Exploring Avalon and Catalina Island. Kayak, Snorkel, Scuba, SUP, Zipline, Rock climb, Sit on a Chaise and Drink a Cocktail.
Santa Catalina Island, the Isle of Romance! 22-miles across the Pacific Ocean (or 26-miles as the 1958 Four Preps song goes)
April 27, 2022
If you've never been, it's one of California's gems, an unkept secret among A-listers, vacationers, and those who live for adventure and the outdoors. It's reminiscent of the Italian Riviera, with colorful dots of houses and buildings terraced along its rocky coast. Its loveliness and relaxed nature exude charm. In a word-enchanting! When planning the perfect weekend adventure to Catalina Island, here's everything you need to know. Here is a one-day itinerary and a multi-day itinerary to experience all the magic of this beautiful island off the coast of Southern California.
Santa Catalina Island, the Isle of Romance
Santa Catalina Island, 22-miles across the Pacific Ocean (or 26-miles as the 1958 Four Preps song goes), is often referred to as the "isle of romance". With palm trees, white-sand beaches, and clear blue water, it's the perfect getaway for those looking to relax and unwind. Colloquially referred to as just 'Catalina', the island has two main towns: the one-square-mile, quaint, historic town of Avalon and the quieter Two Harbors located near the isthmus, best accessed by boat. The latter is more of a camping area, but there are houses, a restaurant, and a general store. Both have their unique appeal. Approximately four thousand people live on the island, the majority in Avalon. Visitors number over one million each year, with the peak season being March through November. Time spent in Catalina is an unforgettable experience at any time of year.
The Best Way To Get To Catalina and Exactly How To Do It: The Catalina Express
Contrary to what you may have heard, you don't need a friend with a Sea Ray to get to Catalina. If you're not keen on taking an expensive helicopter, then the fastest, easiest, most comfortable and cost-efficient way to get to paradise is via high-speed ferry, specifically, the Catalina Express https://www.catalinaexpress.com/ and we love it! It's a leader in luxury that whisks passengers between the mainland and the Island in an hour or less with a fleet of four high-speed catamarans and four mono-hull vessels from Catalina Express' mainland ports of San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. You'll experience a leisurely ride that provides some beautiful views of Catalina and a relaxing trip.
Founded in 1981, Catalina Express changed the time and effort it took to get to the island, and it's an experience not to be missed. With up to 30 departures daily and over 9000 channel crossings a year, passenger safety and comfort are a top priority. An extremely progressive company, they continuously update features such as computer-monitored ride control systems for vessel stability that smooth out 90 percent of the ocean's roll, high-tech navigational equipment, and state-of-the-art radio communications systems for safe crossings. In addition, every watercraft features airline-style cabin seating, panoramic viewing windows and on-deck seating.
Pro Tip: Buy your ticket ahead of time and make sure you leave and return to the same port. Parking is accessible at all locations; just enter the address in your GPS for easy navigation to San Pedro, $20; Long Beach Landing, $19; Dana Point, $20. (Cost is per day). Plan on getting there an hour before boarding and check-in at the counter first before you wait outside in the line for priority seating. Bring a hat or umbrella because you will be in the sun.
There are three categories for Tickets.
*General seating passengers choose inside cabin seating or outside upper deck seating. There is also a full bar, cocktail and refreshment service with light snacks, wheelchair accessibility and private restrooms.
*For premier accommodations on the trip across the channel, the Commodore Lounge, available on the Starship Express, Catalina Jet and Jet Cat Express, offers priority boarding, reclining leather-trimmed seats, private bathrooms and complimentary beverages/snacks with cabin attendant service. Only $20 each way additional, per person, more than the regularly priced ticket and well worth the upgrade.
*The Captain's Lounge is available on some boats for up to eight passengers, or it can be a hostess center for larger groups (Islander Express, Catalina Express, Avalon Express, Super Express). For $60-$80 additional each way, this includes priority check-in and boarding, plush upgraded seating and a complimentary beverage with service.
Catalina Express offers unparalleled service at all levels, including deckhands to assist with luggage. The Commodore Lounge is my recommendation. Catalina Express relies on a customized reservations system to expedite passenger service, and it's easy to book. For reservations and information, call 800.429.4601, or visit CatalinaExpress.com.
Pro Tip: seats are not assigned, so get there early to claim your seats, especially if you want to sit together with your group or family. Do this for the Commodore Lounge for a great seat to Catalina in the upper starboard side, front row. You won't be disappointed!
Pro Tip: still unsure of how to do it? Check out my Instagram highlight "Catalina" for detailed instructions on how to take the Catalina Express ferry.
Depending on where you depart, you can take the boat to either one of the two ports; however, Avalon is the main port and the best choice for your first visit to the island. Catalina Express will sail straight to the dock near Avalon. Once there, you can explore the island at your leisure by foot, or there are taxis if you wish to get a lift. When we lived on the island, we walked everywhere. Walking is how most people navigate Avalon, so bring a good pair of walking shoes.
Fun Fact: Visitors cannot rent or drive cars on Catalina Island, but visitors can rent golf carts to operate within the city limits of Avalon. There are cars on the island, but a limited amount is allowed. Currently, there are three separate waiting lists to get permits for a vehicle, some as long as a 35-year wait.
Exploring Avalon, the Island's Main Town, and Plan On Walking... A lot!
If you have half a day, a full day, or a week to spend on the island, there's plenty to keep you busy. The island is small enough that it's easy to explore on your own but large enough that you're never bored. Start your adventure in Avalon, the island's original settlement, famous for epic scuba and snorkeling spots and panoramic views of the Pacific.
Day Trip Itinerary
Many people don't realize Catalina is just a short hop, skip and sail away. You can visit Catalina in a single day if you'd like. For day-tripping, this would be my ideal itinerary suggestion:
Arrive by Catalina Express https://www.catalinaexpress.com/ (early boat).
Head towards the Green Pleasure Pier, a 407-foot-long open-air fishing pier that will put you right in the heart of Avalon. You'll find snacks and treats and answers to all your questions at the Love Catalina Island's Visitor Center, offering visitor information seven days a week. Book tours or water activities, visit the dive center or fish. We recommend excursions like the Glass-Bottom Boat or the Undersea Expedition. While munching on your breakfast burrito (maybe with a beer), you'll probably see the next big catch reeled in by a local.
It's a short distance from Crescent Ave. (the main drag) toward the circular building (aka The Casino). It's perfect for listening to the ocean waves hit against the shore. You can see this architectural masterpiece up close and personal. If you're interested in the island's history and seeing the inside of the Casino, we recommend one of their tours.
In the mood for relaxing? Enjoy some ocean sports at the private Descanso Beach Club. Kayak, Snorkel, Scuba, SUP, zipline, rock climb, sit on a chaise and drink a cocktail.
If you've worked up an appetite, find one of our favorite restaurants for lunch and enjoy the views. (We've got the best lunch and dinner suggestions below.)
Want to explore the island? Head back to town and rent a golf cart or e-bike, get a map, and see some sights, including the Botanical Gardens and Mt. Ada Bed & Breakfast. This former home of the Wrigley family, owners of the island, has some of the best views in Avalon, with an awe-inspiring lookout high above the bay.
If time permits, grab some dinner and then head back over to the dock for a good spot in line when the Catalina Express https://www.catalinaexpress.com/ arrives to take you back to the mainland. You'll be back home in an hour.
Pro Tip: Be sure to book everything in advance, especially if only there for a short time.
Definitely plan another trip soon!
Multiple-Day Trip Ideas
Catalina offers a scenic respite from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. It's relaxing and yet there are so many things to do there. It's a picturesque isle with palm trees and rocky shores, where visitors can experience a noticeable lack of chaos and the sense of urgency found on the mainland. It's also an island of adventure, where visitors can dive, snorkel, and explore while surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.
An exact itinerary would depend on personal interests, amount of people in your party and time. However, here is a list of some of my favorites, must-see and do.
You're the only boat in the world, and then suddenly, you see Catalina as a speck of green surrounded by an ocean of blue in the distance. As you slowly move closer, the mountains start to define themselves. Then, there it is; the most recognizable landmark on the island comes into focus, and you begin to make out the iconic building known as the Casino. In Italian, "casino" means "little house.", but the word has also come to mean a social club-where people could dance or listen to music.
Standing at twelve stories tall, the Casino is by no means a little house. William Wrigley Jr. had it built in 1929 with the dream of making it a social gathering place for the islanders. Hand-painted murals created by John Gabriel Beckman grace the entryway, and original walnut panels line the halls. The lower half was one of the first movie theaters for "talkies". The 50-foot domed ceiling has groundbreaking acoustics that everyone can hear perfectly in the 1,184 seats. The original pipe organ, one of the last of its kind, was built, shipped and installed by the Page Organ Company of Lima, Ohio, and still sounds incredible. The Grand Ballroom is above the theatre and is the world's largest circular ballroom without supporting pillars. Still unchanged from its original romantic style -- the ballroom has an impressive arching, fifty-foot ceiling, an elevated stage, raised seating areas around the dance floor, and the Romance Promenade encircling the outside. The views from atop the balcony are impressive so bring your cameras!
The Casino has two tour options for visitors, Discover the Casino and Behind the Scenes Casino. Everyone who visits should take one of these tours to hear the history of Catalina. My daughter loved my stories of how we spent Saturday nights watching semi-new movies in the theatre and how her grandparents would ring in the New Year dancing away in the ballroom above. She was curious and asked if we could tour it. We chose the shorter tour, as I have already spent countless hours inside this masterpiece. It was surreal to be inside the Casino again after all these years, and it brought back so many memories.
Fun Fact: The Casino has some paranormal activity, which I have heard about but thankfully never confirmed firsthand.
Descanso Beach and Canyon
Curious about marine life? Dive into all the ocean activities you can while you visit. Just beyond the casino, a beautiful cove and private beach known as Descanso Beach Club is the perfect spot for a relaxing day of sunbathing and swimming. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports https://kayakcatalinaisland.com/ offers daily activities and rents masks, snorkels, wetsuits and equipment. Catalina is truly an island of adventure, where visitors can dive, snorkel, kayak, paddleboard and explore the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Rent kayaks for a guided excursion to Frog Rock on a chilly morning, about a 30-minute paddle away. It's an excellent opportunity to see local Bald Eagles, Sea Lions, Risso Dolphins, Black Sea Bass, Harbor Seals, Osprey, Grey Whales and Garibaldis, the California state fish. A short paddle, lunch and ocean swim are all worth the little bit of saltwater in your hair..
Fun Fact: Catalina is the warmest spot to snorkel off California's coast. I've snorkeled in Catalina before using a wetsuit, and I was still cold, but I did see a baby shark. It is the ocean.
Tucked away in Descanso Canyon behind Descanso Beach Club, you'll find TripAdvisor's top-rated Zip Line Eco Tour, the challenging Catalina Aerial Adventure, and the 32-foot tall Catalina Climbing Wall, as well as the seasonal Catalina Falconry Experience.
Pro Tip: If you're scared of heights, plan some alternative activities just in case.
A dive on the island is well worth the experience and is a favorite destination of divers worldwide. The water offers some of the best clarity, and many consider it one of the world's healthiest marine environments. The reefs provide excellent viewing opportunities, including healthy Kelp beds and playful sea lions. In addition, Avalon's Casino Point Marine Park https://divingcatalina.com/casino-point/ has an abundance of colorful marine life, giant kelp forests and several shipwrecks to explore. Scuba diving in Avalon is an experience you will never forget. Several dive shops offer equipment rentals, certifications and guided trips.
Excursions To The Interior
There are several tours https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/land-tours/ you can take that will allow you to explore the heart of Catalina's rugged interior, following the stagecoach route from the 1800s. Climb aboard an open-air biofuel Hummer and venture through Middle Ranch, then onto the beautiful windward side of the island to view Catalina's rugged, unspoiled Pacific shoreline. The island of Catalina is home to many species of wildlife. Not only will you have stunning photo opportunities of the landscape, you just might come across bald eagles, mule deer, or even Catalina's largest terrestrial predator; not kidding. That's right, found only on Catalina and nowhere else in the world is the Catalina Island Fox. An adult will weigh 4 - 6 lbs, and they are probably the cutest things you've ever seen.
As one of the few remaining free-roaming bison populations in North America, the Catalina Island bison is an American icon. It was named the national mammal of the United States in 2016. The descendants of the bison brought to Santa Catalina Island in 1924 still roam the 75-square-mile island, grazing wherever they please. The Catalina Island Conservancy helps protect the habitat of the island's wildlife, and it sponsors educational programs for the public about the island's natural environment.
We decided to go on a bison adventure https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/land-tours/bison-expedition/ that took us four-wheeling as high as 1700 feet. The tallest peak on Catalina is Mount Orizaba, at 2097 feet vertical. It is two hours and not for the faint of heart. BUT, it is a unique off-road experience and seeing the interior on your Catalina trip is a MUST-DO! Did we see any bison? Well, it's not like they are all hanging out at the watering hole waiting for hummers to drive by; they're constantly on the move. We were told there was a 50% chance of seeing bison on our journey, but that didn't stop us. The excursion is a one-of-a-kind adventure, and in the end,... we did see bison.
Want to see the island's interior, but just looking to cruise? You can also explore Catalina's unique topography as you four-wheel across the steep ridge, around rugged canyons and up mountain peaks, where you'll have views of both sides of the island. Make sure you plan an excursion while in Catalina.
Renting Golf Carts or E-Bikes
Most people usually rent a golf cart. http://catalinagolfcartrentals.com/ It's entertaining for the family and easy to maneuver, just like a car. Exploring the island via motorized transportation is not essential, but it's an excellent opportunity to see more areas on the island than you would just by walking.
We decided to try out e-bikes. I was apprehensive at first because I wasn't sure about the speed, but you can adjust it. An e-bike is one of the greatest inventions, and I wish I had tried one sooner.
We rented two e-bikes at Brown's Bikes https://catalinabiking.com/ , just a ½ block from the boat terminal. Our daughter rented a mountain bike as you need to be 21 years of age to rent the e-bikes. Helmets are provided. E-Bikes are a fantastic way to see Catalina!
Enjoy over 20 miles of paved streets where bicycles may be ridden through Avalon and the surrounding area. Before you arrive, take a peek at the map included with your rental.
Pro Tip: If you wish to ride outside of Avalon, please keep in mind that you must first join the Catalina Island Conservancy.
You can rent bikes by the hour or by the day. We rode all over Avalon and loved every minute of it!
Avalon's Golf Gardens https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/golf/mini-golf/ will provide an afternoon of family fun with their unique 18-hole course. For nearly 50 years, this has been a beloved fixture on the island and one that we love to visit every time we're here.
Golf Gardens is known as one of the world's most beautiful and challenging courses. The classic styling and award-winning layout make for an unforgettable experience, even if you're no Tiger Woods. Par is 51, and the official course record is 41. It takes about an hour to play, but you're on island time now, so take your time.
Golf Gardens' main entrance is located near the Discovery Tour Plaza and is open every day, year-round, weather permitting. The last tee-off time is one hour before closing. Tickets may be purchased at any Discovery Tours location or the main entrance.
Catalina Island has been visited by smugglers, gold diggers, and pirates over the years. It's only been a resort destination for about 125 years. So before Avalon was a well-established community, nefarious sea-faring crews would hide in the coves or bury their treasure.
So imagine how apropos it would be to go to an escape room and take the Catalina Pirate Challenge. An escape room https://www.catalinaroomescape.com/ is great for family or group activities. Together, you find clues, solve puzzles, and work to "escape" the room. It's kind of like an indoor scavenger hunt!
If you have an hour to spare, ARRRRGH you ready to try your luck? They're open every day from 9 am to 10 pm. It's located near town, less than a five-minute walk from the Green Pleasure Pier. You can make a reservation online HERE. https://www.catalinaroomescape.com/ Plus, you'll receive complimentary photos of your experience at the end.
Other Island Activities
Many activities on Catalina are family-friendly. Some are just for adults, like the Catalina Wine Mixer https://www.lamag.com/digestblog/catalina-wine-mixer-real/ (yea, that's a thing)!
Where To Stay With Friends or With Family - Two Options For You
There weren't many hotels to choose from when I lived on Catalina, and many visitors relied on vacation rentals. Now, hotels are all over the island. Some are right in the middle of the action, and some are walkable, but a shuttle works well if you need assistance with luggage. We loved our hotel this past visit. It was a little off the beaten path, very family-friendly and the pool was the perfect way to cool off after walking all over the island.
The Catalina Canyon Inn
An awesome family-friendly choice, this boutique hotel in Catalina Island https://www.catalinacanyoninn.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=business_listing charms you with its intimate atmosphere. Just minutes from downtown Avalon, with a complimentary shuttle to and from the boat and the Plaza. It's a central location next to the best attractions and excursions. The greenery and abundant flora of the hotel reminded me so much of when we lived up in the hills of Catalina. After a day of walking around and adventuring, the heated pool was a fantastic amenity!
Hot Tip: When you're not out exploring, relax at their shimmering heated pool-which is the only one on the island.
The Bellanca Hotel
Traveling with friends or for a romantic weekend? Avalon's oceanfront Bellanca Hotel https://www.bellancahotel.com/ is an excellent choice. Amenities include free wifi and baggage storage, complimentary bikes and beach chairs, sundeck views from a rooftop terrace and elegant view suites with private balconies. Shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance. The Naughty Fox restaurant, located in the Bellanca, is Catalina's newest hotspot for dining and lounging, with large folding doors and windows that bring the beach to you. We had to try it out for lunch one day, and it was the perfect way to enjoy Catalina's ocean views while dining on delicious seafood.
Best Dining Options On The Island For A Delicious Weekend!
The Naughty Fox
One of our favorite restaurants! The Naughty Fox has a menu that features seaside classics and elevated café options in an intimate environment that is casual and perfect for this wonderful beach town. The quaint 12-table alfresco restaurant offers a unique spin on classic dishes and a playful cocktail menu. From "Shareables" to "Handhelds", fun (and foxy) menu items include:
Gold Medal Ahi Chili, which took first place in the 2021 Avalon RotaryClub Foundation's Chili Cook-Off
"Island Bennies" Bar – 5 Varietals - Pork Belly, Avocado, Lobster, Sausage or Smoked Fish
Korean Spicy Sauteed Calamari – Green Onions, Sesame Seeds, Chili Peppers
Lobster BLT – Applewood Smoked Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Tarragon Aoli, Brioche Bun
Ahi Tuna Nachos – Avocado, Mango, Fresno Chili, Cilantro, Crispy Wonton Chips, Sriracha Aoli, Sesame Seeds
Chili Mango Margarita – Chili Infused Blanco Tequila, House Mix, Mango
Buffalo Milk – Vodka, Crème de Cocoa, Crème de Banana, Kahlua, Half n' Half, Fresh Nutmeg
Fun Fact: Executive Chef Russel Hayden hails from the famed Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.
Check out the FULL MENU here. https://www.bellancahotel.com/the-naughty-fox/ We promise The Naughty Fox will be a highlight of your visit to Avalon.
The Pancake Cottage
A hopping waterfront restaurant with classic American breakfast & lunch plates, plus a full bar. There's a bit of a wait, but you can catch some rays outside or reserve your golf cart in the interim. The staff was especially amazing as I asked for more coffee and they brought a whole carafe to my table.
Check out the FULL MENU here. https://thepancakecottagecatalina.com/menu Loved the eggs bennie, chilaquiles, and the gluten-free stacks made me happy.
Catalina Cookie & Coffee
Grab a latte, bagel or breakfast sandwich at this easy walk-up coffee shop. Buy some extra cookies for later in the day too. Located near the Metropole Marketplace. Plan to order and then hang out for about 20 minutes while they make it fresh. It's a popular place in the morning.
The M Restaurant
The M, newly remodeled and overlooking the harbor, is the perfect spot to enjoy dinner on its oceanfront patio. The M Restaurant is adjacent to the newly renovated Hotel Metropole with an oceanfront view. The convenient downtown location is also the perfect place to host a special event for up to 150 guests, and we're talking Catalina birthday party weekends you may want to celebrate. The island has also known to host bachelor/bachelorette parties and weddings!
If you love Italian food, this is the place to go on Catalina! The M serves food made from scratch and in-house using fresh, seasonal ingredients, grass-fed, natural and organic meats and fish from sustainable sources. We tried several dishes, and they were all magnifico! In addition, they offer a premium bar, biodynamic and organic wine selection and craft beers.
Hot Tip: Create lasting memories with family and friends in their outdoor courtyard patio under the stars. You'll have a view of the ocean and the Casino.
Check out the FULL MENU here. http://mrestaurantandevents.com/ Watch the sunset over the water with the Casino in the distance. It's pure bliss!
The Lobster Trap
This fresh fish restaurant is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. A giant fish hangs from the ceiling at this casual seafood eatery with a casual menu & vibe. Open for lunch, dinner, happy hour, and late nights with one of the best bars on Catalina Island.
Check out the FULL MENU here. https://www.catalinalobstertrap.com/menu If offers a range of options to suit every palate and it's really FUN!
A popular bistro offering seafood & cocktails in an airy waterfront space with exposed beams & a deck. Fresh seafood and shellfish are prepared classically or with a modern twist.
Check out the FULL MENU here. https://www.bluewatergrill.com/location/catalina-island/ It's pet-friendly and great for groups too. Enjoy stunning waterfront views of the beach, harbor and casino.
The Cove Bar & Grill
Located at the Catalina Canyon Inn, it is the onsite restaurant, open daily, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Happy hour specials and a full bar with drink specials every day from 3 pm - 6 pm. They offer fresh California cuisine with American and Mexican flavors. We ordered BBQ ribs and fresh fish which were both perfectly cooked. Let the bartender whip up your favorite cocktail while you play a game of ping-pong outside. Dip your toes in the pool and enjoy some appetizers and a beer while you cool off. It's also an easy versatile venue to host a stand-out celebration or gathering, so check out their stunning indoor-outdoor space HERE.
Hot Tip: Definitely get dessert; our churro sundae was out of this world.
Avalon's only homemade ice cream and gelato shop. Located right next to the Green Pleasure Pier, there's something for everyone here.
Hot Tip: They say the Acai bowl is what breakfast dreams are made of and who doesn't love three 'Scoops' of gelato on a hot day!
Catalina Experiences You'll Remember For A Lifetime
The experiences I had living on this island were some of the most memorable of my life and influenced who I am today. Having first set foot on Catalina as a nine-year-old child and coming back over the years, there's still no loss of the identity I felt there. It's a place where my happiness was found. As for Catalina? Times are changed there and we have changed with them. However, no matter how things change, Catalina stays the same, a place of romance, peace and adventure.
Remember Catalina Island when you're planning a trip for the family, friends, or just the two of you. It's one of the unique Southern California experiences you can have with many things to do. You'll be talking about your visit for years to come. The best way to plan is to start with the Catalina Express. https://www.catalinaexpress.com/ You'll find boat and hotel packages to book together, which means all you have to do is start packing.
All Photos by Chanin Victor unless otherwise noted.
The Catalina Island trip was hosted by Catalina Express, but all opinions belong to the writer.