Offshore California: Islands with a tale to tell

From spectacular wildlife to prison grit

The Pacific caresses and corrugates the coast of California, providing the Golden State with its iconic beaches, cliffs and surf. Yet within easy reach of the great coastal cities, you can find a sprinkling of beautiful islands that present a different Californian dimension. As a complement to urban life, they are fun, relaxed and easy to reach…

Coronado

The island that provides a high-end escape from San Diego is a low, sandy strip that doesn't quite live up to its extravagant Spanish name, Isla del Coronado: a neck of land, bearing Silver Strand Boulevard, attaches Coronado Island to the rest of the state. A more spectacular umbilical is the massive steel road bridge that curls as it clambers over the water to deposit you in a sunny hideaway.

Coronado Island even has a Yellow Brick Road, or at least a short path, which leads to the door of the modest former home of L Frank Baum – creator of The Wizard of Oz. The villa, overlooking Star Park, is still a private residence, but the owners celebrate the Dorothy connection with a pair of ruby slippers on the doormat. A block away is the grande-dame magnificence of the Hotel del Coronado, where Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like it Hot. The star is joined on the celebrity register of the "Del" by Humphrey Bogart, Bill Clinton and Madonna. As you discover in the hotel's museum, when it first opened almost 125 years ago, part of the sales pitch was "no malaria".

As you wander across to the landing whence the San Diego Bay Ferry departs to Downtown. The city's mighty skyline looms ever higher as you approach – a final good reason for taking this island escape.

coronadovisitorcenter.com

Catalina

Twenty-five miles off the Californian coast, south-west of Los Angeles, lies Santa Catalina, as it is officially known. Its population is about 4,000, mostly concentrated in the only town, Avalon. But on a summer weekend it can swell by over 10,000.

It's not difficult to see why this rocky island attracts so many visitors. Abundant wildlife, such as bald eagles, deer, goats, boars and foxes supplement the human population. A relatively recent addition is the bison: hundreds of these creatures were brought to Catalina in 1924 for the filming of Zane Grey's The Vanishing American, and many of their descendants still roam the island.

There are some great hiking and biking trails inland. Right from the shore in Avalon you can snorkel or dive in some of California's spectacular kelp forests. Alternatively, join a guided tour to the interior or rent a bike. Ferry services depart from various points along the coast of greater Los Angeles, and the journey takes about one hour.

catalinachamber.com

Alcatraz

Along with the Golden Gate Bridge, "The Rock" is the most iconic sight in the San Francisco area. For 30 years from 1933 the 12-acre pimple close to the entrance to the Bay was home to some of America's most violent and unsavoury criminals. It was thought to be escape-proof, until 1962 when Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers escaped on a raft, never to be heard of again. The notorious prison was closed the following year. Clint Eastwood elevated the escape to folklore status with Escape from Alcatraz in 1979. Other movies have used Alcatraz as a backdrop – notably The Rock and The Birdman of Alcatraz.

This being America, you can effect your very own escape from Alcatraz. Each May, the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim (19 May next year) entices 800 swimmers to brave the cold water and the sharks for the swim to the mainland.

Alcatraz is easily accessible on a tour from Pier 33 on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Included in the package are return ferry tickets, entry to the island and a riveting audio tour featuring the stories told by former guards and inmates. As well as the regular tour ($28/£18), there is a guided night tour ($35/£22). You can also combine Alcatraz with a visit to Angel Island for $60 (£37).

alcatrazcruises.com

Angel Island

Another San Francisco island escape: this 750-acre island is close to Alcatraz, but a world apart – for a start, it is around 60 times larger. It sits in the gorgeous San Francisco Bay between the city and Marin County.

Angel Island was once used as an immigration holding area for Russian and Asian immigrants. During the Second World War, its capacity for incarceration was deployed once more when Japanese Americans were interned here. Today, it is a state park.

Eleven miles of roads and trails meander around the island, including a hiking trail to the 788-foot summit of Mount Livermore.

You can rent bikes on the island or bring your own on the ferry. Ideally, though, you should devote a full day to a fabulous bike/ ferry combination by renting a bike in the city (bikeandroll.com). Ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into charming Sausalito, a great spot for lunch or a snack. From Sausalito take the ferry to Tiburon, another picture-perfect Bay waterfront town. After a wander, jump on another ferry to Angel Island. Ride the three-mile perimeter trail round the island and enjoy the 360-degree panorama of the bay.

angelisland.org

For more information visit DiscoverAmerica.com

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