California: Coastal pleasures in southern Los Angeles

To the south of Los Angeles, Orange County’s blingy coastal sweep comprises a necklace of gleaming seaside resort towns, including surf-crazy Huntington Beach, Newport, San Clemente and Laguna Beach, a cliff-and-cove studded enclave of celebratory living in style.

A sunset stroll at Laguna Beach is like stepping into a vivid painting, aesthetically rich with its snug coves, dramatic Amalfi-like cliffs, deep blue seas and art-filled waterfront parks.

Partly hemmed into canyons and partly strung across towering coastal bluffs, Laguna is topographically compelling with 30 designated beaches and coves to take your pick from.

I stayed two miles south at Montage Laguna Beach, a luxurious oasis of resort-style comfort. Set on an oceanfront bluff with sweeping panoramas, the resort’s striking Craftsman-style architecture is strung across 30 lushly landscaped acres. My elegantly appointed guestroom was decorated in an inviting turn-of-the-century style, with dark wood furnishings, white crown mouldings, stylish light fixtures, muted colour schemes, and authentic artwork by noted California artists. The private ocean-facing balcony delivered a precision sunset view.

The resort adjoins a radiantly beautiful public walkway that loops around the bluffs, overlooking the azure ocean, craggy coves and sandy shores. Immaculately landscaped and ablaze in bougainvillea, I could have sworn I had been whisked away to the clifftops of the Amalfi Coast.

The hotel is a proud member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, the world’s largest independent hotel brand with more than 750 one-of-a-kind member hotels, resorts, and residences across 85 countries. Become an iPrefer member and receive free Internet, room upgrade, priority early check-in, late check-out, and points for free nights at this hotel. For the very best deals and seasonal specials, check out the iPrefer app, which includes member rates and rewards, or book direct at www.preferredhotels.com

I escaped from the mainland on a day-trip to one of Southern California’s beloved jewels, Catalina Island. There’s a variety of fast-ferry services that operate from various ports. I plumped for a day-return service from Dana Point, just 15 minutes south of Laguna Beach.

After marvelling over the frolicking dolphins during the one-hour crossing, I arrived into Avalon and its crescent-shaped harbour, edged by golden sand and palm trees, and backdropped by steep-sided hills. Had I been whisked to away to the Mediterranean? The clean air, crystal clear water and blissful absence of traffic cuts an instantly seductive impression in this old-school bastion of laid-back charm.

With a permanent population of just 4000, vehicle numbers are strictly limited and there’s actually a 17 year waiting list to be granted a permit to drive one here. Renting a golf cart is your best bet, for cross-island pursuits. Or the bus. It’s how the island rolls. It’s a red-letter year for Catalina because they’re celebrating the centennial of the Wrigley family’s ownership and development of the island. Yes, William Wrigley Jnr, the chewing-gum kingpin, purchased the island in 1919, and successfully developed it into a year-round pleasure island. The Wrigley family continue to remain a powerful preservation influence today, vesting 88% of the island in their non-profit foundation, the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. From 1921 to 1951, Avalon was the spring training ground of the Wrigley-owned Chicago Cubs, which helped spruik the island as a glamour getaway.

During Hollywood’s golden age, it became the sojourn of choice for solitude-seeking movie stars, including Laurel and Hardy, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin. Hollywood also flocked here to shoot productions, a glorified back-lot for Tinsel Town, with one of the most notable classics being Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Over 500 productions have been filmed on-location ever since, with Avalon’s movie-set good looks often doubling as a South Pacific tropical island. The Catalina Island Museum is a do-not-miss, lustily showcasing its proud silver screen legacy and also staging a lively roster of temporary exhibitions. Houdini and Jaws have just been featured. They’re currently staging a magnificent centennial exhibition on William Wrigley Jnr.

One of the quirkiest sights on the island are the roaming North American bison. About a dozen of them were freighted over to the island in 1924 to be used in a Zane Grey film. They bred like rabbits and a herd of around 200 bison still free-roam the island’s interior wildlands today. Avalon’s legendary landmark is the iconic Casino building, which William Wrigley commissioned in 1929, as attention-seeking tourist bait. This astonishing art deco building is 12 stories high, a veritable entertainment palace, with extraordinary murals adorning the soaring façade.

On the lower level, the sumptuous Avalon Theatre was the USA’s first cinema designed specifically for talking pictures, while the biggest head-turner is the world’s largest circular ballroom. Big bands and jazz concerts still stir this storied venue to life. The Catalina Island Company operates a variety of tours and activities. If you’re short on time, the Avalon Scenic Drive delivers an incisive overview of the headline sights, with an enlightening on-board commentary.

As a keen hiker, I was excited to discover the island is criss-crossed with over 160 miles of walking tracks, not that you have to be a gonzo hiker to enjoy Catalina’s scenic grandeur. My favourite short trek is the Garden-to-Sky Trail, a two hour return hike to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Gardens. The payoff is the dazzling panorama. The gardens were developed by Ada Wrigley, showcasing plants endemic to California’s coastal islands. William Wrigley built the memorial as his final resting place. He was indeed buried here for a few years, but his family decided they didn’t want his grave to be a tourist attraction so they relocated his remains to Forest Lawn in Glendale.

A shorter walk is the one hour return hike up Mt. Ada to the old Wrigley homestead, for postcard-perfect views over the horse-shoe curve of Avalon. Cool off with a Buffalo Milk, Catalina’s signature cocktail, named after the bison that roam the hills. It varies from bar-to-bar but generally tastes like a white Russian with some fruity extras. Original Jack’s Country Kitchen and Bakery is a great spot for lunch. For lunch on the run, the bakery’s bolillos are irresistible. Fronting the beach, Crescent Avenue throbs with a myriad of schlocky souvenirs. For something a little more discerning, buy some Catalina tiles. Blending art deco, Moorish and Mexican influences, the Catalina design decorates many public spaces and a tile or two, crafted from local clay, makes for the ideal Catalina keepsake.

Now in its 90th year of continuous service, I flew to the USA with Hawaiian Airlines. From Laguna Beach, I drove up to Long Beach Airport, a remarkably stress-free airport experience, for my flight to Honolulu. After dropping off my rental car, it was literally a 30 second walk into the departures hall. From the moment you step on board, you will experience the airlines’ signature hospitality and Aloha Spirit of the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaiian Airlines operates new 278-seat, Airbus A330-200 aircraft and flies five times weekly from Auckland to Honolulu. Flights depart Auckland late evening, landing in Honolulu by mid-morning, ideal for onward connecting flights to the mainland. All fares and classes include excellent meals and beverages, on-demand seat-back entertainment and a generous 64kg free checked baggage allowance. (2 bags x 32kg per piece.) Hawaiian Airlines flies from Auckland to Honolulu and onward to 14 U.S mainland destinations, including Long Beach, California. Book directly at www.HawaiianAirlines.co.nz

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