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Laguna Beach/Catalina/San Diego
It all began back in late 2005 when our friend Bob told us he and his girlfriend Ditas were getting married at a resort in San Diego. It sure sounded like a good reason to plan a vacation in the area, so that’s what we set out to do, making sure we would be in close proximity to the wedding party on the assigned date.
Lori spends an obscene amount of time “armchair traveling” on the Internet and by this time had amassed quite a few bookmarks of places she wanted to check out. She has been wanting to go to Catalina for several years and each year faithfully orders the updated annual guidebook published by the local Chamber of Commerce, so we decided we would finally visit Catalina, along with a couple other spots.
We stayed at three inns, which we wrote in more detail in our inn section of the website. You can read the write-ups for Casa Laguna in Laguna Beach, Hotel Metropole on Catalina Island, and Pacific Terrace in San Diego.
We arrived at San Diego’s airport in mid-afternoon and gathered our luggage. The rental car was quite a bit larger than we thought – in fact, it was a freaking tank (a very large SUV). We decided right away we would go with something smaller in the future. As usual, we had rented a vehicle from Hertz with its Magellan GPS (we have nicknamed it Maggie) which we always do when renting a car. (We also print out directions from the Internet just in case.) Maggie got us on a direct route, and we arrived at Casa Laguna Inn and Spa in Laguna Beach in a little over an hour (we hit a little Saturday afternoon traffic). The parking was scary. Anything bigger than a car can’t really fit in the lot, so we ended up parking Bubba (what we nicknamed the SUV) on a very steep hill right next to the lot with the parking brake on.
A friendly member of the staff showed us to our room. The grounds are very well kept, but there are a number of steps and wouldn’t be a good option for people who have difficulty getting around. The inn is Spanish architecture, with ref tile roofs, lots of plants, and fountains. We quickly changed and went to the pool. The pool is small but beautifully landscaped and perfectly situated – it is extremely inviting. There was a shortage of towels, so Lori went to the front desk and asked for more. Apparently they were doing laundry; a fresh pile appeared in 10 minutes. Admittedly some guests seemed to think they were entitled to 4 towels each, which helped to explain the shortage.
Our room was the Laguna Suite. It sits right on the highway and didn’t actually have a balcony – more of a “Juliet” balcony that you can only stand on. The coastal highway is right there and the traffic is fairly loud. The living room actually looks over the highway, which is a good idea, because it served as an effective buffer zone at night versus the noise of the traffic. The suite had a neutral décor – crisp white softened by green and bamboo/wicker/sisal accents. The living room had windows and the sliding door to the “balcony.” The windows were very difficult to open. There was a ceiling fan, sofa, chair, table, TV, DVD, refrigerator, bar sink, and microwave. The bedroom had a VERY comfortable king size bed. There was a see-through gas fireplace between the living room and bedroom (but it was too warm to use it in September). In the bedroom was an armoire with a TV, chair, end tables, wall unit air conditioner (for the entire suite), and ceiling fan. On the other side of the bedroom was a very spacious bathroom – a corner whirlpool under a window with shutters which looked into the bedroom. There was a large corner shower, pedestal sink (not Lori’s favorite because there isn’t anywhere to put anything), a caddy that had bath supplies, a separate water closet that contained the toilet, and a spacious closet where we stored some suitcases. Casa Laguna supplies surprising large containers of nice bath amenities – shampoo and conditioner, and even bath salts and ear plugs. There was a window to the outside with shutters and a night light.
The inn serves wine and cheese from 5-7 p.m. daily. Note that this is more than just a couple bottles of wine and cheese – there are white and red selections, along with inn-made sangria, iced tea, lemonade, and a nice selection of appetizers (quite a spread). From 8-10 p.m. daily the inn serves cookies and cordials.
On our first evening, we took the free shuttle one mile down the hill to town for dinner at the Brussels Bistro. Keith had white asparagus with eggs mimosa, steak tartare with salad and frites, and Lori had the appetizer sampler – shrimp crouettes, frites, gouda, and crab cakes. These were easily the best frites (fries) ever! The restaurant is downstairs with brick walls and has a European bistro feel to it. The owner even came out and chatted with us. Afterwards, we walked around, went down to the beach, and walked halfway back up the hill, then caught the shuttle the rest of the way. We soaked in the tub for awhile, then headed to bed.
The electricity went off during the night – we could tell because the air conditioner stopped. We kept the windows shut and things were fine. It came back on around sunrise. Breakfast is served from 8-10:30. Since we were still on East Coast time, we were up on the early side. We first helped ourselves to sesame bagels and fruit and were served mimosas. Keith had the omelet de la Casa (spicy) and Lori had the quiche verde (southwestern). The first part of our trip was intended for relaxation, so after breakfast we changed and went to the pool. We observed more grounds upkeep around the pool.
Early in the afternoon we took a shuttle into town. It was a bright, sunny, beautiful day (typical of southern California, especially in September) and we decided to have brunch at C’est la Vie. We sat outside overlooking the ocean. We were initially in the sun, but opted for a table with an umbrella as soon as one was available. Keith had the Cajun Benedict with andouille sausage and peppers, and Lori opted for the benedict with avocado and shrimp. Our brunches came with a complementary glass of champagne and we also got frozen margaritas (peach and mango).
We shopped a bit and ended up back by the pool at the inn. The wine and cheese spread actually ended up being plenty for dinner. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the tower and returned later for cookies and cordials.
We reversed our breakfast order on our second morning then spent some time reading around the sparkling pool. This was Labor Day and the free shuttles had ceased, so we drove Bubba into town. The darn thing was so big that we were allowed to park in a special parking lot. We ended up at the White House for lunch where we had excellent burgers and cold beer. There was supposedly a reggae festival that day but it sounded like “white reggae” to us. Afterwards we stopped at Ralph’s supermarket for champagne and some food for dinner (snacks and pizza to heat in the microwave).
At 4 p.m. we went to the basement of the Mission House (the main building of the inn where the meals are served), which is where the spa is located. We had booked a couples massage. We enjoyed side-by-side 90-minute massages, and then were led up to the private circular whirlpool, which was about 10 steps above the pool. We soaked in the tub and sipped champagne as we watched sun start to drop over the waves. We managed to miss most of the 5-7 wine and cheese social hour, but did get there in time to sample some very tasty Euphoria cheese from Oregon. We made it up to the tower to snap some pictures of the sunset, then went back to our room where we had our dinner and watched TV.
We had to get up a little earlier this morning and miss breakfast, but we had time for bagels before we checked out. We took a short 15-minute drive south on the coast highway to Dana Point Harbor. We had made reservations for the ferry, but we still had to wait in line to get our tickets. (Note that reserving the ferry is an absolute must if you want to be sure there is a seat available.) Keith went to park the car (long-term parking is quite a hike from the docks) while Lori picked up the tickets. The night before, we had packed a couple duffle bags and some smaller bags on wheels with what we would need while we were on the island. Note that you can’t take the sort of large luggage you would check at the airport on the ferry.
After Keith returned from parking the car, we lined up by the dock so that we could get a good choice of seats. While we were waiting, Lori went over to the Discovery Tours kiosk and booked several tours for us. We had researched the tours earlier and knew what we wanted to do. You can also book the tours once you reach Catalina, but we wanted to take one early that afternoon, so we booked 3 tours at once and got a good discount.
It was a beautiful day, so we sat on the upper level of the boat, outside. Unfortunately we were stupid and forgot to put sunscreen on. We were facing two older women from San Clemente who were on their way over to the island for a 2-night getaway. They kept us entertained the entire way over and even let us use some sunscreen. Lori forgot her lip protection and suffered later. The 90-minute boat ride was very calm and we arrived at Catalina shortly after 11 a.m. We schlepped our bags several blocks to our hotel, Hotel Metropole, for storage. Our walk to the hotel was flat but it was a good walk at mid-day in the sun.
We had lunch at the Catalina Cantina which is a great people-watching spot right on Crescent Avenue (the main drag, along the water, in Avalon). We particularly enjoyed watching the people from the cruise ship – you could easily identify them by their loud attire and strange hats (plus their ID badges). We wandered around the town for a bit, then went to Discovery Tours and caught the Scenic Avalon Tour (90 minutes). The double tram wound through town, up steep hills, past the Zane Gray Hotel, back down, pas the school, Country Club, up outside of town in the opposite direction, past the Inn at Mt. Ada (former home of the Wrigleys who helped to build Catalina). The views were stunning. The open-air trams really let us experience the island and gave us ample photo opportunities. Our driver Becky was funny and informative – she had been living on the island for 36 years.
We checked into Hotel Metropole at 3. We had a beautiful, massive room on the third floor (#320) with a large balcony and magnificent waterfront views. We checked out the rooftop Jacuzzi, but it was too hot, so we opted for a soak in our double whirlpool with some wine. We had dinner at Steve’s Steakhouse which is water front on the second floor, and enjoyed a nice dinner. We didn’t have a reservation but went early. Keith had the 6-ounce filet with béarnaise sauce and a Caesar salad with a couple glasses of shiraz, and Lori had steamers and Shrimp Avalon (scampi on garlic bread) with 2 glasses of sauvignon blanc. They served wonderful potatoes romano.
After dinner we walked to Antonio’s Cabaret and the bartender gave us a free Long Island Iced Tea. After that, we tried to find karaoke but it was past Labor Day and the island was on “winter hours.” We sat on our balcony and enjoyed the beautiful night.
We had breakfast at the Busy Bee restaurant where we both had the eggs benedict with avocado (Keith added ham). We managed to get our first fresh iced tea at the Busy Bee and it was very good. After breakfast, we walked down Crescent Avenue, beyond the Casino, to Descanso Beach and killed time while we waited for the Casino tour. The Casino Tour was also operated by Discovery Tours and since we could show our receipt for the other tours we got an additional discount for this tour. The tour started at 11:30. This is a stunning building. One doesn’t actually gamble here – the literal translation of casino is “gathering place.” On the bottom is a movie theater – the first designed specifically for movies with sound (“talkies”). Radio City Music Hall in New York City was designed after the Avalon Casino. Our tour guide demonstrated the superior acoustics of the theater and explained that the theater was soundproof – people could be watching movies and not hear hundreds of people dancing above them. We walked up 5 ramps (which accounted for 10 stories) to the ballroom at the top. The tour guide Joe was funny and was an Avalon native. The ramps exist because there are no elevators and they are much easier to use – if people had to walk up 10 stories of steps, they wouldn’t be very likely to dance afterwards. One thing to note – the tour has a bit of walking and could be difficult for those who are disabled (although you can roll wheelchairs easily up and down the ramps). We were able to step outside onto the balcony of the ballroom and get some magnificent views of the harbor.
After the hour-long tour, we walked back into town and had cold beer and pizza at Antonio’s. Then we went back to our room and spent some quiet time on the rooftop terrace (making another brief attempt at the too-hot hot tub), retreating to read on our balcony, and then ending up in our own tub for a bit. We had dinner at Armstrong’s. After dinner, we changed into shorts and jackets (it got a little cool on the island at night) and headed for our next tour – the Flying Fish boat trip at 8 p.m. We boarded a boat and headed out of the harbor in the dark. Our guide used an old carbon light to illuminate the water. We saw an amazing number of flying fish and they really did fly – sometimes right over the boat! Our tour guide sounded like a bit of a surfer dude and regularly punctuated his talk with “All right!” After the trip, we stopped in at Catalina Cantina, where Keith happily sipped some Hussong’s tequila.
This was our last day in Avalon. We had breakfast at Joe’s Place, then checked out but stored our bags at the hotel. We had some time to kill, and found some comfortable benches to sit on along Crescent Avenue where we spent some time reading. At times, we would just look up and gaze out at the water. We went back to the Busy Bee for lunch, and sipped some Mai Tais. We had a two-hour tour scheduled that afternoon – our final Discovery Tour. We boarded a restored bus from the early 1950s for the tour, which took us up out of town and into the “outback” where we saw some cool scenery and wild bison roaming about. We went up to the Airport in the Sky, where we got out and stretched our legs a bit, then headed back to town. We picked up our bags at the hotel, had a beer at a bar along Crescent Street, then caught the Ferry back to Dana Point.
We arrived at Dana Point shortly before 7, collected our luggage, and pointed Bubba south to San Diego. About 45 minutes later, we pulled into Pacific Terrace. We were greeted by the extremely friendly staff and took our stuff to our gorgeous suite. We quickly left in search of food, having burgers and chicken fingers at a local watering hole (Hennessy’s Irish Pub). We returned to our suite for a relaxing soak in the tub.
We got up in the morning and had bagels in the breakfast room of the hotel (there was complimentary continental breakfast). Then we pointed Bubba towards the San Diego Wild Animal Park. It was a Friday and the kids were in school so the park was mostly deserted. We took the tram ride, walked around a bit, had lunch, then headed back to our hotel to relax by the pool. Alas, we didn’t get to relax as much as we hoped because the hotel had booked a large group – the company Pebbletec, who had brought all of their employees and their employees’ families. They had pretty much taken over the public areas and several were fairly drunk. We did our best to ignore them, soaking up the sun and reading. The hotel served complimentary wine from 4-5 and they were very gracious. Afterwards, we went up to our suite to change. We drove about 6 blocks to an old friend of Lori’s who was now living in San Diego with his fiancée and baby daughter. We spent some time at their house and then they took us to Celadon, a Thai restaurant in the Gaslamp district of San Diego, where we had a most enjoyable meal.
It was a long day, so after dinner we returned to our hotel where we took a quick soak and headed to bed.
This was our last full day in San Diego so we wanted to chill out. We walked a block to Hennessy’s for breakfast, then spent several hours by the pool. We raided the minibar for snacks and drinks that afternoon and availed ourselves of the complimentary wine late in the afternoon. After watching the sunset, we walked a block to Daddio’s where we had a most enjoyable dinner. After a late-night soak in the tub, we retired.
We ate our bagels, packed up Bubba, and made the 10-minute drive to the San Diego airport and home. We didn’t get to spend enough time in San Diego! We’ll be back.