Updated: Feb 28
Just an hour boat ride from Los Angeles sits the not-so secret gem of Catalina Island, the closest thing you can get to feeling like you have escaped to the mediterranean without the pricey flight. This is Southern California, meaning any time of year you will be able to enjoy the clear skies while exploring the island, though in the winter you will want to pack a jacket as it can get down to 43 degrees fahrenheit. I have visited in July and September and enjoyed immaculate weather during both trips, but July can be sweltering, so if you are sensitive to heat make sure to go in the off season.
Getting to Catalina
There are two major ferry companies that provide transport to the Catalina ports; the Catalina Flyer, and the Catalina Express. The Catalina Flyer goes from Newport beach to the port of Avalon. Tickets run for $70 adult round trip but when traveling in September my friend and I were able to score $21 off, so make sure to check their website for deals. For the Catalina Flyer, there is parking in the Balboa Pier municipal lot which costs around $28 per day. If you get there early, you can find free parking a little farther out and walk to the ferry. There is also the Catalina Express which leaves out of Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point and travels to both the ports of Avalon and Two Harbors. Tickets are $76 round trip. For the Catalina Express out of Long Beach, there are plenty of spaces in the parking garage right in front of the ferry office building for about $28 for the day. Right now both ferry companies require masks for the covid-19 pandemic and are not doing their on-board concessions. There are both indoor and outdoor seating options for your comfort. If you are looking to create an extreme luxury experience, there are other options to get to the island, such as jet ski tours, helicopters, or private yachts, though these were significantly out of the price range of my travel companions and myself.
History of Catalina
Catalina Island, formally Pimu, was home for thousands of years to indigenous people, who at the time of the first Spanish explorer’s “discovery” of the island in 1542 are thought to be known as Pimungans, or Pimuvit.
The island became a destination resort after it was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr. He was the founder of Wrigley chewing gum and owner of the Chicago Cubs, whose training grounds he moved to the island from 1921 to 1951. Throughout the years, several Hollywood films used Catalina as their backdrop, though the iconic Catalina Wine Mixer scene from ‘Step Brothers’ was actually filmed in Rancho Palos Verdes. In the 70’s the Catalina Island Conservatory was deeded 88% of the island by Wrigley and has maintained the beautiful, undeveloped landscape since.
If you are looking to further your knowledge, you can visit the Catalina Island Museum, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Tickets are $17 for adults, free for children, and $15 for seniors, health care workers, students, and military.
Exploring the Island
There aren’t many cars on the island but you are able to rent golf carts. (There’s currently a waitlist for locals at around 20 years wait time to ship a car from the mainland.) There are several companies to book from easily visible on the main strip and cost around $60 per hour. These look extremely fun and might be worth it if you are trying to explore on a time crunch. Avalon is extremely accessible via your own two feet so my family opted to save money and walk.
Staying on the flat ground, you will be treated to small, full, yet beautiful beaches and the gorgeous coastal town. I recommend taking a walk past the shops into the residential neighborhood to look at the adorable bungalows that adorn the island.
Increasing your elevation will allow you to get a bird’s eye view of the harbor. On a short hike, my family stumbled upon Catalina Chimes Tower, a spanish-style bell tower originally built in 1925. This was where we got our best views. If you want to explore the local flora of the island, you can head to Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, accessible by bus or a hike that is about a mile and a half long.
Yes, there is a casino on the island, but not the gambling kind. The Catalina Island Casino is an art deco style theater and event space built in 1929. The upstairs ballroom offers 360 degree views of the harbor and is complete with fifty foot ceilings and chandeliers. There are tours of the casino's interior, but you will still get to appreciate the scale of it just walking past it on your way to Descanso Beach Club, which I will mention later.
While exploring Catalina with a friend, we decided to take the Sea Wolf Semi-Submersible submarine from the main port over to the protected waters of Lover’s Cove. When I brought my family back, we did this same excursion, that is how much I loved it. It’s hard to put into words the beauty that is the kelp forests of the open ocean. Aquariums cannot do this justice and unless you are an avid snorkeler or scuba diver, you probably haven’t seen the ocean quite like this. In the waters of Catalina, you will be treated to seeing the orange fish that inhabit the area and we were even lucky enough to see a leopard shark in the wild (a bucket list item for me). For the best chance of seeing unique wildlife, try going during the hours closest to dawn and dusk. However, the tour does feed the fish, so you will be able to see those on any tour.
The submarine is affordable, costing only $39.95 per person, which for my family was well worth the experience we had. The boat is small yet spacious and each person is granted their own personal porthole. Both times I have rode it there have been open seats. You will love it.
Dry Land Excursions
For those wishing to keep their feet on the land, there are different ways to explore the island on four wheels. As earlier mentioned, you can rent your own personal golf cart. To get beyond the town, you’ll need to pack your hiking boots or book a tour. Open-air vehicles costing $84.95 per adult will show you sites you can’t see on your own and you will get the unique opportunity to see the island’s bison. Yes, bison. The bison first came to the island to film a movie in 1924 and a herd of 150 have been cared for by the Catalina Island Conservatory ever since.
To book either the Undersea Sub Expedition, the Bison Expedition, or any other adventure on Catalina island, such as the zip-line tours that I have my eye on for my next visit, head to visitcatalinaisland.com.
Places to Eat
Without exception, I need to start my day with caffeine in the form of coffee or tea. If you want to get your fix and start your day with a view, head straight off the boat to Toyon Grill, where you can take your coffee and breakfast up to the rooftop that overlooks the harbor. If you are looking for a faster take-away option, hit up Bistro at the Atwater. While they don’t offer seating, the coffee stand has cute pink and green decor with gold mailboxes and world clocks situated right next to it.
There is nothing more island aesthetic than eating a fish dinner on the pier. Eric’s on the Pier may have a bit of a line, but that’s how you know it’s good. They have meal deals so if you are traveling with family, it is a great budget way for you to all get seafood, but you might not get a seat as they do lack tables. If you are fine eating over your lap, there are plenty of benches in the area. If this isn’t your style, I have heard great things about The Lobster Shack and Bluewater Avalon.
Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. If you are looking for a treat after dinner you simply must try Lloyd’s of Avalon, an old fashion candy and ice cream shop. This is also a great place to pick up souvenir salt water taffy.
Walking past the impossible-to-miss casino, you will find Descanso Beach Club. Here, you can experience luxury in the form of personal cabanas for rent, or beauty on a budget, with a bar adjacent to the sand. Descanso Beach Club is open daily from 11:00am to 5:00pm. Drinks with the perfect view, the best way to end the day before catching the ferry back to the mainland.