Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Catalina Story

I`m on vacation having more adventures right now, so to keep you safe and off the streets, here is a story I wrote up a few years ago.



When I was a child, my family frequently made the trouble-frought journey to Catalina island on my father’s pride and joy: an old Chinese junk held together with good intentions and rubberbands. It was so slow, its Chinese name translated into “The Flying Snail”. But sailing on the junk was magical. The sea and sky went on forever. Blue whales and flying fish would swim alongside the boat as seagulls soared overhead. Normal daily habits and rules of behavior did not apply on the boat. It was a discipline-free zone. The only rule on the Flying Snail was “One hand for yourself; one hand for the boat.”

My father was forced to sell his junk when I was seven, so most of my memories of Catalina are a random jumble of those things children find memorable. I remember one weekend when I ate nothing but dry Fruity Pebbles straight out of the box, and I once ate an entire package of Dutch chocolate sprinkles for lunch. I remember swimming in the frigid water and using marshmallows for fishing bait. I remember the spray of salt water and the permeating smell of fuel from the outboard motor. I remember the stench of the bilge and the damp weight of the lifejackets. I remember the gentle rocking of the waves and the swinging Chinese lanterns belowdeck.



When I was older, my parents and I would take the Catalina ferry to go snorkeling off of the Casino. And sometimes I boarded it for school field trips to the little town of Avalon. The Catalina ferry is the most horrible, lurching carnival ride of a boat in existence. It could make the most hardy of sailors hurl. It is the only boat that has ever made me queasy. The ocean playground of my childhood had been reduced to an unpleasant, nauseating trip to a little strip of shops filled with tourist junk. I just stopped going to Catalina altogether. That was twenty years ago.

I was recently gifted with two round-trip tickets for a helicopter ride to Catalina. Last Thursday my mother and I took advantage of the voucher for an overnight trip. I was a little nervous about taking the helicopter. But I had no need to be worried. I’ve had scarier elevator rides. I thought, “I took a Xanax for this?” It was a gorgeous trip. As I looked out over the great blue expanse, I asked my mother if it had been nerve-wracking keeping track of five small children on a rickety boat in the middle of the ocean. She quickly replied, “No. Not at all.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “The only time I ever felt like a bad mother was when your brother fell in.”



We had to share a cab from the helipad to our hotel. The guy sitting "shotgun" had his window rolled down and I was getting blown away by the wind. I gently touched his arm (to indicate that I was speaking to him, and not to the driver) and asked, "Do you mind rolling your window up part way?" He completely freaked out, hissing venemously, "Don’t touch me!! Don’t you ever touch me again!!!" I recoiled, "Woah. Sorry." Maybe he had brittle-bone disease or something.

But my fiesty 70-year-old mother wasn't going to let him speak to her daughter that way, "And I thought I was grumpy!” she exclaimed, “Just praise the Lord there aren't many more out there like him!" After enduring ten minutes of a silent, icy ride, I mumbled to my mother, "We’re in this island paradise and now I'm in a bad mood." She replied loudly, "Well, you never know what people might really be upset about. Maybe his wife beats him. Or maybe she DOESN'T" I'm not sure if it was the invocation of our good Lord Jesus Christ or the accusation of Sado-masochistic tendencies that made him ask the driver to drop him off right there.

The Canyon Resort and Spa was actually a motel, with an Escher-like labyrinth of stairs going every which way up and down the courtyard and a seriously unwelcoming pool area. Since we had arrived well before check-in time, we relaxed in the café. Still a little shaken by our uncomfortable cab ride, I ordered a mimosa. They brought it to me in a pint glass.



We called my brother, who frequently sails to Catalina, and asked him for recommendations. "Well, first, you have to get your Wiki Wacked!!! You have to go to Luau Larry's!”. Now, I had been specifically warned that Luau Larrys was a tourist trap. But there are some touristy activities, such as wearing Micky Mouse ears or getting a hurricane at Pat ‘O Briens, that have become such time-honored traditions they surpass their own cheesiness and become obligatory. When we passed Luau Larry’s we went in for the requisite Wiki Wacker. It didn’t seem watered down, and in conjunction with a pint of Mimosas, I was now officially wacked.

As we wandered along the row of restaurants at water’s edge, we happened upon El Galleon, which looked like an nice classic Italian restaurant. Inside, it had a crazy hodge podge of a decor marrying New Orleans and Tiki Room with a nautical flair. Mardi Gras beads, winches, glass floats and fishing nets hung from the ceiling. Mounted on one wall was an “Alligator Bass”, a hideous Frankenstein of a practical joke, an alligator head fused onto the body of a fish. But the brick walls gave the room a warm feeling, and the old-fashioned wooden booths were comfortable and comforting. El Galleon’s current owners bought the restaurant in 1993, but its actual age was unclear from the printed history, which seemed to imply it had been around since the days of William Wrigley. The menu was not Italian, as I had surmised, but a combination of seafood steakhouse and barbecue. There were some modern touches sprinkled in, such as Panko crumbs and Jasmine rice.

We started our meal with the fried artichoke hearts, which were spectacular. Sprinkled with capers, they rested in a lake of melted butter. I could taste the high quality of the olive oil in which they had been friend.



We continued our meal with cups of scallop chowder. The broth was rich with butter and cream, but the scallops were soft and bland. I missed the toothsome chewiness of clams. The entrée was a more difficult choice. When eating in an unfamiliar restaurant, I usually try to suss out their specialty. Failing that, I look for the unusual. They had a “scalone” sandwich, a combo of friend abalone and scallops (I was later told it is a combo of baby abalone from Mexico and all kinds of random shit). But we were informed that the abalone was frozen, in spite of the tank of live abalone at the entryway. Those abalone are reserved for the dinner special.



The waiter recommended Applewood Smoked BBQ Chicken, but I was too intrigued by the "burnt ends" sandwich. It turned out to be bits of succulent tri-tip and ham in an intense Hawaiian-inspired plum BBQ sauce. The sauce overwhelmed the tri-tip, but with the ham it was a match made in porcine heaven.



After a massage and nap back at the Canyon “Resort”, we headed back out for dinner. Although the fresh abalone at El Galleon beckoned, upon first awakening I am just not ready for unfamiliar seafood.



We went to the much-recommended Armstrongs. There was a huge crowd, but luckily most of the patrons wanted to sit out on the deck, so we were quickly seated inside. The crab-shrimp cocktail was sweet and clean and fresh-tasting. The mahi-mahi was perfectly cooked. I can see why it is so popular. But it wasn’t particularly memorable, nothing really jumped out and bit me.



We had tickets for the flying fish tour later that night. Obviously, the fish don’t literally fly. They glide. The fish jump out of the water to escape predators like tuna, or when freaked out by boats and lights. Their large fins allow them to sail through the air, giving them their name. It is purported that the longest recorded "flight" was a quarter of a mile, but I am dubious. Most fish jump quickly, like shooting stars, but I’ve counted out a few “flights" at 5 and 6 seconds, pretty impressive in and of itself. My husband had thought flying fish were an invention for tourists, like the jackalope. So in his honor, we were taking the tour. As nervous as I had been about the helicopter, maybe I should have been more afraid of the flying fish, considering this excerpt from the “Catalina Islander” police blotter that day:


Rescue 6 and Baywatch were called to assist a person with an eye injury. The patient was struck in the eye by a flying fish while on a tour boat.


We boarded the tour boat at 9:30 pm, where the tour guide confirmed that the flying fish attack had indeed occured on his boat. I asked him if we should throw the fish back if they jump into the boat. He said the fish would develop a fungus and die, so that wouldn’t work. I asked him what he uses to throw them back with if he can’t use his hands. He just looked at me the way people look at kids when they first ask where hamburgers come from.

It was a beautiful night, and even without the occasional thrill of fish-spotting, the boat ride was definitely worth risking eye injury. It was a spiritual experience just being out on the sea beneath the stars and waxing gibbous moon.



We turned in early, which was lucky because the alarm clock in our room went off at 6:30 am Friday morning. Note to self: always check the alarm clock when you check into a motel. But we were happy to beat the rush at the Pancake Cottage. With its pink formica tables and plastic chairs, it reminded me of an old-fashioned cafeteria, or a department-store lunchcounter. The ruffled curtains on the windows made it officially a “cottage”. They had all manner of pancakes, but in spite of the menu saying “mixed inside” for many of the selections, the waitress told me the only kind with the fruit mixed into the batter was blueberry. so I went with that. My mom got the peach pancakes since they were fresh and rarely in season. The pancakes were fluffy and perfect.



The service was a little brusque until my mom declared to the waitress that these were the best pancakes she had ever eaten, which warmed the waitress up a bit. Strangely, there are no restrooms in the restaurant. My mom suggested maybe they had been around since the days of outhouses. But Avalon is a beacon, nay, a shining star of clean public bathrooms that all the world should emulate. So that was no problem at all.

When we tired of shopping, we decided to take the glass bottomed boat. There were not as many Garibaldi or Sheepshead as I had expected. It was mostly Calico bass. And lots of giant kelp. Giant kelp everywhere. Kelp has always freaked me out a little bit. Ever since I read a Tales of the Unexpected where the kelp reaches out to entangle and drown a greedy treasure hunter.



We had lunch at Antonio’s Pizza, easily the most Roadfood-worthy restaurant of our trip. Established in the 1960s, Antonio’s has long been a fixture in Avalon. There is a second location, which also boasts a mysterious “cabaret”, but even the waitstaff admit it is not as good as the original.



We started off with Antonio’s Cheese Crisp, which could be compared to a white pizza. It is described on the menu as:

A thin pizza crust brushed with garlic butter and topped with five cheeses and chopped pepperoncini



The locals ask for Ranch dressing on the side for dipping, an inspired combination. Although my interest was piqued by the Grilled Prime Rib, Bacon and Cheese Sandwich, I was more intrigued by Mamma Mia’s Day-old Spaghetti:

Spaghetti & meatballs in sauce, blended and chilled for aging, then freshly sauteed in olive oil, butter, garlic, mushrooms, onions and Parmesan Cheese, baked and topped
with Mozzarella and Jack Cheese. M – m - m Mamma Mia!




You could not tell how much trouble had been gone to by sight or taste; it was just like regular spaghetti, but good regular spaghetti. Really good regular spaghetti. It was the closest thing to homemade I have ever had in a restaurant. Maybe even better than mine, and I don’t say that easily.

We waited for our return helicopter at the Buffalo Nickel, conveniently located at the helipad. I ordered the mixed fried seafood platter, then headed to the outdoor restrooms. I passed by a family happily eating hamburgers on the patio. I asked how the food was. The mom asked, "Oh, do you work here?" I admitted, " No, I’m just incredibly nosy." They raved about the hamburgers. The fried seafood platter was good, but I judge by New Orleans standards, which is tough competition. I wouldn’t return to Catalina anticipating a meal at the Buffalo Nickel, but it is the kind of place I would be extremely happy to stumble upon when drunk.

Over the years I had forgotten how idyllic Catalina is. I had forgotten how blue the water is and how brightly the sun shines. I can’t wait to return for long days filled with boating and snorkeling. I can even imagine buying a little cottage on the island someday. I just have to remember not to go around touching strange people. On the flight back, I had gotten so comfortable being in the helicopter I jokingly dared the pilot to buzz the Catalina Cruiser. To my shock and delight, he suddenly swooped down over the boat. I turned around nervously to check on my mother, and she was laughing, laughing, laughing.

3 comments:

Bob del Grosso said...

Wow, I loved reading about your childhood experiences on your boat and found myself, naturally, living them vicariously. What a wonderful dream.

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