We were prowling for poltergeists. Shivering in the night and wearing neon glow-in-the-dark necklaces, we three ghost-hunters tramped through Catalina in search of a boozing apparition who perched on a bar stool, a nightgown-clad girl who perished in a 1915 fire, and Oscar winner Natalie Wood.
“Natalie’s spirit is trapped here forever because she died in water,” intoned Lili, our Ghost Tours of Catalina guide. “People see her walking up and down the beach at Two Harbors.” That’s where 32 years ago the sultry screen idol was found under fishy circumstances floating facedown.
Catalina is hauntingly beautiful — with Crayola-colored homes hugging hillsides and yachts bobbing in the bay, it resembles the Italian Riviera. But who knew it was so haunted? As we stood outside the circular Big Band-legendary Catalina Casino, Lili noted that an unlucky laborer fell from above into cement being poured for the 1929 Art Deco masterpiece.
“He’s entombed right there on the second level.” Which, obviously, explains why his specter trolls the men’s restroom.
Now you see why I adore the magical isle of Catalina: It is enchantingly quirky. Where else can you find roaming buffalo, submarine rides, Marilyn Monroe lore, and a ghost named Jerry who hurls produce at shoppers in the tiny Vons market?
And what a throwback. On Avalon’s picturesque waterfront promenade, a nostalgic machine presses souvenir pennies (51 cents each), diners are urged to toss peanut shells on the floor of Antonio’s Pizzeria where the sign outside laments, “Sorry We’re Open,” and captivated crowds watch a candymaker stretch salt water taffy in the window of Lloyd’s confections for the 80th straight year (pre-famous onetime Catalina resident Norma Jeane supposedly worked there). Dung-flinging is also a sport — there’s an annual Buffalo Chip Toss.
Paranormal pursuer Lili, who sidelines as a Steve’s Steakhouse hostess, explained Catalina “is a vortex level 6,” and the magnetic energy instantly relaxes visitors. All I know is that during a recent two-night stay, my husband and I were possessed by this heavenly historical hideaway — on a mud-splattering Jeep Eco Tour to the remote interior we eyeballed bison descended from a herd brought over for the 1924 movie “The Vanishing American,” and at the seashore, we marveled at a 22-karat-gold-flocked cinematic gem — the world’s first movie theater built for “talkie” pictures in 1929.
The lay of the (is)land
After a five-minute stroll from the ferry dock, we checked into the classy-cool Pavilion Hotel “just 14 steps from the beach” and perfectly located along Avalon’s cobblestone pathway across from the kitschy Green Pleasure Pier. Better yet, during the Pavilion’s complimentary wine-and-cheese hour and free European breakfast, guests have the primo people-watching spot.
Lili didn’t know this, but Natalie Wood slept at the Pavilion two nights before she fell (or some speculate was pushed) off the Splendour after a volatile, alcohol-fueled evening with husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken. I’m just glad I didn’t see the “West Side Story” actress at the foot of my bed.
Speaking of (distilled) spirits, you can start exploring 1-square-mile Avalon by slurping a Catalina-invented Buffalo Milk Cocktail at any bar. Then, amble through streets for local flavor — with vehicles restricted on the island, most of Avalon’s 3,700 residents putter around in golf carts, often with dogs comically sitting shotgun.
Neighborhoods are awash with whimsical abodes like a two-story dwelling concocted from boats and a bubblegum-pink cottage bedecked in bird-feeders crafted from old license plates. Teetering on a steep incline is the red-roofed Queen Anne-style Holly Hill House, built in 1890 with the help of Mercury, a lumber-hauling circus horse.
To appreciate the heritage — and wackiness — pop into the Catalina Island Museum. There’s baseball memorabilia from 1921-1951 when the Chicago Cubs held spring training on Catalina (chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. owned both the island and the team), a spine-tingling exhibit about a 1920s “professor” who dug up more than 800 graves of native inhabitants for a skull-and-bones show, and a homage to this celebrity playground — biggies from Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable partied here, and movies such as 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” were filmed on-location.
Next, we took a 30-minute guided tour of the non-gambling Catalina Casino, an exquisitely elaborate Art Deco shrine showcasing the world’s largest circular dance floor, where thousands jitterbugged to Glenn Miller and other big bands. Downstairs is an opulent, silver-leaf-encrusted, still-operating movie theater where Cecil B. DeMille screened his first pictures with sound.
Adventuring above, below
“If you want a souvenir, let me know,” joked our naturalist guide Cesar as we bounced along on an Eco Jeep Tour past unending piles of meadow muffins left by bison in Catalina’s untouched pastoral interior.
Most of the rugged 76-square-mile island is protected, and the only way to see it is to obtain a hiking permit or take a guided tour. Do either or both. Our info-loaded three-hour excursion, run by the Catalina Island Conservancy, provided a wild-and-woolly contrast to civilized Avalon — zipping off-road and edging along panoramic summits, we saw grazing 2,000-pound bison on rolling hills (and learned how they’re given birth control), a shuttered 1800s stagecoach stop, an aviary for rescued eagles and the deserted spectacular craggy coast of Catalina’s backside. Plus we detoured to the quaint 1946-built Airport in the Sky, where we watched a private plane land on a runway atop two leveled mountain peaks.
Back from the backcountry, it was time to yell, “Up periscope!” We boarded the Sea Wolf submarine for the Undersea Expedition, which kind of felt like the eighty-sixed E-ticket Disneyland ride. Only this was legit — at Lover’s Cove, thousands of glistening orange garibaldi fish, calico spotted bass and other shimmery species swam right alongside our portholes, often staring straight into the windows with opal eyes. Giant kelp forests swayed. When a crew member sprinkled fish food into the water, the marine mayhem mesmerized even more. (This is like snorkeling, only you stay dry!)
Return to Spookyville
“There was a produce department manager named Jerry who killed himself,” said ghost guru Lili, as we stared at the exterior of the little Vons. She swore that out of nowhere, produce is thrown at customers’ heads.
“My friend got hit by a bag of bagels,” Lili asserted, ignoring my eye-rolling spouse. “Tortillas are famous for flying off the shelves.”
The next morning, I went into Vons and questioned a produce clerk about Jerry and alleged kale assaults. He hadn’t heard of either but laughed.
Then, I smirkingly asked a checker about the paranormal bagel-tortilla activity. “No,” she dead-serious replied. “It’s the bread. The loaves fly through the air straight at you.”
I think I saw Natalie’s orb in the deli case as I ran out.
If you go
Official website: www.catalinachamber.com. A one-stop resource for all activities, casino and interior tours, lodging options and more. Be sure to check “specials and packages.”
Getting there: Catalina Express ferries leave from Dana Point for the one-hour, 30-minute voyage. Round-trip adults, $76.50; seniors, $70, kids $61, catalinaexpress.com, (800) 481-3470. Ride free on your birthday!
Pavilion Hotel: Rates normally start at $155 a night including wine hour and European breakfast, although check for spring deals. www.visitcatalinaisland.com, (877) 778-8322.
Ghost-hunting: $15 a person, www.ghosttoursofcatalina.com, (310) 502-6131.