A little over an hour’s ride aboard the Catalina Express from Long Beach, California, past the natural wonder that is the San Pedro Channel, is a rocky island where a hundred or so North American Bison roam free and Old Hollywood’s most famous used to vacation. On Santa Catalina Island, the water’s clear emerald; the rolling mountains are lush; and shoals of garibaldi often make an appearance.
To most, Catalina Island is but a small destination off the coast of California that presents an idyllic yet quick island getaway. But this 22-mile-long island that’s essentially part of an underwater mountain range, its heart being the small city of Avalon, is so much more than it’s often given credit for. Not only has it played small yet essential roles in American, sports, and Hollywood history, it’s also a sanctuary for many species of animals unique to the island.
Whether you’re interested in pop culture, history, water activities, or the great outdoors, Catalina Island will most certainly keep you occupied. Here’s a quick guide to this spectacular and dynamic destination.
Getting to Catalina Island is easy as pie, the quickest way being in a helicopter. The more common and most affordable, however, is by sea aboard the Catalina Express. The company’s fleet of fast ships offers daily boat service to and from the island, departing from ports in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point.
The regular round trip rate is $73.50, which includes a 2-bag allowance. However, a $30 Commodore Lounge upgrade (round trip), which comes with priority boarding, more comfortable seating in an exclusive, upper level lounge, and complimentary beverage and snack, is definitely worth it especially during the colder and the busiest months.
Getting Around the Island
While only 800 regular full-sized cars are allowed on the island, there are a number of alternative transports available, the most popular of which are golf carts. A golf cart gives you the flexibility and convenience of visiting Avalon’s less walkable attractions like the Botanical Garden and the former Wrigley Mansion. You can rent one for an hour (book online to rent for three) from the Catalina Island Golf Carts & Tours at the corner of Crescent and Metropole in Avalon.
If you have the time and the patience, Avalon Community Transit, the city’s main public transportation, runs every 20 – 40 minutes from the Cabrillo Mole along Casino Way and up-canyon to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. The bus schedule is posted at every stop, of which there are 15 around the city.
To get from Avalon to Little Harbor, Airport in the Sky (the only airport on the island), and Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island Company’s Safari Bus is the best way to go during the summer months. Two other ways to visit the airport are on a Santa Catalina Island Company tour and on the airport shuttle, which runs regularly.
And to get around the main areas of town, it’s best to go on foot or by bike!
There are many mid-size hotels, a small number of resorts, and a few campgrounds all around the island so you have a range of options.
Consider staying at Hotel Villa Portofino, a lovely Italian coast inspired hotel located at the roundabout where Crescent Ave where meets Casino Way. This pretty little oceanfront property boasts a friendly staff, standard rooms, as well as nice, spacious suites named after Italy’s picturesque coastal villages and islands. The Capri Suite, for example, features a balcony with an ocean view, a gas fireplace, and a pink marble bath. All rooms and suites have refrigerators and free WiFi; complimentary hotel amenities include beach chairs, beach towels, umbrellas and continental breakfast daily.
Top Indoor Attractions
Santa Catalina Island Museum. This art, culture and history museum has come a long way from its humble beginnings at the Catalina Island Casino. Now housed in the new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building, which opened it doors in June 2016, this amazing museum chronicles the island’s extremely fascinating history—from when it was inhabited by a Native American tribe to when William Wrigley, Jr bought and turned it into a resort town frequented by Hollywood elites to when it was used as a training facility for the military after the Pearl Harbor incident. It also has two separate galleries, which mostly hold temporary art exhibits, as well as a small outdoor theater and a rooftop event space. Upcoming exhibits include the vibrant sculptures and installations of Dale Chihuly, which runs from March 26 through December 11 this year.
Avalon Theater. Housed in the Catalina Island Casino, which was called a ‘casino’ in the more traditional sense (as being a place of entertainment, not a place to gamble), the Avalon Theater is singularly the most beautiful piece of architecture in the whole island. The marine and Greek-inspired art murals on its dome, the top of which is made to look like the night sky, were designed by John Gabriel Beckman. The theater also boasts great acoustics. Take a guided tour of the casino to see the theater first hand. Better yet, go see a movie, which runs nightly at 7:30 pm for $15 per person. It’s like watching a movie under the stars.
Top Outdoor Attractions
Zip Line Eco Tour. Nothing beats the feeling of zipping down a line at a fast speed with the wind on your face and a panoramic view around you. With its tall peaks and its stunning water views, Catalina is definitely a perfect place for a zip line tour. Five separate lines, the longest of which is 1,100 feet long, will take you gliding across the valley at 600 feet up when you go on the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour. First time doing the zip line? Don’t panic! The instructors are experienced, super knowledgeable (not just about the activity but also about the island’s fauna and flora), and very friendly. They’ll even let you do a quick test run at the base before driving you to the topmost platform.
Airport in the Sky. Catalina Island’s one and only airport, owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, is set up in the mountains at 1,602 ft elevation, thus the name. It’s small, but it boasts amazing panoramas as well as a restaurant and a gift shop. Even the trip up there is spectacular as you’ll see untouched parts of the island as well as the wild bison that roam it, left here on the island by a movie production. Take the airport shuttle, which also makes a couple of stops at neighboring picnic areas, or go on a two-hour guided and very informative Skyline Tour. The drive up might be daunting at first, as the winding road on the side of the mountains is mostly not fenced, but you’ll get used to it.
Glass Bottom Boat Tour. Snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding are popular water activities on Catalina. But if you’d rather stay dry or it’s in winter and the water’s too cold, you might opt for a 45-minute Glass Bottom Boat Tour. A sizable glass bottom boat will take you from the marina to the nearby marine preserve 5 minutes from the bay. There, the boat will stop a couple of times as the crew drops food to attract all sorts of fish, rays, sharks and turtles that live in the preserve. And you can watch them feed in the comfort of the boat. You’ll even see an occasional sea bird trying to get in on the action.
Mt. Ada Bed and Breakfast. The former Wrigley Mansion set atop a hill overlooking Avalon and the bay is now a privately-owned inn, so unless you’re a guest there, you probably won’t be able to walk around the place. However, right in front of it on the side of the road is the perfect spot on the island to photograph the town. There are a couple of viewing platforms that jut out over the cliff, but if that’s too scary, the view from the road is just as spectacular. Be sure to bring your camera or your drone. You’ll come home with picture-perfect photographs.
Maggie’s Blue Rose Cafe. Growing up in East Los Angeles, Margaret Bray (or Maggie, for short), long time resident and wife of award-winning restaurateur Steve Bray, loved Mexican food. So when she opened her own restaurant, she wanted to bring those authentic Mexican dishes she grew up eating to the island. And so, three years ago Maggie’s Blue Rose Cafe was born. The restaurant prides itself in making everything in-house, tortillas including. They have a big menu so if you need help deciding, the lobster enchiladas, duck taquitos, grilled Mexican corn, and street tacos are divine.
Lloyd’s of Avalon. This confectionery makes its own salt water taffy, caramel apples, peanut brittle as well as fudge and chocolate in-house, making it a great stop for dessert lovers and those with a sweet tooth. The staff isn’t very friendly, but their salt water taffy is pretty good. Grab a bagful and an ice cream cone, which you can enjoy right on the beach across the road.