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Cruise Port Review
Catalina & Ensenada

Baja Cruise Ports

by John Harley

Catalina, California and Ensenada, Mexico are visited year-round on the 4 day Baja cruises of Carnival Cruise Lines' Holiday and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Viking Serenade sailing out of Los Angeles. The Viking Serenade also calls in San Diego, California but we have not included that information here as later this year, we will have a separate port review for San Diego which is fast becoming a popular port for Panama Canal, Hawaii & Repositioning cruises.


Your cruise ship will anchor off the island in Avalon harbor. There isn't anything "exciting" to do on Santa Catalina Island for the party-hardy crowd. There isn't any place like Carlos & Charlies or Senõr Frogs. Remember, you are still in the USA. You are not only still in California, you are in Los Angeles County. There are numerous shops if you want to buy touristy stuff. Nothing is cheap.

There are many bars and restaurants. If you are looking for a really nice place to have a drink, you'll want to stop at the El Galleon on the waterfront so you can watch the passers-by, the harbor, and your cruise ship. There are several similar type establishments. Actually the bar here is part of a restaurant but the restaurant isn't open for lunch, at least not during the week that I have ever seen. If you desire a little more rugged bar atmosphere, you want Luau Larry's. You will see Larry's across the street when you reach the land end of the pier where you are dropped off by the tenders.

All cruise ship passengers are tendered as the harbor is full of private yachts but much too shallow for cruise ships. You will be shuttled to the pier and back. Back in the days before cruising became popular, this was one of the major places the young folks went for Easter Vacation, now known as Spring Break. Today, Avalon is still a popular vacation spot during Spring Break, but nothing like in the old days before cruise ships. Avalon is still a very popular place in the summer both with yachtsman and those who come by ferry to stay in the many small hotels.

So what do you, the cruise person, do there? A very brief history:

The entire island was once owned by the Wrigleys, as in chewing gum. Today, outside the one square mile of Avalon, the Wrigleys own about 15% of the island and the Santa Catalina Conservancy owns the other 85% which was donated by the Wrigleys. The Conservancy is a non-profit organization set up by the Wrigleys to preserve the habitat of the island.

You can take a tour of just the town. Without taking a tour you can see the numerous homes built on what is almost a vertical cliff. To those of us familiar with earthquakes, this sight is somewhat terrifying. The Wrigley Mansion is visible on the highest hilltop to your left as you walk into town from the pier. There is another beautiful home which used to be the top of a ferry boat. When the boat crashed ashore, the top part, which looks like the top of a Mississippi steam boat, was simply dragged inland to be made into a home.

You can see the L.A. County Sheriff's Department patrol "cars" which are just black and white golf carts with red lights and sirens. The local joke is that these are the only police cars in the world that you can outrun on foot. If you need anything like toiletries, you can buy it at the local Von's super market. Be careful. Security will check bags being brought back to your ship for alcohol, something I've never seen them do at embarkation in Los Angeles. The same thing will happen in Ensenada but there the Viking Serenade will let you bring on any Mexican wines or brandies. Any liquor that is confiscated from you will be returned at the end of your cruise.

You can rent a golf cart holding from two to six people here but not a car. Similar to Bermuda, the number of cars is limited by law. While Bermuda limits the number of cars to one per household, Catalina limits the specific number of cars regardless of how many people there are living on the island.

If you take the inland tour, besides the normal wild life, you will see buffalo (bison). Bison were originally brought to the island in the 1920's to make a movie and it was decided it was cheaper to just leave them there.

During World War II, the army took over the island and, among other things, built an airfield which is now the island's airport. The field was designed to handle anything up to a DC-3, aka C-47. There are no level areas on the island so the field is built on a cut-off mountain top and on a gentle slope. The idea was that this would slow down planes that were landing and give planes that were taking off some additional speed on the short runway. If you haven't stopped or taken off by the time your plane reaches the end of the runway, you will be in big trouble. You and your plane will continue on down the mountainside.

If you are a history buff, you can walk from the shuttle boat landing to the Casino. That's what we generally do. Visit the museum and book store which will tell you about the casino itself and the history of Avalon and the military on the island during WW II.

The Casino is not, and never was, a gambling establishment. It was built by the Wrigleys for the enjoyment of all in the 1930's. The lower floor of the Casino is a 1,200-seat movie theatre. It is supposedly the first theater built purposely for the new talkies. Because powerful, quality amplifiers didn't exist for that size of auditorium, the ceiling is an oval shaped dome, similar to the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, to disperse the sound to the entire audience. While you sit in the back row, your tour guide will stand on the stage without a microphone and speak in a normal voice. You will have no problem hearing him or her.

The upper floor is claimed to be the world's largest ballroom without interior supports. Many of the Big Band era groups played here. You have seen this building and its ballroom numerous times in the movies, probably without realizing what you were looking at. The tour is worth the cost just to see the art deco decor, murals, and gold and silver leaf. The black walnut paneling in the movie foyer is now worth more than the original cost of the entire building. This tour is not for the walking impaired. You must climb around 100 feet to the ballroom on a series of ramps. Because the band and most all the dancers would arrive and depart at the same time on two steamships, the ss Avalon and the ss Catalina, elevators weren't practical for that number of people all at once. Wrigley adopted the idea of the ramps from his Chicago baseball park to move a large volume of people quickly.


The cellular type construction of the ballroom floor was unique in its day. It was designed to provide absolute sound proofing for the theater below, and to give less stress on the dancers' feet. The builders of basketball arenas have only in recent years re-discovered this technique to provide less strain on the players feet and legs while still giving the players the sensation of a solid surface. During WW II, the Casino and nearby yacht club were used for a Merchant Marine school. If you do walk to the Casino, you will walk the last few hundred feet on the Via Casino. This runs from where the steamers docked and was originally entirely enclosed in clear glass. During WW II, the glass was removed as a hazard in the event of bombardment and no attempt was made to preserve the glass.

The ss Catalina, still used into the early 1960's as a ferry to Avalon, can still be seen today, but in a sad condition. She sets on the bottom of the harbor in shallow water, listing to port, in Ensenada. You can see her from the cruise ship dock. When she became outdated as a Catalina ferry, she was taken to Ensenada to be used as an excursion boat. That was a financial failure and a wealthy gentleman bought her as a Valentine present for his wife. In the process of trying to restore the ship, she ended up in her present state. Many southern California history and nostalgia buffs would like to tow her to San Diego for restoration and to add her to the maritime museum there, but so far they have been unable to raise the needed funds. Just for starters, the Ensenada port captain wants $50,000 for anchorage fees and the the company who was doing the restoration work has a lien against her for $100,000.

The city of Avalon has been doing much work lately to restore her harbor front street and walkways to the way they appeared in the Big Band era when the Casino's theater and ballroom were in their glory.

Whether you buy Casino tour tickets on the ship or at the Casino, you are still going to have to walk from the pier. If applicable, you will get a senior citizen discount at the Casino which you won't get on the ship.

For more information on Catalina Island and Quicktime movies of the Casino's interior and other island views, visit http://www.catalina.com/mainpg/frames.html. These pictures are not of good quality for displaying the luxurious decor of the Casino's interior but will give a good idea of the size of the theater and ballroom

For photos of the ss Catalina in her present state, visit http://www.escapist.com/sscatalina.


The ships dock in Ensenada where you can walk right off onto the pier. When we were there in May 1999, a new cruise ship terminal was under construction. If you have come here to shop, you will find plenty of that along the main street. The "world class" cantinas here for the partying type are Hussongs and Papas & Beer. They are across the street from each other on Avenida Ruiz. Not by the wildest stretch of the imagination (mine anyway) do these places compare with such as Carlos & Charlies or Senõr Frogs.

Hussongs claims to be the oldest operating bar and oldest wood frame building in Baja California, and before WW II it was the haunt of many famous movie stars and other celebrities who came here by yacht and private plane.

Next door to Hussongs there is a great wine shop run by the Domecq Winery. This is excellent wine. The winery is about 15 or 20 miles out of town and the scenery is quite beautiful. The tour is interesting even if you have been to other wineries. You are given more than enough time in the tasting room to sample all of the wines (nine I think), and the brandy, in addition to bread and cheese. We bought two bottles here and two more at the shop in town mentioned earlier when we did the tour. Remember, at least on the Viking Serenade, you can take this wine to your cabin without worrying about it being confiscated by the ship when boarding.

Another site worth seeing is the Riviera Pacifica. Now used as a community center and beautifully restored and kept up, this is all that remains of a luxurious resort hotel begun in the 1920s. It was a haven for movie stars and millionaires who came by private plane or yacht. It was also a gambling casino. Since women were not permitted to gamble, there are balconies around the circular gaming area where the ladies could stand and watch. Next to the casino area is a lounge called the Bar of the Seven Sins. There was once only one long bar in here. A law was passed that limited the number of drinks one could buy in a day at one bar, so the bar was partitioned into seven separate bars and a "mature audiences only" mural painted behind each. As the tour guide will remark, it just looks like the same sin committed seven different ways.

This is a truly beautiful building and well worth visiting. The cactus garden outside is supposed to have one of each variety of cactus that grows in Mexico.

Ensenada had a population of about 2,000 then, but also had Hussongs Cantina. That's where the rich and famous from the hotel went for a change of pace. To accommodate hanky panky, and because adultery was illegal in Mexico, the hotel had a chapel about the size of a large closet in which to perform marriages of questionable value. Johnny (Tarzan) Weismuller reportedly holds the record there for the number of marriages and divorces. If you visit the Riviera Pacifica as part of a tour you will see folklorico dancers. One of the ballroom's claims to fame is that it is where Rita Hayworth was discovered. Her father was the local band leader who played at the resort's ballroom and little Rita would dance to the music just for the fun of it while the guests were dining. One of the Hollywood people recognized her dancing abilities and brought her back to the studio. Sadly, to "make it" in Hollywood in those days, she had to adopt an Anglo name.

The tour also includes visiting La Bufadora. La Bufadora refers to ocean water being sprayed upward in a geyser as a result of air in the cave being compressed by ocean waves entering the cave. It is a long way out of town and, in my opinion, it isn't worth the trip if you were to hire a cab just to take you to La Bufadora. There is a new visitor center there and I was welcomed by being told it would cost 30 cents to use the restroom. After two visits, it is my considered opinion that going to La Bufadora is a waste of time and money. The only time you would experience the geyser type spray is during a storm. On a calm day it is a very disappointing experience.

If you just want to wander around town on your own as we usually do, a visit to the old city prison is worth a stop. It is in the process of being converted into a museum displaying the local Aztec influence. You can visit the old cells and see that it must not have been a pleasant place to be a prisoner. The cell beds were cement slabs and no bedding was issued.

Ensenada is a small city and doesn't have the glitz associated with the tourist areas of the larger cities on the Mexican Riviera cruises, but I think it would be foolish not to get off the ship and look around, especially if this is your first trip here. It always amazes me when I hear someone say, "Don't bother getting off the ship in Ensenada."

You will see little children trying to sell you gum just as in any other Mexican tourist town. These kids don't get to keep that money. They are working for those I simply call pimps. At the end of the day the kid might get to keep a dollar. Many guides, especially those who are college students, will ask you not to give money to these children.

In the ship's duty free liquor shop you can buy a liter of Kahlua for $12. You can buy the same bottle in Ensenada in a liquor store for $9 or between $6 and $7 in a market.

You can get to town from the pier only on buses and it will cost you $2/pp. You can come back to the ship by cab and that will cost you only $1/pp. Only the bus company is licensed to transport you from the pier. From where the bus lets you off in town, you will be about a half-block from the main street. Turning left on the main street will take you to the old shopping area, Hussongs, Pappas & Beer, and the old city prison which is now a museum. Turning right will take you to the newly refurbished part of town with a newly paved street and sidewalks. Street vendors are officially discouraged from being in this new section. When we were in Ensenada in May 1999, the store fronts on this main street had been remodeled or at least re-painted, the road repaved, new sidewalks laid, and the number of street vendors greatly reduced. For quite a bit of information and a good city map, visit http://www.ensenada.net.mx/tourism/index.html.

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