Known to the locals simply as Catalina, Santa Catalina sits southwest of Los Angeles and is one of the many islands bordering Southern California’s coastline. The island is famous for its outdoor activities and wildlife, attracting thousands of visitors, including families and outdoor adventure seekers, on a yearly basis.
After over two decades of living in LA, we finally decided it was time to explore the island of Santa Catalina and find out first hand what the hype was about here. Since we were only visiting Catalina for the day and because our son with autism is somewhat temperature intolerant, we decided to focus on exploring as much as possible of the quaint island. We hoped that we would come back and stay there longer next time.
Much to our happy surprise, Catalina has quite a few places that can be enjoyed by all ages regardless of physical capacities and challenges. There are many activities that visitors can enjoy on the island like zip-lining, sea trekking, Canyon expeditions and fly fishing.
After staying overnight in Long Beach, we took the Catalina Express over to Avalon, the island’s largest city. The ferry ride was smooth, seating comfortable. We even caught a glimpse or two of some dolphins along the way. Upon arriving at the Avalon terminal, we decided to focus on four activities that sounded fun and would be a perfect intro to the island for newbies like us.
Catalina’s Glass Bottom Boat
The tour starts just steps away from the ferry terminal and runs several times a day. The seats are comfortable, and one can hardly feel any boat swaying, so the ride is likely suitable even if you suffer from sea sickness. Our sons enjoyed the narration and hearing about the different types of fish living in the area. Apparently, Garibaldi is the main event –so our son learned about the Italian leader and fish named after him in the same day.
Driven Tour of the Island
Chalk it up to the warm afternoon or the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend, but our driver/guide was a hoot. Her narration was witty, and we laughed out loud the entire 50 minutes we spent with her. She took us along the beachfront, up the hillsides (which are a bit scary but easy to get used to) and past the famous chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley’s mansion. Throughout the trip, we took some awesome Instagram photos. Overall a pleasant hour!
The Art Deco Casino
Despite its name, the Catalina Casino is no longer a casino. The casino got transformed into a cultural center with a movie theater, ballroom, and museum. Sadly we missed the behind the scenes tour since it clashed with the rest of our planned activities. We only got to see the outside of the casino which was stunning. Next time we’re there, we fully intend to book the casino behind the scenes tour, a small tour which lasts about an hour and a half and gives you unprecedented backstage access to the impressive building.
Descanso Beach Club
Located just beyond the casino is one of the last private beaches in California with public access. The resort, decorated with palm trees and cabanas lining the beach, offers various outdoor activities such as zip lining, a climbing wall, and multiple ocean sports. Our son with autism was very interested in the falconry experience, as he had read that you can be chosen as part of the audience to hold a bird of prey on your arm. However, the program was not offered the day that we visited.
Lucky for us, as we were walking through the chaise lounges near the beach, we came across two of the program’s trainers who were training the birds. We not only got to chat with the trainers about their process, but we also got to see the birds practice their show. Best of all, our son got a rare chance to get a selfie with the hawk after he was assured that the bird wouldn’t scratch him in any way.
Even though our son with autism is not much of an outdoor person, he did express interest in the zip-line tour and the climbing wall that the resort offers. He put it on his bucket list for next time we visit.
There are many quaint little restaurants to choose from for quick bites or sit-down meals. We opted to have lunch at the Bluewater Avalon Seafood Restaurant since we are avid seafood lovers. We had heard about their oysters and their English Clam Chowder in a bread bowl, and we were not disappointed. Since it was a sunny, not too warm day, we chose to sit outside on the water sipping their house mojito while dining and enjoying the spectacular views.
Before catching the ferry back to the mainland, we stopped at Luau Larry’s to sample their happy hour drinks and menu. The atmosphere was unique, though a bit noisy for our son with autism. We liked the funky murals decorating the walls, and my husband and I of course just had to order their Wiki Wacker specialty drink so we could get the silly straw hat and photograph ourselves wearing it. Our kids enjoyed the grilled chicken sandwiches and roast beef dips.
Autism Travel Tips:
- As we discovered, the island has plenty of activities for different people with different physical abilities. However, most of the activities are outdoors. If you or anyone in your family is more inclined towards indoor activities, you might have to search a little harder.
- Even though we visited on one of the busiest times of the year, the island didn’t feel crowded, and there weren’t that many lines for the attractions or restaurants.
- Make sure you book your tours in advance because they do sell out quickly.
- Make sure that you take a light jacket because the island has microclimates and it might be sunny one one side and chilly on the other.
- Be aware that few cars are allowed on the island, so everybody drives rented golf carts. Make sure your child doesn’t dart into the street unexpectedly and watch out yourself.
Overall Catalina is a beautiful place to relax from the bustling city of LA and is quite inviting and accommodating for families, especially those with special needs. We look forward to our next visit to try some of the activities we didn’t get a chance to experience.