I am ashamed to admit that there are quite a few iconic California destinations that I've never visited (i.e., Yosemite, Death Valley and Big Sur).
There are reasons for this, which usually boil down to a lack of some combination of time and money.
Last week, I was able to cross one such site off my bucket list: Catalina Island, and the picturesque town of Avalon.
I may never have made the trip if I had not been invited to participate on a sponsored fam tour (details in the disclosure at the bottom of this post). I mean, have you ever priced the cost of the 26-mile boat ride to the Island? The round trip fare on the Catalina Express is $66.50 (kids 11 and under ride for $51.00) - so we'd be shelling out $200 just to get there; never mind the cost of an actual hotel room.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that many of Avalon's waterfront hotels include the price of your boat fare in their package rates, which makes a Catalina visit a lot more affordable than I imagined...
...and it's an absolute bargain if you visit midweek during the off-season (roughly from October through May).
We were hosted last week by the Hotel Villa Portofino, described on its own website as "European Elegance on the Oceanfront." Truth in advertising does exist:
According to TripAdvisor, the Villa Portofino is one of 19 hotels in Avalon, a town of just one square mile, with a permanent population of about 4500 (which increases by about 50% in the summer, when seasonal workers take up residence). It's in a prime location on the waterfront - which means that many of the guest rooms have fabulous views.
But that was tough to discern when we checked in Wednesday evening. We were surprised to be handed an old-fashioned key and told that they refer to the rooms by name and not numbers. Ours was the Bella Vista, and we had to walk outside the tiny reception area, and up a flight of stairs.
At that point, we didn't expect much, so we were absolutely knocked out by our room. The bedroom wasn't huge, but the Spanish marble bathroom was. And the room's furnishings made great use of the space: the couch in the small seating area pulls out to a twin bed (perfect for our family of three) -- plus, it had a fireplace (a feature I always appreciate on a cool evening).
The capper was a wrap-around balcony, which we didn't truly appreciate until the following morning, when we were greeted by this view of the bay:
Hotel guests may enjoy a light continental breakfast served in the reception area where we checked in. There are tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk for al fresco dining, but as we had that lovely ocean view from our room, we brought ours back up to take it in from our balcony.
It was nearly 8:00 by the time we arrived on the island, and we were hungry. The Hotel Villa Portofino is attached to an Italian restaurant - but it was not open during our visit (many of the fine dining spots in town close during the off season; hotel manager Candice Middleton told me that the restaurant would be re-opening on the weekend).
Fortunately, there were plenty of choices within walking distance of the hotel. We ended up at te Avalon Grille, one of the town's newer dining establishments. Its casual bistro menu and nice selection of wines and microbrews was exactly what we needed. I was still under the impression that I would be sticking more or less to my Lindora diet and ordered the Cobb salad. My husband sampled the fish and chips, followed by a lovely lemon cheesecake. We both walked away happy.
The following night, we were hosted to a farewell dinner at Steve's Steakhouse, which is the only Zagat-rated restaurant on the island. By that time, I had abandoned all thought of dieting, and thoroughly enjoyed my New York steak (not to mention the wine and crusty sourdough bread that was served before the meal).
We boarded the boat back to the mainland feeling full and happy.
The Hotel Villa Portofino, which hosted our visit last week, is currently offering a tremendous value package: $92 per person (double occupancy) - boat fare included. This package is available Sunday through Thursday until April 14, and while mid-week visits may not be ideal, there's a lot to be said for hitting a tourist spot when there's less likelihood of dealing with a whole mess of tourists.
TOMORROW: Our day with the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Disclosure: My husband and I visited Santa Catalina Island as guests of the Hotel Villa Portofino, the Catalina Express and the Catalina Island Conservancy. I received no compensation for this post. Opinions expressed on my blog are my own.