Experiencing “VolunTourism” First Hand on Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island — or Catalina, for short — is Southern California’s very own island paradise.  Just off the coast of Los Angeles County, the island is visited throughout the year by tourists wanting to snorkel, scuba dive, or just relax in the quaint, picturesque town of Avalon.

The scenic interior of the island is getting more exposure, though, thanks to volunteer vacations being offered by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Vacation packages offered by the Conservancy serve more than one purpose, creating a win-win situation for the non-profit organization and adventurous visitors.

First, the Conservancy receives the help it needs to fulfill its daunting mission: restoring and preserving more than 40,000 acres of Catalina Island.  And second, volunteering vacationers get a rare opportunity to experience the beauty of Catalina Island’s interior while also lending a much appreciated hand.

One of their most popular arrangements is the Villa Volunteer Package with the Villa Portofino Hotel.  The package includes:

Recently, I was invited by the Conservancy to visit Catalina Island to learn more about their volunteer programs and conservation efforts.  Here are some highlights from that trip.

The trip started with a ride from Long Beach to Avalon via the Catalina Express.  The high speed catamaran Jet Cat Express makes the 22 mile trip in just about one hour.  During the trip, refreshments and satellite television are available on two decks.

The Jet Cat Express, one of the Catalina Express fleet's high speed catamarans.

The Jet Cat Express, one of the Catalina Express fleet’s high speed catamarans.

Once in Avalon, I made my way to the comfortable Villa Portofino Hotel.  Locally known as The Portofino, the cozy hotel partners with the Conservancy to house volunteering visitors.  With plush beds, fireplaces, and deep tubs — perfect for soaking after a long day in the sun — staying at the Portofino is far from roughing it!

The Villa Portofino Hotel in Avalon, CA.

The Villa Portofino Hotel in Avalon, CA.

After a peaceful night at The Portofino, the tour started with a ride from Avalon into the interior of the island.  I traveled with representatives from the Conservancy and other writers visiting the island.  The views were amazing!

A View of Avalon from the interior of Catalina Island.

A View of Avalon from the interior of Catalina Island.

Traveling into the interior of the island, we stopped to meet volunteers tending to plants native to the island — including a growth of Catalina Mahogany, the rarest tree in North America — and more volunteers repairing fences.  These volunteers were long term contributors to the Conservancy, either has full time employees or students volunteering for a few months through AmeriCorps.

Listening to them describe the rare plants and animals — some of them only found on Catalina — was captivating.

Moving even further into the island, we reached the Ackerman Native Plant Nursery. The Conservancy uses this facility to grow plants native to the island before planting them in the wild.  Visitors choosing the Villa Volunteer package spend most of their time here.

The James A. Ackerman Native Plant Nursery.

The James A. Ackerman Native Plant Nursery.

Quoting the Conservancy’s website, “Volunteers receive training in the horticulture and ecology of Catalina’s varied flora and tasks are tailored to all ability levels.  Volunteers are welcome every Thursday year-round from 7:30am – 12:00pm. Typical projects include seed germination, seed collection, plant propagation, weeding, light construction, and nursery maintenance.”

Leaving the Nursery, our trip continued across the wide open expanse of the island’s interior.  We continued across plains, down into valleys, and up over peaks that provided views of the Pacific Ocean and the mainland off in the distance.

One of the real treats was the view of Cottonwood Beach, an almost mystical view that goes unseen during the typical visit to Catalina.

Our midday stop was the perfect location for lunch:  the DC3 Gifts & Grill located at Airport in the Sky.  At an elevation of 1600 feet, the cafe and airport rest on one of the highest peaks on the island.

Outside the Airport in the Sky and DC3 Gifts & Grill

Outside the Airport in the Sky and DC3 Gifts & Grill.

Known for their buffalo burgers, the DC3 Grill is frequented by pilots that fly into the airport just to sample their cuisine.

The buffalo burger from DC3 Grill & Cafe at Catalina Island's Airport in the Sky

The buffalo burger from DC3 Grill & Cafe at Catalina Island’s Airport in the Sky.

Oddly enough, as we made our way back into the city, we came across one of Catalina’s animal inhabitants: a wild, free roaming bison.  Fortunately for us — and for him — the native animals aren’t farmed for the buffalo burgers at DC3.

One of Catalina Island's Wild Bison

One of Catalina Island’s Wild Bison.

Having made the trek around the island, chatting with the volunteers along the way, visiting the nurseries, and seeing Catalina’s wildlife first hand, I had a new appreciation for the natural beauty of Catalina Island’s vast interior.

For more information on the Villa Volunteer Package and other volunteer options including beach clean up on the windward side, invasive weed removal, and “fencewalking” exclosures — that is, tending to fences that keep bison and non-native mule deer out of recently burned areas — visit the Catalina Island Conservancy website.

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About the Author

Michael loves grilling, rum, and has a weakness for key lime pie.

2 Responses to “Experiencing “VolunTourism” First Hand on Catalina Island”

  1. Fabulous story on Catalina, Michael.