Experiencing Beautiful Scenery And The Buffalo Burger
I was on a press trip with about 10 other travel journalists, in a van driven and guided by the Catalina Island Conservancy, the group of workers and volunteers who work constantly to preserve as much of the island’s natural state as possible.
(You see, when people take over a place, we tend to introduce plants and animals not natural to the territory. Some, like the buffalo here, become loveable adopted “locals” while others, like plants that overtake entire areas, become less tolerable than Charlie Sheen. The Catalina Island Conservancy then removes them like a drunk at a bar.)
Years earlier, I was first introduced to the beauty of the island’s interior by the mom of a girl that I was dating at the time. The darling young girl’s parents lived in Two Harbors and her mom put me in a Jeep (I insisted she take off the doors first) and took me on a drive. We went up and down, down and up, through fields of grazing buffalo and wound up at the airport for what she called the best Buffalo Burger on the island. (I’ll get to the Buffalo Burgers in a bit.)
My eyes were wide open the entire time and about the only word I could muster was “wow!” I simply could not comprehend the sudden and dramatic changes in scenery: There were steep cliffs one minute, a near flat plain the next, then a soaring view of the Pacific Ocean from heights that I previously thought only birds could experience.
So when this press trip opportunity came along, I jumped on it faster than Ohio State fans did on Urban Meyer’s bandwagon.
I got excited the instant the van started chugging up the first hill. I was tempted to start asking “are we there yet, are we there yet,” because I could tell I was turning into a kid all over again.
When we arrived at a spot called Cottonwood Beach, I thought I had reached the day’s emotional height. We were on a cliff looking down at a cove with a small patch of sand and seemingly the entire blue Pacific Ocean in the distance. I was with a group, but alone in thought at the same time.
This was exactly what I had come for, to be right there on a day that was so sunny and clear we later saw the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Baldy on the mainland (that’s some 75 miles away, past even downtown L.A.).
Yet something even better was just around the corner.
As the van pulled up to a place called Shark Harbor and Little Harbor, I nearly jumped out of it before it stopped. There are two small beaches, side by side, and our vantage point was from the edge of a steep cliff. We might as well have been in Big Sur, Mendocino or the coast of Ireland. It was spectacular.
I simply could not believe this was Catalina. I could look over my shoulder and see downtown Long Beach, for crying out loud!
When the van did stop, we popped open the doors and three of us – two photographers and myself – went sprinting to the edge of the cliff as if we were teenagers let loose in front of an Apple store. The place was a non-stop photo opportunity, a photographer’s dream, a place where the beauty never stops.
They could have left me there all day and I would have been the happiest guy on the island.
Alas, the trip’s den mother – Leslie Baer of the Catalina Island Conservancy – called us back to the van, like my mom used to call me in for dinner when I was a kid.
Ironically, she was calling us to eat, and this is where the Buffalo Burger comes into play. We went to the Airport in the Sky. Like many things in Catalina that are not on a beach, the Airport in the Sky is on the top of a cliff. And while it has a fairly extensive menu it is the Buffalo Burger that brings in the people; many Southern California private plane pilots fly over just for the day, giving it the name “the $100 burger.”
My travel associate, Rosie, and I agreed that’s it’s worth the expense – and not just because of the burger but also the journey.
It wasn’t long before we saw a real buffalo. At a scenic pond we had passed earlier in the day there was a buffalo grazing by the water. This was very cool indeed. We spent nearly half an hour observing him (or perhaps, her), including being entertained when he (or perhaps her) used a park bench to scratch his or her’s head.
The meat for the Buffalo Burgers, by the way, is imported from South Dakota and not taken from this heard.
As we made our way down the hill – or hills, I should say – we paused to see a couple of the launching pads for new zip lines that are now a part of things to do in Avalon.
Our next stop, or so I thought, was back at our hotel, the soothing Villa Portofino. It was here that we spent the previous night, and this is no drop-the-bags-and-explore crashpad. It’s the kind of place where you open the curtains and doors to a view of the harbor, kick off the shoes, fire up the fireplace, open up the bottle of wine they so thoughtfully put in the room and stay there until someone knocks on the door the next day telling you it’s time to get out NOW!
Well okay, Rosie and I stepped out for a bite to eat, joined by a joyful fellow journalist, Michael from SouthBayFoodies.com. After a belly-pleasing meal, I took them to Luau Larry’s for a couple of Wiki Wakers, the tiki bar’s signature drink. We wound up wearing the straw hats that come with the drink back to the hotel, where the three of us emptied that bottle of wine that was so thoughtfully put in our room.
But I digress. Let’s go back to our press trip, where one big adrenalin rush remained.
Leslie had the van pull over midway down a steep road just outside of town and suggested we disembark. Our initial puzzlement was soon replaced with a collective “oh, wow!”
We were above Avalon’s harbor, seemingly suspended on top of it as if on a trapeze. The spot is rich with photo opportunities and we all climbed over a fence and onto the edges of the hill where we emptied out what remained on our digital camera chips.
Our adventure ended with a steak dinner of sizzling quality and taste – always take the waiter’s recommendation in a good restaurant – at Steve’s Steakhouse, which I had only admired in the past while always choosing a more wallet-accommodating alternative (usually pizza).
What we did is an adventure that any visitor to Catalina can enjoy. Simply contact the Conservancy for one of its tours. (310) 510-1445. Website: catalinaconservancy.org
Just be sure to have plenty of space on the digital camera chip for photos.