Small Wonders

The islands of Catalina, Monhegan and Madeira charm visitors with their distinctive personalities.

January 20, 2002|By ELLEN UZELAC | ELLEN UZELAC,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What is it about islands? For most of us, islands aren't a part of our everyday but something we treat ourselves to in our travels. By nature, they are standoffish, yet we are drawn to them by currents we don't always understand. Maybe it is their inherent mystery. Maybe it is their geographic remove.

Over the years, I've journeyed to Ellis and Alcatraz, national icons with stories to tell. I'll never forget searching for mention of my grand-parents in Ellis Island's archives or walking against a fierce wind on that rock known as Alcatraz. Here at home, we have Smith, Tilghman, Eastern Neck and Solomons, among others -- our own set of island treasures floating in the Chesapeake. On islands.com's listing of popular favorites: Seychelles, Nassau, Kauai, New Zealand, Bermuda and Bora-Bora.

Islands are amazing things, formed in different ways. The Earth's plates pop up islands when they nudge together or move apart; the Philippines and Japan were produced that way. Other islands are built as coral reefs grow, and, in all cases, sea level plays a role.

America's famous island chain, Hawaii, was created from volcanic eruptions. In fact, scientists have identified a new volcano forming off the big island of Hawaii, named Loihi, that lies 3,000 feet below sea level but will someday rise up to become the newest island in the chain.

Even as new islands are forming, others are beginning to disappear as global warming causes the sea level to rise, placing our flattest islands in jeopardy.

I have my favorite islands, offshore retreats I know I'll visit again: Catalina, off the California coast; Monhegan, the artist's and nature-lover's colony in Maine; and Madeira, a Portuguese territory that's closer to Africa than Europe. Each has assumed a place in my family folklore, Catalina especially. One of the last times I was there, I spread my mother's ashes in its waters.

These islands couldn't be more different from one another. Catalina offers a reminder of what Southern California was like before it was paved over. Quirky Monhegan? Its natural beauty is astonishing, but the thing that makes it special is the village life and a cast of characters you couldn't make up. As for Madeira, it's an Atlantic Eden -- incorporating all that is best about Portuguese traditions into a subtropical, albeit steep, paradise.

Here's a guide to my three favorite islands.

Discovering Catalina

Who can believe this is Southern California? No rush-hour commute. No gridlock. No cars to speak of. At the moment, in fact, there's a 10-year waiting list to own a car on the island, where golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation.

Just an hour's boat ride from the Los Angeles harbor, I have traveled to Catalina at least a dozen times. I've seen it in all seasons. Yet every time I first spy the island from my perch on the boat, I feel a sense of discovery.

Catalina was a popular getaway in the 1930s and 1940s when couples ferried over to dance to the big-band music of Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman in the famous Casino Ballroom, an art-deco landmark. Relatively little has changed in Avalon, the island's quaint and only town, since then.

I've always thought that Avalon, a square-mile village of colorful cottages, tiny streets and a beachfront promenade, would be at home in the Mediterranean. In part it's the colors -- a sun-dipped palette of pastels rubbing up against a blue sea. Then there's the stately red-roofed Casino, a Mediterranean and Moorish architectural concoction that stands sentry on the shoreline. It has been the town's social and cultural center -- though never a gambling casino -- since 1929.

Just 22 miles from the coast, Catalina gets busy on weekends and summers, when the population, normally 3,200, swells more than threefold. But it's a nice, quiet escape during the week, if only for the day.

There's plenty to see in Avalon -- the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, the Casino with its art-deco murals, the pueblo-style home (now a hotel) of Western writer Zane Grey, and the Chimes Tower, which has sounded every quarter-hour since 1925. Also check out the kiosks at the pier, which have information about kayaking, scuba diving and boat rentals.

A lot of visitors don't venture beyond Avalon, which is a shame. The island's craggy, steep interior is host to an abundance of wildflowers (the rare tree poppy, sticky monkey flower, the California lilac and the Catalina mariposa lily), birds (the bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon and pelican), and animals (the Channel Island fox, native quail and rattlesnake). The island is also known for a herd of about 200 buffalo, first introduced in 1924 for the filming of The Vanishing American, based on a Zane Grey western.

Several inland motor tours originate in Avalon and journey through the island's mountain ridges and canyons to the aptly named Airport in the Sky (elevation 1,602 feet). It's there that you'll really appreciate the coastal views.

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