could do not to order them but I knew I should try something different.

My companion ordered the Rosa Azul Platter for dinner. A lobster enchilada in a Poblano cream sauce, a chili relleno topped with shrimp and a Bajo fish taco with beans and rice. Wow, what a full plate of yumminess. The shrimp on the relleno were large and grilled and the chili was quite spicy. The lobster enchilada was rich and creamy and the fish taco was full of fresh grilled fish.

Rosa Azul Platter

I chose the Avocado enchiladas full of fresh ripe avocado, cheese and onions all smothered in a Poblano sauce. If you are a vegetarian this would be the dish for you, pair it with the vegetarian black beans and cilantro rice and you are all set.

It was back to our room for a good-nights rest. We were leaving the next day at 3:45 p.m. and we still had a lunch scheduled for the next day.

Tuesday is quiet in Avalon. The businesses stay open on Monday for the cruise ship so some of them are closed on Tuesday, but there were still plenty to look through for souvenirs of my trip. We left are bags at the hotel and wandered around until it was time for lunch at a local favorite, The Lobster Trap.

Steamed Artichoke and Smoked Albacore: a winning combination

The Lobster Trap is a fun local hangout that features fresh fish. The owner himself traps lobsters, hence the name. There is part of a boat in the dining room and funny pictures with colorful sayings over the bar. I’ve been there before and I was really craving their smoked albacore appetizer of solid white meat albacore served simply with tartar sauce and lemon. We paired this with the steamed artichoke and found it a winning combination. The smoky, salty albacore complimented the creamy artichoke perfectly. Try it, you’ll like it.

For lunch I went for the breaded calamari sandwich and my companion for the seafood combo fried fish plate. The calamari was just what I hoped for; tender and crisp with a sweet taste. It was served simply on a wheat bun with tartar sauce with lettuce and tomato on the side. French fries completed the dish.

Seafood Combo

The seafood combo was a fish-lovers dream with scallops, shrimp and pieces of fresh white fish all breaded with cracker-meal and fried to a golden brown. All the fish is fresh so the combination changes with what the catch was that day.

We ended our trip sitting in the courtyard of the Avalon Hotel watching the hummingbirds buzz through the air. I also got to feed the Hotel’s pets; a large pool of large and very tame koi. I was a little apprehensive at first but it was a real trip. There are these pellets that they like and you fill you hand with them. The fish come and suck out the pellets. I was able to pet them and they all have names. It was a lot of fun.

The 411:

Catalina Express, Departures from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point,
(800) 613-1212, www.catalinaexpress.com

Pavilion Hotel, 513 Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(877) 778-8322, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/hotels-packages/avalon/pavilion-hotel

Island Spa, 163 Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-7300, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/island-spa-catalina

Avalon Grille, 423 Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-7494, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/dining-nightlife/avalon/avalon-grille

The Avalon Hotel, 124 Whittley Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-7070, www.theavalonhotel.com

Descanso Beach Club, 1 St. Catherine Way Avalon
(310) 510-7410, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/dining-nightlife/avalon/descanso-beach-club

Ocean Runner
(800) 626-1496, www.visitcatalinaisland.com/activities-adventures/boating/ocean-runner

Maggie’s Blue Rose, 417B Crescent Avenue, Avalon
(310) 510-3300, www.maggiesbluerose.com

The Lobster Trap, 128 Catalina Street, Avalon
(310) 510-8585, www.catalinalobstertrap.com

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