Looking for a quick getaway that’s close by the west coast but will leave you feeling as though you’ve left the mainland? Catalina Island may be the answer to your vacation search. Just a little over an hour from the mainland, and in the same timezone, you’ll feel you’ve traveled to a different time altogether.
I’ve lived in Southern California for over a decade. I’d heard all about Catalina Island. Or so I thought. I knew that there was a historic round building in the harbor at Avalon. I knew people got all misty and faraway looking when asked about the place. I knew that there was a herd of buffalo roaming about the island, few cars, and good snorkeling.
But this was all I knew. Many of my friends had not been there either. Even the ones that grew up in the area. So when I told them we were headed out to Catalina and planning on checking out the many tours available through the Catalina Island Company my friends’ ears all perked up. “Tell us what’s there!” they demanded. “Let us know if it’s family friendly!” And the #1 request, “Let me know if it’s worth the ferry ticket price?”
To be fair, this cost is probably what has deterred us the most over the years. At $50-70 per person, it’s not exactly cheap to get our family to Catalina. It’s actually strange that we (and so many others) see it as a stumbling block. Because we can see the island’s shadowy outline from shore, it looks close enough to touch. It’s so familiar that it seems silly to spend the money to stay so close to home. This thinking, however, is misguided. In fact it takes about an hour and a half to get there on a high speed boat – just a little longer than it takes to fly to Vegas or San Francisco. We’d fly to Vegas or San Francisco for a similar cost, or more, so why do we question ferry prices? After making the trip, I’m happy to pay the ferryman to take me back again. There is so much to do and see on Catalina that this fare is worth every penny.
Avalon Harbor and City Center.
- Arriving in Avalon Harbor, you get an immediate and gratifying seaside view of the island’s most famous sight. The town of Avalon. Rich in film history and that of the Wrigley Family (think gum, baseball etc), this town has an almost Caribbean hamlet feeling. Homes are nestled up into the hills around a gem-like harbor. Pedestrian only streets line the waterfront. Colorful storefronts invite browsing and many restaurants and coffee shops have walk up windows where you can place your order for ice cream or a slice of pizza and take your food to go with you on your stroll or to be enjoyed al fresco on one of the many benches lining the promenade along the waterfront. One thing you won’t see much of in Avalon is autos. Golf carts are the preferred mode of transport and can be rented by the hour. Want to take it a little slower? Rent a bike at one of the waterfront bike rental agencies. You can also rent a trailer for the kiddos if you are so inclined.
The Sea Life.
- Much of the charm of Catalina Island lies below the ocean surface. Marine tours such as the Undersea TourDescanso Beach, which is a short walk away from the town center. The sea life continued to amaze after dark. Possibly our favorite activity while on Catalina was the Flying Fish Tour. This can only be described as magical and surreal to observe. Flying fish are present around Catalina island during the summer when they return to lay their eggs in the kelp forests around the island. They come out at night and look like massive glowing birds or fireflies as they leap out the water and soar for 40 feet or more, skimming along the surface before plunging once more. It’s something you won’t even forget, nor will your children. Flying fish are not to be missed!
The Avalon Casino.
- When we heard that there was a casino on Avalon Island we expected blackjack tables and slot machines. We were very misinformed! The word Casino is Italian and is used for any social gathering place, or place of entertainment. In the case of the Casino at Avalon, it is a movie theater and dance hall with a rich history. This building saw it’s heyday in the era of the big bands, when it hosted gatherings of up to 6000 party people, dancing the night away. The bottom level of the casino is a massive and spectacular movie theater that was built in the era of the silent films. The original pipe organ is still there, as are the fantastical paintings and glittering gold leaf stars on the ceiling. Once upon a time this theater was the ultimate in movie premieres. In fact the first “talkie” movie aired there. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin both attended screenings at this theater. The uppermost level of the Avalon Casino, accessed by a series of ramps, is a circular ballroom, surrounded by windows and french glass doors that lead out to the balcony promenade area. The ballroom and balcony boast breathtaking views of the entire harbor. Standing at the center of the ballroom, under the Tiffany chandelier, you can almost hear the echo of Glenn Miller, and the laughter of people dancing the night away in the cool ocean breeze, gazing out at the stars.
- Forget about getting your kicks on Route 66. For a truly thrilling ride and views of the island, choose the Skyline Drive Tour. Riding in a vintage classic (1953) tour bus up the twisting roads we were treated to spectacular views and breathtaking vistas. We caught a glimpse of the island’s famous bison, made a stop at the island’s airport, and learned a lot of history about the island and the Wrigley Family. Our kids thought the bus tour was the bomb, and were almost as terrified as us on a few of the S-curves going up and down the cliffs. It was a good kind of scared though. We never felt truly unsafe. It helped to know these buses have been doing this tour longer than we’ve been around. If you are more pressed for time and want a condensed version of the tour, check out the Avalon scenic tour. It’s a little shorter and stays closer to town, but you still get the fabulous views.
Where to Stay:
We checked out two hotels while on Catalina, both in Avalon and both run by the Catalina Island Company.
- The Atwater Hotel, is where we parked our whole caboodle for the duration of our trip. This historic building is casual and homey and has an old fashioned guest house feeling. The rooms are simply furnished: comfortable, and unpretentious. Our room was spacious enough to accommodate our family of six with two double beds, a roll-away and a crib. Handmade quilts at the foot of the beds were a sweet and charming touch. The staff at the hotel was friendly, helpful and quite knowledgeable about the island. They were also extremely patient and family friendly. We traveled with two other families with young children. Hotel staff never once frowned at our entourage of noisy toddlers and preschoolers in the lobby. One word of caution for families with young children and those with disabilities however: there are no elevators at the Atwater. You need to walk up a long flight of stairs to get to the rooms. Keep this in mind if you will have a stroller that you will need to carry to and from your room and pack a lightweight one! The Atwater Hotel conveniently provides luggage service to and from the ferry boat and also supplies beach towels for your use. It is located a couple of blocks from the main pedestrian promenade and within easy walking distance of Descanso beach, the Green Pier, the Avalon Casio and Avalon’s many restaurants.
- We also stopped by to have a look at the Pavillion Lodge. This hotel is right on the waterfront near the Green Pier. They offer a continental breakfast each morning included with the cost of their rooms. The rooms are decorated in a modern style and offer luxurious amenities such as Frette sheets. The Pavillion Lodge has a large grassy central courtyard with lounge chairs and patio furniture, perfect for relaxing. The courtyard is surrounded by rooms on two levels and opens up onto the main pedestrain thoroughfare and the beach. It’s a great choice for families as well.
Where to Eat:
We ate really, really well on Catalina and were not particularly scandalized by the prices. Although we’d heard tales of food being more expensive on the island, it really was not much more than anything we have regularly encountered at restaurants in the OC. So much for the so called “barge charge”. Highlights of our eating included:
- Big Olaf’s -You know how every tourist area has one place that has the best ice cream? Big Olaf’s is THE place to get your scoops on the island. Right along the waterfront and conveniently located on the way back to town from Descanso Beach. Look for the Buffalo out front.
- Antonio’s Pizzeria – A Catalina classic family eatery. Order your slice from the takeaway window or have a seat inside. The restaurant provides baskets of peanuts to snack on, and advises you to throw the shells on the floor. Our kids were scandalized and thrilled by this prospect (and fortunately, not allergic to peanuts!)
- Coney Island West – is a great little hamburger/hotdog stand on the corner opposite Big Olafs. It’s a perfect place to grab lunch en route to the beach. Order your food at the window and seat yourself at one of the many sheltered tables alongside the sidewalk
- The Lobster Trap – Perfect for a romantic dinner or night out with friends. Suitable for dining with children, but note there are no childrens menus or crayons etc, so bring your own if you need this! This restaurant served up fresh, local caught fish that was simply scrumptious. Servers were friendly and accommodating when faced with (my) gluten free dietary restrictions and happily provided half sized portions for our children. We enjoyed lived entertainment at this nautically themed restaurant – the stage is actually the back end of a boat.
- The Descanso Beach Club BBQ inner Under the Stars – Perhaps our favorite meal out on the island was one where we cooked and served ourselves. The Beach Club provided the barbecues, the appetizers, the sides and the desserts, and we supplied the meat to be grilled. We picked up super fresh Mahi Mahi and Ahi Tuna at Armstrongs on our way to the BBQ and grilled both with minimal seasonings for maximum flavor. Even our usually picky kids enjoyed eating the fresh fish. Dinner was eaten on table-clothed picnic tables beachside. After dinner the kids frolicked in the sand, while the grown ups chatted. Don’t miss your chance to try out the local signature cocktail at Descanso Beach club’s bar. The drink to order is a Buffalo Milk (no actual buffalo milk, in case you wondered).
What to Do:
My #1 recommendation of what to do on Catalina? Chill. Head over to Descanso and do as the sign says, drink in your hand and feet in the sand. Go for a swim with your snorkel, and take you time on a leisurely walk back to town, stopping for ice cream. The beauty of Catalina is that even though it is a short ferry ride from the LA area, the pace is completely different. Away from the cars, the smog, the strip malls and the billboards, it really is possible to relax. Other family friendly activities include:
- Check out the many exciting tours offerred by the Catalina Island Company
- Rent a Golf Cart and take it for a spin
- Rent bikes from Browns Bikes (310) 510-0986 and go for a ride
- Go fishing off the pier or go on a chartered fishing trip
- Go Parasailing
- Take a Guided Segway Tour
- Rent a Sea Kayak or Snorkel (or both) and paddle around
- Book a massage with Deanna Stone. Deanna is an expert in Lomi Lomi, a flowing Hawaiian style of massage, and practices traditional massage as well. An hour with Deanna is worth the ferry fare, and the ultimate in island relaxation. You will leave your appointment so de-stressed, you may never want to go back home!
What to Pack for a Family Vacation to Catalina Island:
We recommend packing in rolling luggage and/or packing light for your trip to Catalina. You’ll be loading your luggage onto the boat and hauling it off, so don’t pack more than you can comfortably carry. The island is very casual, you won’t need fancy clothes. If you wish to bring your own bicycles to the island, add $7 to your ferry fare.
- At least 2 swimsuits per person
- Water shoes for rocky beaches
- Baby Powder (gets rid of the sand that clings post beach)
- Your own snorkeling equipment if you own some
- A lightweight, easy to fold stroller with a generous basket
- A few sand toys to amuse the kiddos
- Sweaters/jackets and close fitting knit caps for the boat ride
- Queasy Pops, Dramamine, Psi Bands for motion sickness if you tend to have an issue (we experienced no problems)
- Ziplock bags for wet gear to go home in and for seashell collecting
- Lightweight totes for carrying gear and towels to and from the hotel (reusable grocery bags work well)
- A deck of cards, magazines, book for the beach and ferry rides
- Binoculars – there is so much to see and you won’t want to miss gazing at tall ships in the distance, pods of dolphins swimming beside your boat, and bison grazing in the distant fields.
- DVDs for your kids to watch and possibly a DVD player. There were DVD players in the rooms at the Atwater.
Want to know what’s going on in Avalon right now? Wish you were there? We do! Check out the island webcam.