It’s only 22 miles from the mainland, but Catalina Island feels like a million miles away from the rest of bustling, over-amped Southern California. It’s a dreamy place, with a lay-back island rhythm. Thanks largely to the vision of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Catalina Island has been a popular Southern California getaway for nearly a century. We set off on a weekend trip, and I’m happy to report that the Catalina experience is still delightful. Catalina has one foot solidly placed in its colorful and storied past, and the other foot stepping out in positive new directions to keep the island experience fresh for new generations of visitors. At the same time, it offers pristine marine and backcountry environments that invite exploration. It’s the perfect combination for a quintessential Southern California getaway!
There’s a lot to do and it pays to plan ahead, especially in the popular summer months (and even in the warm months of May and September.) If you can do it, stay overnight. Catalina takes on an added charm in the evenings, after the day trippers have departed. The island is a favorite destination for pleasure boaters from all over Southern California; and you can fly as well. But most visitors to Catalina take the fast and efficient boats that leave from multiple ports in Los Angeles and Orange County. It only takes 60-90 minutes, depending on your departure port. It’s smart to pre-book lodging, scheduled activities and boat passage to insure that you have just the kind of Catalina experience you envision! (Websites to help you plan your trip are below.) Here’s a quick overview to whet your appetite.
Soaking in the Atmosphere
The picturesque town of Avalon is the major town on the island, spreading along a lovely crescent-shaped harbor, with pastel-colored buildings climbing up the surrounding hills. The ferry dock anchors one end of the harbor and the towering, historic Casino building anchors the other. The town is only one mile square and you can get just about everywhere without a car (a rarity, in Southern California!) An easy stroll reveals a playful and authentic mix of early twentieth century wooden and Spanish-style beach resort architecture. Many buildings are adorned by the colorful Catalina tiles that were manufactured on the island in the 1920s and 30s. Pull up a café table or eat at one of the many open-air restaurants that offer great vantage points to soak in the scenery and atmosphere. Plant a beach chair in the sand and enjoy the sun and the slower pace. Or grab an ice cream and a bench and enjoy the passing scene!
If you’re seeking a more secluded beach experience, try the Descanso Beach Club—only a two minute walk past the Casino. For a small fee, you can enjoy the sun, palm trees and sand, and beautiful views of the water, with food and drink only steps away. A larger restaurant with outdoor bar, and private cabanas are part of the Beach Club’s recent renovation.
The green pleasure pier in the middle of Avalon’s harbor used to be where fishermen would weigh their catches. Today, it’s a central place to arrange for tours and excursions and is the departure place for water-based excursions.
Exploring Catalina’s Spectacular Marine Environment
To get the full Catalina experience, you need to find a way to explore its special marine environment. Catalina’s crystal clear waters and rich marine life are magnets for snorkelers and divers, and the island has Southern California’s only city-designated marine preserve. (Water temps range from the mid-50s to 70 degrees, based on the season.) If you’re not ready to dive in yourself, there are a number of terrific ways to get a glimpse of the undersea environment, including Catalina’s classic glass-bottomed boats and the newer semi-submersible submarines, which take you a short distance from Avalon Harbor out to Lovers Cove. On our trip, we saw the beautiful kelp forests teeming with fish, including the bright orange garibaldi, California’s state (and protected) fish. During summer months, you can also take an evening flying fish trip (quite a unique sight) or a cruise out to Seal Rock to see the resident sea lions. Kayaks are available in Avalon Harbor for an easy paddle to Lover’s Cove; or at Descanso Beach, a good base for heading up the island to explore the coves and inlets north of Avalon. Guided kayak tours are also available from Descanso.
Exploring Catalina’s Colorful History
The Casino building is the best place to begin your exploration of the island’s fascinating history. It’s a pleasant three minute walk along a beautiful seaside promenade. The Catalina Island Museum is located on the ground floor. It’s open daily and is well worth a visit. (If you take a Casino Tour, it’s included in the price of the tour.)
Casino Tours are only offered on a guided basis on a limited schedule daily, but treat yourself to a tour. Built in 1929, it’s architecturally spectacular. In the European tradition, it’s never been a place for gambling, but has always been a popular place for gathering and entertainment. The exterior still sports original marine-themed murals and art deco fixtures. The Avalon Theater, still in use nightly, is adorned by more fanciful murals and features a rare Page organ. This was the first theatre in the nation to accommodate the new sync sound movies. (On Fridays and Saturdays, if you get there at 6:15, you can be treated to a free 45-min. organ concert, included in the price of your movie!) On the top floor, the building houses the world’s largest circular dance floor. In the 1930s and 40s, its Big Band entertainment attracted thousands of dancers nightly and the music was broadcast across the nation. Views from its colonnaded balcony are breathtaking.
If the name Wrigley rings a bell, you might also know Wrigley Field—the home of the Chicago Cubs. Yes, the same Wrigley. Except for a few years during WWII, Catalina Island was the Spring Training headquarters for the Cubs from 1921-51. The old ballfield is now gone, but the beautiful Spanish-style clubhouse—now the Catalina Country Club-- is open to the public, serving up dinners five nights a week, with jazz on Thursday nights. It’s located just uphill from the main town, but is reachable by foot or by trolley.
Exploring Catalina’s Interior
One of Wrigley’s finest legacies is the preservation of Catalina Island. 88% of the island is managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, whose mission it is to preserve the island’s unique ecosystem. Your exploration of Catalina’s inland areas and more sparsely settled West end, will introduce you to the plants and animals that are found only on the island. You might also see wild boar, golden eagles or a few members of the resident bison herd (descendants of the original bison brought over in 1924 for the filming of a Zane Grey western.) This part of the island is a favorite of campers and mountain bikers. Hikers and backpackers can traverse the island’s 37 mile Trans-Catalina trail. (There are good descriptions of camping, hiking and bicycling options on island’s main website.) If you’d like a taste of this part of the island—including fabulous vistas of sparkling coves, a guided inland tour is the easiest way to get it. A number of options exist, ranging from 2-4 hours. These tours begin at Tour Plaza, 2 blocks inland from the pier.
While it doesn’t take you deep into the island’s interior, the new Zip Line Eco Tour is the newest way to enjoy the scenery. The two-hour tour begins and ends at Descanso Beach. I must admit that, mid-zip, you’re moving a little too fast to take in the scenery and your mind’s on a few other things (like best zipping posture and landing safely!) But, in between the 5 zips that whisk you ¾ of a mile, descending 440 ft. down Descanso canyon, you have time to catch your breath, enjoy the scenery and learn a little about the unique local plants and animals that inhabit the island.
Lodging, Restaurants & Logistics
While Catalina has hosted movie stars and Presidents, it was William Wrigley’s vision that the island be a playground for all—rich and poor, young and old. And it is, in fact, that. There are lodgings and restaurants to be found at every price point. Lodgings range from historic hotels, to charming B&Bs to more elegant retreats. Rentals include in-town beach cottages to condominiums in Hamilton Cove (located beyond Descanso Beach.) There are, refreshingly, no chain restaurants on the island. But there are restaurants to serve every taste, mood and pocketbook. We didn’t get to everything we wanted to sample, but can recommend Jack’s Country Kitchen for a good, old fashioned breakfast or lunch. We had enjoyable lunches at Steve’s Steakhouse (salads, sandwiches, steak and seafood) and C.C. Gallagher (Mediterranean, with boutique wines and beers)--both overlooking the bay. And we enjoyed two great dinners at Risorante Villa Portofino (for tasty Italian in a cozy, welcoming restaurant) and M, the Hotel Metropole’s restaurant (for fresh California cuisine in a light and airy dining room, with patio dining optional.)
We got along famously on foot the entire weekend—including rolling our suitcases from the boat to the in-town hotel. The reasonable trolley also has stops all over town. With narrow streets and tight spaces, golf carts are Avalon’s preferred method of transportation. If you find you need transportation, golf carts are rentable, but will only help you explore Avalon and the hillside areas above the main town. They’re not allowed on inland roads. Taxis are also available.
Wishing you the perfect getaway on Catalina Island!
Catalina Flyer operates from Newport Beach. www.catalinainfo.com or (800) 830-7744
These websites offer great overviews of lodging, activities and a calendar of upcoming events. There are some attractive lodging and boat packages—some include activities as well.
Santa Catalina Island Company “Discovery Tours” www.VisitCatalina.com (310) 510-TOUR
Catalina Adventure Tours www.catalinaadventuretours.com (877) 510-2888
Catalina Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Bureau www.catalinachamber.com (310) 510-1520
New for Summer: A new GPS Walking Tour of Avalon will help you explore the town at your own pace. Starting mid-May, guests who book two nights at the newly-remodeled Pavilion Lodge will enjoy a free unlimited activities package and 50% off the new Zip Line and Sea Trek Undersea Adventure Tours. The Avalon Grille, at the foot of the pleasure pier, will be opening, offering great views and indoor and outdoor dining.