Where else can you view dolphins and whales from the Catalina Express ferry, zip over a rugged canyon at 30 mph, explore the pristine and untouched wilderness in an open-air biofuel Hummer, and learn about the brilliant solar system at night on top of a vista, all in one day?
Catalina Island! In 1958 the pop band The Four Preps sang, “just 26 miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin for me.” Upon arrival, the island reminds me of the Amalfi coast with houses snug into the hillside. The circular “Casino” or vintage theater building greets you as you enter the breathtaking Mediterranean-esque harbor. The air feels better here, as we look in disgust at the long stretch of yellowish grey haze attached to the mainland of Los Angeles.
It had been 5 years since my last visit to Catalina, and now it’s time for my husband to experience the island he has stared at for nearly 20 years from Malibu. Although I had visited 3 times in the last ten years, it seemed way too long to not explore a place that we look at from our breakfast, lunch, and dinner table.
The pioneering Banning brothers bought Catalina Island in 1894 with the goal of transforming it into a resort destination. During this time the island was sporadically used for smuggling, otter hunting, and gold-digging. In 1919, after a run of bad luck, the brothers were forced to sell shares to a group of investors, like William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum magnate. Wrigley not only invested millions in the infrastructure of the island and tourist attractions like the “Casino” in 1929, but he brought his Chicago Cubs to train in the spring from 1921 – 1951. His main goal was to preserve the natural beauty of the island.
In the 1920’s Catalina transformed into the Hollywood playground for many A-list stars and the island also became the backdrop for many movies. A young Norma Jean Baker known as Marilyn Monroe (who you can find in old photos displayed in many establishments) lived in Avalon for a year with her first husband James Dougherty, a Merchant Marine who was stationed there during World War II.
Since 1913 Avalon has been the southern-most city in Los Angeles County with about 4,000 people living in the 2.9 square miles of Avalon Canyon. Most people visit Avalon on the east end of the island, one of the islands two towns. Two Harbors is on the west end and is more rugged, but probably a wonderful place to camp, hike, bike, or park your sailboat.
The narrow streets, “toy” cars, and golf carts that most people drive (since there is an 80-year waiting list for homeowners to own a full-size car on the island) preserve the small-town charm, a feeling hard to find anywhere in LA. A local shared with me that the mini cars allowed on the island are called auto-ettes. This trip I am shocked to see a Carnival Cruise ship off the coast. Apparently, the ship brings the masses in two days a week, so avoid those days on the island if possible.
A two-night stay is an ample amount of time to explore the island and soak up Avalon. The Catalina Express departs from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Newport with 30 departures daily. The ferry ride is about an hour for around $74 roundtrip.
This was my second time staying at the Pavilion Hotel, just a short walk from the ferry in the center of town. The hotel facing the harbor surrounds a central courtyard with tropical gardens and palm trees dotting the backdrop. Comfy chaise lounges in the courtyard are ideal for relaxing, reading, or sipping their daily complimentary wine (plus cheese) hour. Also, fire pits and heat lamps are available to enjoy wine or food with your friends or family while taking in the ocean harbor views. Sleep peacefully here since it is so quiet.
History fact: Natalie Wood visited a friend in one of the Pavilion Hotel rooms before her fateful night on the boat with Robert Wagner.
Other Pavilion Hotel perks include a scrumptious hot breakfast in their ocean view library, complimentary luggage service from the ferry to the hotel, and use of beach towels. Now daily group fitness and wellness classes are offered at the incredibly gorgeous Island Spa Catalina down the road.
The Island Spa Catalina (part of the Pavilion Hotel) is unlike most spas I have experienced due to the setting, located in the historic El Encanto building on the harbor. Don’t let the outside corner space fool you. Once inside, the lavish Spanish-style spa features 15,000 square feet of outdoor experiential spaces including luxurious lounges, a soaking pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, and shower with your own eucalyptus mister spray. My massage not only released all the tension from my body but so did the breathtaking ocean views from the upstairs relaxing deck. You may prefer a facial, body treatment, or another salon service along with the Encanto Cafe and spa shop.
EXPERIENCE AND DISCOVER
Although Catalina Island is a golfer’s paradise (with even beautiful 18 hole Golf Gardens Mini Golf), Catalina is also a fisherman’s dream. The island is given credit for the rise of modern sport fishing due to the famed Catalina Tuna Club, the oldest big-game saltwater fishing club. The Descanso Beach Club is also a nice place to unwind on their tiny beach. Years ago, I brought a picnic to the rocky shore, but now there are cabanas and sand that has been brought in. A restaurant and bar are available as well as snorkeling and kayak rentals. Other activities you can enjoy include parasailing, scuba diving, and viewing the marine life in a glass bottom boat.
If you have a couple days, don’t miss our favorite activities and tours:
Built in 1929, “Casino” originally meant gathering or entertaining place. You won’t find any slot machines here, but the world’s largest circular ballroom with a 50-foot ceiling, Tiffany chandeliers, and room for up to 4,500 dancers on its original hardwood floor.
It took me a fourth visit to finally get inside this inspiring theater to explore the vintage bar and theater with its elevated stage, dreamy original soaring murals, and sweeping Avalon Bay views from the top wrap around veranda.
Three unique tours offer a glimpse into the big band and ballroom dancing era, such as ‘Discover the Casino’ to explore the architectural wonders, ‘Behind the Scenes Casino’ to visit areas once closed for decades, and ‘Twilight at the Casino’ to toast the big band era on the historic dance floor.
Experience the 88-year-old theater by going to see a nightly movie at the Avalon Theatre at 7:30 pm and arrive an hour early on weekends to hear a stirring performance on the original Page pipe organ. This was the first movie theatre designed for talking pictures.
Zip Line Eco Tour
After zip lining in Costa Rica and burning through my glove and dangling with several miles down during the windiest day, and almost killing myself by crashing into a tree in Mazatlan, I was not super excited about zip lining in Catalina, especially after I saw the dinky lines above from Descanso Beach Club. The zip lines didn’t seem worthy enough. Boy, was I wrong! This two-hour adrenaline-fueled fun far exceeded my expectations. I am so glad I said YES! First, I am scared of heights and their new stopping mechanism makes it possible for anyone to zip line easily since the apparatus stops you before landing, so you don’t have to control the stopping before exiting.
Starting at 600 feet above Descanso Beach Club, you zip over canyons and trees on five lines at speeds up to 30 mph. I loved zipping along and enjoying the ocean views in the canyons. In a small group, the Catalina Island Company makes sure you are safe by checking your gear each time with a ten point check system. Thanks to our tour leaders Elena and Thomas, we were laughing (and occasionally screaming) through our eco-tour AND learning about Catalina’s topography, animals, and plants that make the island’s ecosystem so unique. Each landing had pictures and information to help you zip and learn. I left feeling exhilarated and accomplished.
For those who don’t make the weight cut (85 lb and no more than 285 lb I believe) to zip line, there is also the Catalina Aerial Adventure, just below the zip line created in a grove of eucalyptus trees. This ropes course has various levels where you can climb, swing, or crawl through a network of challenging obstacles suspended in the trees. An outdoor 32-foot high Climbing Wall is also nearby.
Island Tour – East End Adventure
I had wondered for years what the rest of the island looked like outside of the major harbor, Avalon. This tour in an open-air biofuel Hummer wowed me at every possible turn as we careened over rugged dirt paths in the raw untouched landscape scouring canyons and careening around the narrow roads with the ocean glimmering for miles. Our 4-wheeling adventure was driven and led by Bear, an Apache Indian with incredible knowledge of the area. The interior was not all what I had expected or imagined.
Get an intimate look at Catalina’s unique flora and fauna, such as the endemic fox (with longer island tails) most likely due to a unique adaptation, and numerous bison left over from the movie days of 1924. At one point we stopped on a ridge top to view both sides of the island surrounded by rugged canyons. This expedition was a highlight of our time on the island.
Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden
Walk about 30 minutes or take the Garibalidi City Bus, trolley, or golf cart (and walk downhill back to town) to view the cactus and succulent gardens leading to the memorial for William Wrigley who died in 1932. The idea for a garden came from Mr. Wrigley’s wife, Ada. In 1935, she supervised Pasadena horticulturalist Albert Conrad, who planted the original Desert Plant Collection. Santa Catalina Island’s temperate marine climate made it possible to showcase plants from every corner of the earth and now emphasizes California island endemic plants, plants which grow naturally on one or more of the California islands, but nowhere else in the world. Many of these plants are extremely rare, and some are on the Endangered Species list. Admire over 37 acres of botanical gardens and 6 rare plants that only grow on Catalina.
Evening Astronomy Experience on Buena Vista Point
This two-hour tour is led by passionate super knowledgeable self-taught astronomer and Catalina resident Kathleen Hill Carlisle. As you sit on top of a vista overlooking the sparkling town, your eyes begin to acclimate to the night sky where you will gain a new appreciation for the universe and our place in it. Dress warm as you learn about the history of astronomy, star lore, mythology, how to find constellations, and a basic understanding of our galaxy and solar system. Look through her 8″ diameter telescope to view the dazzling moon and stars. Book with Catalina Coastal Tours or call 626 290 2888.
EAT AND DRINK
Compared to Los Angeles, you can drink for pretty cheap on the island with drink prices about half than what they would cost in mainland LA. Don’t miss Maggie’s Blue Rose on the main strip with their guava margaritas, authentic Mexican food, and homemade tortillas. Order fish and shrimp tacos outside on the patio, or sip cocktails at happy hour at the casual Bluewater Grill. They offer an oyster bar, sushi bar, and a kid’s menu. Steps from Avalon Bay is Avalon Grille, a bit more upscale, where you can find Angus beef, free-range Jidori chicken, line-caught local fish, farmstand produce, all artfully crafted into dishes that capture the flavor of Catalina. Pick your own lobster (with no claws of course) or the daily catch at the divey locals favorite, the Lobster Trap. Try the clam chowder, ceviche from local white sea bass, or other indigenous eats (sand dabs, yellowtail) washed down with some Lost Coast Brewery pale ale.
For your own drinking bender, wet your whistle at Coyote Joe’s (since 1982) with a John Daly, and order the mashed potato taco. Order the tasty Wiki Wicker (light rum, brandy, pineapple/orange juice and grenadine) at the tiki-themed spot, Luau Larry’s (or find their hangover breakfast on weekends). Don’t miss their world-famous Catalina Buffalo Milk cocktail. For the ultimate dive bar that was built to resemble a boat by the Merchant Marines during World War II, walk on into The Marlin Club (since 1946) with a pool table, cheap drinks, and Jello shots. The interior is an underwater seascape painted in the classic Art Deco style in the early 50’s.
Go offseason, and enjoy the views off the coast in a boat.
Pack something to keep you warm at night.
Wake up early to catch a sunrise since Catalina is the only west coast city where the sun rises over the ocean because it faces east.
For those who like to lounge, bring a picnic and spend time on the beach at Descanso Beach Club or book a cabana in advance.
For spring specials, check out Catalina Island Company Specials.
If you want to zip line, book the Zip and Ship package to save money.