After an unhealthy dose of the mainland's soupy smog and freeway gridlock, you'll appreciate an excursion to Santa Catalina Island, with its clean air, crystal clear water, and the blissful absence of traffic. In fact, there isn't a single traffic light on "the Island of Romance." Conditions like these can fool you into thinking that you're miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but the reality is that you're only 22 miles off the Southern California coast and still in L.A. County, at least on paper.

Because of its relative isolation, out-of-state tourists tend to ignore Santa Catalina—which everyone calls simply Catalina—but those who do make the crossing have plenty of elbow room to boat, fish, swim, scuba, and snorkel. There are also miles of hiking and biking trails, plus golf and tennis, zip lines and ropes courses, and at night, seafood and barhopping.

Catalina is so different from the mainland that it almost seems like a different country, remote and unspoiled. In 1919 the island was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing-gum magnate, who successfully developed it into a fashionable pleasure resort. To publicize the new vacationland, Wrigley brought big-name bands to the Avalon Ballroom and moved the Chicago Cubs, which he owned, to the island for spring training. Catalina soon became a world-renowned playground, luring such celebrities as Laurel and Hardy, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, and even Winston Churchill.

In 1975, the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit operating foundation organized to preserve and protect the island's nature habitat, acquired about 88% of Catalina Island, protecting virtually all of the hilly acreage and rugged coastline that make up what is known as the interior. In fact, some of the most spectacular areas can be reached only by arranged tour.