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- Sail to Catalina Island: Catalina Express
- Swim and play on Catalina Island
- Tour the Catalina Casino
- Visit the Catalina Museum
- Relax at the Descanso Beach Club
- Join a Kayak Tour at Descanso Beach Ocean Sports
- Ride a Golf Cart on Catalina Island
- Explore Marine Life on an Undersea Sub Expedition
- Bicycling on the Island
- Stroll Through the Town of Avalon
- Dining on Catalina Island
- Family-Friendly Lodging
Just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island is a tropical getaway that remains somewhat under the radar. Many visitors to L.A. often overlook Catalina, and even some Southern California residents forget about this island so close to home. Getting to Catalina is a breeze via the Catalina Express, which sails from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. It’s an easy day trip. But spending the night is more fun.
Although I’ve been to Catalina Island numerous times since childhood and with my own three kids, I never tire of this slice of paradise in Los Angeles County. Whether to relax or play, Catalina Island is an ideal getaway. The city of Avalon – just a little over two square miles – was developed into a tourist destination by William Wrigley, Jr. in the 1920s.
Colorful cottages, waterfront cafes and shops dot the quaint harbor town. With the exception of a handful of shuttles and tour vehicles, Catalina is car-free. Residents and tourists get around Avalon by walking, biking, and driving golf carts. It’s part of Catalina’s charm.
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Located on Catalina’s west end, Two Harbors is a rustic village that sits on a narrow strip of land. An unincorporated area of Catalina, Two Harbors separates Isthmus Cove on the leeward side of the island from Catalina Harbor on the windward side.
It’s worth the short boat ride there. Especially if you prefer a more remote, secluded experience where you can hike the trans-Catalina trail, or at least a portion of it. Here’s how to make hiking with kids more fun for everyone.
Sail to Catalina Island: Catalina Express
Getting to Catalina is half the fun! And it’s convenient to reach both Avalon and Two Harbors. The Catalina Express, a fleet of eight high-speed boats, travels round trip from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point to both ports. The vessels are comfortable with both indoor and outdoor seating, a refreshment service, full bar, and restrooms.
My family and I usually prefer sitting on the outside deck to better see dolphins, passing boats, and even people parasailing and jet skiing. But it can get chilly, so it’s a good idea to bring a light sweater.
Once on the island, it’s also easy to travel between Avalon and Two Harbors via a speed boat, the Cyclone.
On my recent visit, I traveled with my friend Karen for a two-day girls getaway to Avalon. It was only her second visit to Catalina, and we were both excited to spend a couple of days relaxing and exploring the island. We sailed at 9 a.m on a Sunday in September from San Pedro, arriving an hour later to Avalon. Along the way (and on our return trip home the next day), we saw pods of dolphins.
As our boat neared the harbor, the historic Catalina Casino and green Pleasure Pier came into view, always a welcome sight. Although masks are required on the boat and the island due to Covid-19, that didn’t hamper two days of fun activities and dining.
TravelingMom Tip: If possible, book a late afternoon cruise on the way home to watch the sun set in the ocean. It’s a magical way to end a trip to Catalina Island.
Swim and play on Catalina Island
Avalon has four beautiful beaches, three public and one private. For a small island, Catalina has many land and water activities. These include swimming, fishing, kayaking, mini golf, bicycling, zip lining, snorkeling and scuba diving. Among the fun things are boat tours, including a unique flying fish excursion in summer.
In addition, the Catalina Island Company recently introduced the Rumble & Trek tour. This hybrid tour begins aboard an eco-friendly biofuel Hummer for a scenic drive and concludes with a hike. If you’re lucky, you may even see the bison that still roam free on the island. Fun fact: The bison are descendants of the 14 American bison brought to Catalina in 1924 for the filming of The Great Vanishing American.
Tour the Catalina Casino
When tours become available again after the pandemic, it’s worth taking a 45-minute Catalina Casino tour to learn about its history. Built in 1928, the Catalina Casino is the island’s best known landmark.
Despite its name, the facility was never a casino. Rather, the name translates to “gathering place” in Italian, and has served as a movie theater and event space. In fact, above the Avalon Theater is a grand ballroom restored to its original grandeur.
In its heyday, people would cross the sea for a movie, dinner and dancing.
Visit the Catalina Museum
To learn about the island’s early inhabitants, visit the Catalina Island Museum. Collections are comprised of artifacts from and about Santa Catalina Island.
The island was inhabited by the Tongva tribe as far back as 8,000 years, possibly longer. Later, the island was part of Mexico for a brief time and still has a large percentage of residents with Mexican and Latin American roots.
Relax at the Descanso Beach Club
Whether traveling with your partner, friends or family, it’s fun to spend an entire day at the Descanso Beach Club, adjacent to a free public beach. With its secluded location away from the main beaches, and a short scenic stroll past the casino, Descanso feels like a resort. Here you can eat, swim, lounge in a private cabana, and enjoy water sports. In fact, it’s one of the few places you can legally have an alcoholic beverage on the beach in California.
So, as the locals like to say, it’s where you can have your feet in the sand and a drink in hand. Which is exactly what we did shortly after arriving to the island. Sitting at a table under an umbrella in the sand, we slipped off our flip-flops and drank Bloody Marys just steps from the water’s edge. Sipping our drinks and feeling the fresh ocean breeze, we couldn’t think of a better place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
TravelingMom Tip: There are additional tables on a covered deck if you’re not a feet-in-the-sand kind of person.
Join a Kayak Tour at Descanso Beach Ocean Sports
Years ago, it was here at Descanso Beach that my kids learned to kayak when they were little. It’s still one of our favorite places to kayak. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports rents kayaks, snorkeling gear and life jackets for kids and adults. Kids’ kayak paddles are two feet shorter than regular paddles. The company also provides paddle pants, windbreakers and sandals if you didn’t bring your own. In addition, they offer guided tours for all abilities.
You can rent kayaks and other equipment to explore on your own. But Karen and I opted for a two-hour guided kayak tour to Frog Rock so we could learn a bit to learn about ecology and marine life.
Our guide, Donald, a local fifth grade teacher, led a well-paced two-hour tour to Frog Rock. As we paddled along the coastline, Donald pointed out landmarks and talked about the Catalina Island Conservancy. The non-profit organization protects 88 percent of the island, including more than 62 miles of unspoiled beaches and coves.
At Frog Rock, we pulled ashore for a snack and to stretch our legs. Admiring the varying shades of blue from the ocean to the sky, we took a dip in the calm, clear water.
Later, Karen – who enjoys kayaking – said the tour was fun and informative, and she was glad we did that instead of paddling on our own.
Ride a Golf Cart on Catalina Island
Although riding a golf cart around the island is somewhat touristy, it’s so much fun and you see a lot! Plus, it’s an easy way to reach hilltop views of the Pacific Ocean and bobbing boats in the marina. My kids always enjoyed riding in a golf cart and couldn’t wait to reach the driving age of 25.
It was Karen’s first time touring the island in a golf cart and I was eager to show her the sights and some of my family’s favorite view spots. We rented a cart from the Catalina Island Golf Cart and used a map to find the many points of interest.
As I drove and Karen navigated (sometimes missing a turn, which is always half the fun!), we followed the marked route to the Three Palms Overlook, Golf Course, Nature Center, and Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. We drove by hillside homes and back down to the Catalina Island Museum, Catalina Casino, and the zip line eco tour near the Descanso Beach Club.
Explore Marine Life on an Undersea Sub Expedition
The Sea Wolf Semi-Submersible cruises five feet below the surface of the ocean for close-up views of a towering kelp forest, and marine life that include Garibaldi, spotted calico bass, urchins, rock fish, and bat rays.
Since each passenger has his or her own seat and port hole, no matter where you sit you’ll have a great view — especially once the crew start feeding the fish and they surround the vessel in a frenzy. The crew also shares interesting fun facts, such as kelp grows up to two feet each day.
On the way back to the pier, there’s the option to stand or sit atop the semi-submersible for an enjoyable boat ride.
Bicycling on the Island
Biking is another fun way to explore the island. The Bellanca Hotel provides complimentary, standard-size beach cruisers to guests on a first-come basis, so Karen and I borrowed a couple to ride along the picturesque waterfront (so Instagrammable!), and up and down hilly streets (not so easy on a beach cruiser).
If you’re traveling with kids, Brown’s Bikes rents a variety of beach cruisers, electric bikes and mountain bikes for kids and adults. Traveling to Catalina from Los Angeles with a baby? The company also rents strollers (wheelchairs too.)
Stroll Through the Town of Avalon
Along pedestrian-friendly Crescent Avenue are shops and eateries. Cute boutiques sell island apparel, beach toys, souvenirs, and toiletries among many other items.
A popular spot is Lloyd’s of Avalon, an iconic confectionery where Marilyn Monroe once worked when she was still Norma Jean. Taking a break on our bike ride, we stopped for sweets at Lloyd’s – ice cream for me and iced coffee for Karen.
Dining on Catalina Island
Naughty Fox, inside the oceanfront Bellanca Hotel, is the newest island restaurant and features a coastal menu created by Executive Chef Russell Hayden. Formerly the chef at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, Hayden brought four employees with him to debut the hip beach eatery and bar. A glass blower by trade, Hayden adds a twist to his culinary creations – such as a lobster BLT, and fancy sauces to his burgers. The menu features his signature seafood cioppino, frito misto (fried calamari, shrimp and vegetables), seasonal salads, and burgers served on a brioche. Sides include a very tasty papas bravas.
Bluewater Avalon, located on the waterfront, has patio dining that extends over the water. It’s a relaxing place to enjoy a cocktail (try the Captain’s Mai Tai) and sustainable seafood, steak, chicken and burgers. In addition, the casual restaurant has an oyster bar, sushi bar, and full bar.
Antonio’s Pizza and Cabaret is a family-friendly restaurant with an outdoor deck overlooking Avalon Bay. Order off the menu or build your own pizza.
Descanso Beach Club serves lunch and dinner on the beach. Appetizers include a delicious hummus plate with a trio of roasted red pepper, roasted eggplant, and roasted garlic served with toasted pita and vegetable crudite. Entrees consist of burgers, street tacos, salads and Chef Kapo’s poke bowl featuring fresh Ahi tuna in a traditional Hawaiian marinade.
Catalina Island Accommodations
Generally, peak season is from late May to mid-October. Lodging options include locally owned hotels, vacation cottage rentals, and a campground.
We stayed at the recently renovated Ballanca Hotel (formerly the Villa Portofino), an Eat.Drink.Sleep boutique property. Located on the waterfront, the hotel has 40 rooms including seven suites, and four cabana rooms with private patios and ocean views. While some rooms can accommodate up to four people, the intimate hotel is ideal for couples and girlfriend getaways.
On my recent getaway, we stayed in room 107, a spacious cabana room with a comfortable king-sized bed, Keurig coffee maker, and chic bathroom with custom bath products. On our private patio, we sipped wine and nibbled on cheese and charcuterie from the onsite Naughty Fox restaurant.
The Bellanca also has a cozy rooftop lounge with spectacular ocean views, and comfortable lounges. Guest amenities include complimentary beach cruisers, beach chairs and towels.