Locals say that in the summer, the skimpy beach along Avalon, the main town on California’s charming Catalina Island, is wall-to-wall flesh. “Optimists” is the name they use for the people who claim their bit of sand by 7 a.m., hours before the fog known as the “marine layer” burns off.
There were no teeming throngs when my 14-year-old daughter and I visited in late April as guests of the local Chamber of Commerce. But we found plenty to keep us hopping during a whirlwind 24-hour stay. We toured, we mini-golfed, we walked, we ate and we spent a couple of leisurely hours just watching the water, the harbor and the cloudless blue sky.
Getting to Catalina Island
Getting to Catalina Island is half the fun. We traveled via the Catalina Express ferry from Long Beach. The ferry is clean, comfortable and has plenty of windows for kids who want to watch the world of water go by. If you get hungry, there is beverage and food service (mostly sodas, alcoholic drinks and packaged snack foods).
Once you arrive on the island, plan to walk where you want to go. It’s possible to rent one of the omnipresent golf carts, but they are pricey and really not necessary unless you’re staying at one of the hotels built into the side of the mountain. Walking there with luggage and kids in tow would require a degree of fitness and patience that I don’t possess. There are bikes for rent as well but, again, riding them up the steep side of the island mountain isn’t easy.
What to Do on Catalina Island
This is an island, so it only makes sense to plan activities related to the water. No. 1 on that list ought to be a day at the beach. During the off season, this is easy. Only a handful of people had staked out a place in the sand when we visited. During the high season, it’s probably a good idea to stake a claim early, even if it leaves you vulnerable to locals poking good-natured fun at you.
The other water activity worth the time and money is the Undersea Tour run by Discovery Tours. We’ve done similar tours during family vacations in Mexico, Hawaii and Florida.
The Catalina Island tour is the best yet. The boat was clean and relatively comfortable, the windows were big and clear and the sea life was vibrant and interesting. It’s not a coral reef, but the huge algae trees and purple plants, neon orange garibaldi fish and the topsmelt with the electric blue vertical line thrilled the passengers who rode with us, particularly the older Japanese woman what squealed with delight each time the tour guide set off a feeding frenzy by tossing in handfuls of fish food pellets.
Later we hopped onto a bus for the Avalon Scenic Tour, also presented by Discovery Tours ($17.50 adults, $13.25 children, $15.75, seniors). Unfortunately, it didn’t work nearly as well for us as the Undersea Tour. We grabbed a seat on the right side of the bus only to find that 90 percent of the tour is best seen from the left side of the bus. The tour guide told more than his share of cheesy jokes, but even the comedy routine wasn’t enough to hold our interest when we couldn’t see any of the features he was pointing out. I did learn some island history and discovered that “the post office doesn’t deliver, the bird park has no birds and there’s a casino with no gambling.”
A better choice for kids 5 and over is the Canyon Tour. It’s pricier ($109.50, adults, $82 children and $98.50 adults), but lasts 4.5 hours and includes lunch. (Kids under 5 are not allowed on the tour.) Best of all, there’s no bus, just an open air, all-terrain, 12-passenger Mercedes Unimog that bounces you around the interior of the mountainous island to see the American bald eagle and Catalina Island fox habitat, the Airport in the Sky and the Conservancy Nature Center, among other highlights.
Another stop worth a look is the Casino. As the bus tour guide noted, this casino has nothing to do with gambling. Instead, it’s an entertainment venue built in the 1920s by the Wrigley family, (of chewing gum fame) which then owned the island. The first floor is a movie theater that shows first run movies nightly and the second floor is a grand ballroom big enough to hold the 6,000 guests who danced to the big bands of the 20s and 30s.
In the basement is the Catalina Island Museum & Art Gallery. I learned a lot of history there, but it has few of the multi-media and interactive exhibits kids expect from a museum these days.
Where to Eat on Catalina Island
We dined at Antonio’s Cabaret, Original Jack’s Country Kitchen and Joe’s. All were fine, although none offered stand-out cuisine beyond the coconut custard pie at Original Jack’s. The one downside of visiting in the off season is that many of the restaurants had yet to open. So there may be some amazing food on the island, but we didn’t eat any. For that reason, I recommend choosing where to dine by location. Pick one of the eateries on the dock or on the waterfront. That way, even if the food isn’t amazing, the view will be.
Where to Stay on Catalina Island
We stayed as guest of the luxurious Hotel Metropole. It’s a charming hotel in a great location right along the waterfront. Our room had recently been renovated and it was nothing short of beautiful. Unfortunately, neither the high-tech television nor zooty shower came with directions and we struggled with both.
There are plenty of rental options on the island, ranging from small luxury hotels to charming cottages. As always, a place with a full kitchen offers the best value for families traveling with kids because access to a kitchen means major savings on meals.