Isle Be There

Story and photos by Sara Norris

DAY 1

It's 5:30 a.m., and I regret every single drink I had last night as I stuff myself and my trusty sidekick, Karol (she's the one in all the photos), into the car. We're headed up to Long Beach to catch a helicopter over to Catalina Island. What a cool assignment. I can't believe I'm actually getting paid (not much) to do this.

An hour and a half later, we arrive at Island Express Helicopter and check in. After watching a pre-flight safety video, we strap on our fanny pack flotation devices and wait for our helicopter to return from Catalina. As it approaches, I'm half excited and half certain we'll crash into the ocean and be eaten by sharks.

When the helicopter lands, one woman disembarks before the rest of the passengers, runs across the tarmac and tosses her cookies in the parking lot. And then I guess the woman's husband sees the look on my face when I glance up at Karol.

He says, "She got sick on a boat before we got on the helicopter. Don't worry."

Yeah, right. Gulp!

A few minutes later, we're onboard, buckled-in and ready for takeoff. As we climb, the Dana Point coastline begins to fade, and I'm struck by the grandeur of 360-degree water views.

About fifteen minutes later, Catalina Island appears on the horizon. As we approach, sailboats dotting the blue water and white houses stacked along the hillside make it feel as though we've been transported to a Mediterranean paradise.

Back on Earth, Karol and I jump in a cab for the short trip to the end of the road. When we reach the golf cart-only zone, the cabbie, Abel, drops us off, points us toward the Pavilion Hotel half a block away and wishes us a great trip.

Having arrived before check-in time, Karol and I leave our luggage with a kind man named Mariano at the front desk and head out in search of a much needed morning snack.

Strolling down the main strip, we find Coney Island West, an unassuming spot with an outdoor patio and ocean views. Inside, we grab a table and order bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches. Before the food arrives, a man strikes up conversation with us and offers to be our tour guide. We decline, but he remains friendly and smiling - really nice people we're bumping into so far.

A few minutes later, there's an announcement over the loudspeaker: Para la señorita con las arracadas (for the girl with the earrings). That's Karol. Then, two ice-cold cervezas arrive, compliments of our new friend. We smile to him, and then toast to what's already shaping up to be an unforgettable adventure. As we're finishing our beers, Mariano calls from the hotel to say our suite is ready.

When our cab driver said Pavilion was the nicest hotel on the island, he wasn't kidding. This place is posh - king bed, two bathrooms (one with a tub big enough to swim in) and a balcony looking over the ocean. Sweet suite!

After taking a quick break in the hotel room, Karol and I head to the Undersea Expedition, where we board a vessel and then descend a flight of stairs into a room where submerged windows make it feel like we're riding in a submarine.

As the boat pulls away from the pier, it glides through bright green kelp beds. Schools of brilliant orange garibaldi, spotted calico bass and other fish surround us, which prompts a small boy to shout, "Shoo! Shoo! Go away!" The underwater view is moving; Karol and I are giggling. So cool!

On the return to the pier, Karol and I head upstairs to see the view from above the water. All around us, people are parasailing, kayaking, fishing and otherwise enjoying this gorgeous day on the ocean.

Back on land, we refuel with crinkle-cut fries and energy drinks from a little joint called Casino Dock Cafe before walking along the shoreline to the Zip Line Eco Tour, where we sign away our lives on yet another safety waiver. During their safety spiel, guides Brandon and Jake demonstrate the proper way to fly down the zip line with style - and without plummeting to our deaths or losing appendages.

Once harnessed, we board the shuttle bus for the ride to the top of the hill, from whence we'll zip like deathdefying mofos. On the way up, Jake gives us a biology lesson on the plant and animal life we'll soon be soaring over, as well as a history lesson about the island. As we arrive at our destination, I feel like I just learned more in the last 10 minutes than I did during my entire freshman year at college.

When it's time to rock, Jake asks who wants to go first. I volunteer, and he hooks me to the cable. Then, perched 300 feet above a canyon, I take a couple shaky steps before leaping over the edge. My heart is pounding as I fly through the air, holding on for dear life as the wind rushes into my ears.

By my fifth zip - after about every 500 feet or so, you land on another platform and retool to zip through the next section - I feel like a pro. Now, the nerves are gone, replaced by the thrill of an adrenaline rush and the incredible scenery. Bolder members of our group try more daring maneuvers, many punctuated by Tarzanesque screams echoing through the canyon.

All I can say about that must-see/feel/hear experience is "Wow!"

Back at the hotel, Karol and I change for dinner. When we arrive at Avalon Grille around the corner from our hotel, we order drinks while checking out the menu. Pomegranate ginger martinis and dragon berry mojitos, it turns out, go down easy after a day of helicoptering, submarining and soaring above mountains. What a day.

After stuffing ourselves with roasted Brussels sprouts, filet mignon and grilled honey balsamic quail, it's time to call it a night.

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DAY 2

Before heading out for another day of adventure, Karol and I indulge in an incredible breakfast at the Pavilion Hotel - a buffet of fresh fruit, pastries, eggs, strong coffee and toast smothered in Nutella.

Today's first stop is The Catalina Casino, which, despite its name, doesn't have flashing lights, dinging slot machines and chain-smoking gamblers. Instead, Joe the tour guide explains, The Casino is an iconic landmark with nearly a 100-year history. Today, it's a movie theater and event space adorned with sea-inspired art deco murals on the outside. Inside, there's a dome-shaped theater and a beautiful ballroom with sprawling ocean views.

Next up was supposed to be a visit to Dolphin Quest, but high winds and rough waters made seeing Flipper and friends a no-go. Plan B: we head for the East End Adventure Tour, instead.

After boarding an open-air Hummer helmed by our guide, Charlie, we drive off into the hills of Catalina. As we bounce along the rugged dirt trail, Charlie stops at lookout points to show us breathtaking views that provide a different perspective of the island and the coastline below.

Having heard several people talking about the wild bison that roam the countryside here, I'm determined to spot one. Charlie says he'll make it happen, maneuvering down the narrow road and along the edges of the hillside while Karol and I keep our eyes peeled.

Then, as we come around a sharp turn, I spot a bison grazing in the brush. I yell to Charlie, who brings the Hummer to an abrupt halt, but the bison appears to be unfazed by the commotion and the three of us gawking at it. While I'm clicking away with my camera, Karol and Charlie point out a second bison standing in the distance. Mission accomplished.

On our way back down the mountain, an island fox scampers up to the Hummer. No bigger than a house cat, it sits down in the road and looks up at us. Although it's strictly against the rules, Charlie explains, people do sometimes feed the wild animals. He says this one is likely expecting a handout from us. Sorry, buddy, I ate all my fries.

Back at the hotel, Karol and I rinse the off-road dirt from our bodies before heading to dinner at the Bluewater Avalon.

From the restaurant's oceanfront patio, we watch pelicans dive for fish as we sip on spicy serrano pepper margaritas and nibble on a grilled artichoke. Our waitress recommends two specialty entrees: lemon-pepper mahi mahi with scalloped potatoes, and free-range chicken breast with thyme beurre blanc. We order one of each, capping the fantastic meal with a perfect sunset over the water.

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DAY 3

We hit the breakfast buffet before taking a stroll down to the Descanso Beach Club, which has rows of deluxe lounge chairs and private cabanas lining the shoreline of the picturesque cove. Its outdoor bar is the place to party in Catalina.

After catching a few rays at the beach, we hop in a golf cart with Dave Stevenson from the Santa Catalina Island Company for a hardhat tour of Island Spa Catalina and Descanso Beach Club, an oceanfront resort/spa slated to open late this summer. To complete the project, the builders preserved a historical landmark building called El Encanto (the enchanted), retrofitting the property with nine luxurious treatment rooms, a cafe, suites for private parties, a soaking pool and an ocean view.

The Descanso Beach Club will also obtain a banquet facility this fall, receiving a commercial kitchen, bakery, restaurant, banquet room for events and two bar areas to serve beachgoers.

It's almost time to catch a helicopter back to Long Beach, but we can't leave the island without getting our wikis wacked. Luau Larry's is famous for the Wiki Wacker, a potent concoction of light rum, brandy, pineapple and orange juices, and grenadine. It's basically a sugary (and tasty) hangover in a glass that comes with a stylish straw hat and bright orange bumper sticker.

We head back to our suite to pack our bags, bidding farewell to the ever-hospitable Mariano and insisting he pose for a picture with us.

Then it's cab to helicopter to car to The I-5 South and back to reality. What a trip.

Isle be back.

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