Catalina Island is a short boat ride from Los Angeles or Orange counties, but very far off in ambiance and charm. You can very easily forget you are in California and let your imagination take you to a Mediterranean Island.
Visiting the island today, it is hard to believe that it was established as a home for Native American tribes and later as a beef ranch. The development of Catalina into its current status as a tourist destination happened in waves. The person with the biggest influence on the island’s development was the chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. He purchased the majority of the island around 1919 and got to work improving it.
In 1975 Wrigley’s son Phillip handed his shares of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which now owns 88% of the island and is in charge of Catalina’s conservation, education, and recreation.
For a more detailed history of the islands go to Wikipedia.
Catalina’s climate is considered very mild. The temperatures vary between 64 and 75 Fahrenheit throughout the year – with some cold spells in winter and warmer highs in the summer.
Catalina Lore: The last time it snowed in Catalina was in 1949.
The most affordable way to get to the Island is by boat service from several ports. You can take the Catalina Express or Catalina Flyer for about $75 round trip.
On my most recent trip, I went with Catalina Express from Long Beach. They also have service from San Pedro and Dana Point. The long beach terminal is very nice with convenient multilevel parking. The trip on their boats takes around 1 hour and 10 minutes. See more here.
The boat ride itself is part of the fun. The boat departs slowly from the Long Beach Landing with great views of the Long Beach skyline, Shoreline Aquatic Park and Shoreline Village. Then you will pass by the Queen Mary and might catch a glimpse of a cruise ship preparing for departure.
The boat then heads to Catalina at full speed. During the trip, you can get some refreshments and snacks from the fully stocked bar.
For an additional $15, one way, you can enjoy priority boarding and the Commodore lounge with complimentary drinks and leather-trimmed seating.
As you approach Catalina you will first notice the cloud-covered mountains – and as you get closer you will see the city of Avalon with its famous landmarks. The most iconic is the round Casino building that never had any gambling.
To the left side of Avalon, you can spot the Wrigley mansion where William lived with his wife Ada in the early 1930s. Straight ahead you can see the beaches and the Green Pleasure Pier.
Cabrillo Mole pier is usually your starting point for your visit. When you first disembark from your ferry, the first thing you will see is a lot of fishermen.
You should also notice the Catalina Adventure Tours sign on your way out. If you haven’t already planned your stay on the island, you can stop at this tour operator and book a Glass Bottom Boat tour, a Submarine tour, or an inland adventure.
Another major outfitter on the Island is the Santa Catalina Island Company. They have many ticket booths throughout the town and offer great adventures. More about the adventures and attractions later.
Where to stay
Many lodging options are available. You can stay at one of the hotels right on the main street on the beachfront. This main thoroughfare is called Crescent Street and is mainly a pedestrian walkway. The hotels there are very convenient for beachgoers and families with kids. If your goal is to relax and enjoy the town and the beach, then those hotels are for you.
Another option is to stay at one of the Bed and Breakfast Inns sprinkled around town.
For the adventurers who are planning to get close and personal with nature, several campgrounds are available throughout the island.
My favorite way to relax and enjoy the island is to stay at a vacation rental away from the busy downtown.
Hamilton Cove Villas
We recently stayed at Hamilton Cove Villas and loved every minute of our stay. The villas are a luxury gated community that is located about 1.5 miles from the heart of Avalon. Each villa comes with a complimentary golf cart to help you get around during your stay.
Our villa had 2 bedrooms, 1.75 bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen.
The master bedroom was very large with an attached office/lounge area and a master bathroom with a luxurious bathtub. The villas also had a washer and dryer, BBQs, and flat-screen TVs.
The kitchen had a large refrigerator, stove, oven, microwave oven, coffee maker, and dishwasher. It was well stocked with utensils, pots, pans, and dishes.
The best part for me was the stunning ocean views from every window and from the large balcony surrounding the property. The balcony had a table and chairs which we used to enjoy breakfast while admiring the scenery around us.
The property also offers a shared spa, pool, and tennis courts.
Unlike hotels, maid service is not included automatically in your reservations. This is not an issue for short stays, but be prepared to do your own laundry and clean up after yourself for longer stays. If you can't live without maid service, you can request it for an additional fee.
Although you can walk down to the center of town, it is not recommended. The villas are situated on the slopes around Hamilton Cove, so climbing back up would be very strenuous and time-consuming.
Hamilton Cove is managed by Catalina Island Vacation Rentals (CIVR). You can view available properties and book your villa here.
Things to do in Catalina
Take a walk through Avalon
This walk starts from Cabrillo Mole pier and follows the curve of Avalon Bay all the way to Descanso Beach. The seawall along the beach (aka Serpent Wall) shows beautiful murals depicting life in Catalina and telling tall tales about the sea.
The main track is called Crescent Street. Along the way, you will pass by activity outfitters like bike rentals and parasailing. Then you will see families enjoying a day at the beach. The first beach has a pontoon that kids can swim to and jump off.
Next on your walk is the Green Pleasure Pier. The pier is your launch point for many water activities like paddle boats, kayaking, and glass-bottom boats. It is also home to several casual restaurants.
On the left side, you can browse through the many boutique shops offering resort fashion, artwork, and souvenirs. You also pass by Island Spa where you can get a massage, soak in a pool or get a hot sand therapy.
Crescent connects to Casino way through the famous “Via Casino Arch“. Continue your walk along Casino Way enjoying the commanding view of the round building. The casino was just a gathering place and was never used for gambling. It has a large ballroom on the second floor and a movie theater. It is also home to the Catalina Museum.
The casino facade showcases 3 large murals and the interior walls have the original Art Deco murals by John Gabriel Beckman. A guided tour is available for a fee and runs 3 times starting at 11:45 am. The 40-minute tour costs $12.
After your visit to the Casino, continue on to Descanso beach club. The club is a private business that offers water activities, cabanas, bars, and restaurants. But the beach itself is open to the public. If you rent one of their cabanas or beach chairs you can also enjoy drinks and food delivered to the sand. Because it is a private facility, alcoholic beverages are permitted on the beach.
Descanso Beach is also the starting point of one of Catalina’s most exciting adventures: Zip-lines. More about the Zip-Line adventure later.
Discover Avalon Tour
If you are visiting Catalina Island for the first time, consider going on the Discover Catalina tour. This tour takes you to the most popular spots in and around Avalon. Many of those points of interest offer stunning views of the town below, the ocean, and the distant mainland shore.
Some of the tour highlights: are Hillside Homes, Zipline Tour entrance, Beautiful Wrigley Home, Mt. Ada, and wildlife along the route.
Our driver, Carlos, was Friendly, funny and Knowledgeable about Avalon and Local History.
Taste of Catalina Food Tour
Another great way to explore Avalon is to take this 3-hour foodie tour. You get to try good food and drinks and learn about Catalina's history and culture.
We started our culinary experience at Steve’s Steakhouse where we enjoyed a savory tomato soup, coconut shrimp, and a tender marinated steak.
During the tour, we enjoyed 5 more tastes and a ton of information. Lili was very informative and entertaining.
My favorites were: The coconut shrimp at Steve’s; The orange chicken at Ning’s Chinese Garden; The Dark Chocolate/Pistachios bars; Clam Chowder and exclusive beer at Bluewater Avalon; and the Salted Carmel Ice Cream float at C.C. Gallagher.
Towards the end of the tour we were so full, that we had to ration our tasting. We just couldn’t eat everything that was offered.
At Ning’s Chinese Garden, we played the Fortune Cookie game with Lili. Each person had to say their fortune while adding “ … in bed” at the end. Needless to say, there were a lot of comical situations.
In future visits, we are planning to go back to CC Gallagher to enjoy their Sushi and Artwork. We will also have a full meal at Ning’s Chinese Garden.
The tour costs $89 for adults and is worth every penny. They also offer a happy hour tour for $69. Get more info here.
Rent a bike
Another way to enjoy Catalina is by bike. You can rent a bike from several shops in Avalon and ride your bike around town. The town is mostly on level ground until you get to the surrounding hills. If you want to explore up those hills, consider getting an eclectic bike or a Golf Cart.
If you are planning to do some biking through the wildlands you can contact Bike Catalina and get a shuttle ride to the airport. Then you can bike back to Avalon. The trails are mostly downhill with several steep inclines – especially towards the beginning of the trip. Go here for details.
A lot of those activities can be booked and started from the green pleasure pier. You can just rent the equipment and have fun on your own, or you can join a guided tour for Kayaking or scuba diving. Kayak tours can last several hours and lets you explore hard-to-reach beaches and coves.
If you want to scuba dive on your own, Avalon city set aside an area next to the Casino for this purpose – called the Underwater Park. Concrete steps take you down all the way into the water for a convenient start.
Snorkeling is very popular in Catalina due to the calm clear waters around the Island. You can rent snorkeling equipment and go exploring on your own or you can join a guided snorkel tour and get some useful information and instructions from the experts.
One of the highly-rated outfitters is Catalina Snorkel & Scuba. Check out their info, ratings, and review at Trip Advisor.
After checking in, you get outfitted with your equipment and you get a quick lesson on zip-lining. If you need to store belongings before the tour, plenty of free lockers are available. A shuttle then takes you up a winding road through the hills to the highest platform of the ride.
There are 5 Zip-lines between 6 wooden platforms going all the way from the top hill down to the beach. Each Zipline has a different personality. Some are short and fast and other are long with great views. One of the runs took us close to 40 miles per hour – what a rush!
The guides were excellent. Mike and Deny were very friendly and informative. They filled our experience with jokes and tidbits about the area. The tour is billed as an Eco tour, which means you are supposed to get a lot of information about the environment, animals, and plants. Thankfully, the guides asked us how much “Eco” we wanted during the tour and tailored the tour according to our wishes.
If you are not the adventurous type, stay away from this ride. You will basically be suspended from a steel wire and propelled from one platform to the next by the force of gravity. If on the other hand, you decided to take the plunge then you need to trust the equipment and the guides.
The harness and Carabiner used are in excellent shape and can hold a lot of weight. The guides kept double-checking and tightening the harness before every run.
Once you overcome your fears and take the first leap you will relax and enjoy the views. From the platform or while sliding down the line you can see the beach far below and the Casino building in the distance. You will probably also spot some kayaks, speed boats, and parasails.
The Zip-line tour takes around 2 hours and costs around $109. Look for discounts at their website here.
East End adventure
This is a great way to get introduced to Catalina Island. It is a tour on dirt roads through the hills surrounding Avalon - riding an open Hummers. The tour is operated by Santa Catalina Island Company and starts from Tour Plaza - a few blocks from the beaches.
I arrived early and waited in the covered seats while enjoying the most delicious ice cream from Lloyd's of Avalon Confectionery. Several tours and activities start from this tour plaza.
A few minutes before the tour we climbed on the huge hummer and were handed cold water bottles and blankets. The blankets may be needed at the higher elevations due to wind and colder weather.
Our adventure started by driving through narrow Avalon streets and with a continuous stream of information about Catalina. Our guide was really knowledgeable about the history and the environment. He pointed out some important landmarks like The Wrigley Mansion; which is now called the Inn on Mt. Ada; Green Pleasure Pier; The Tuna Club – a fishing club; Cabrillo Pier – where the ferry’s land; The main port where Catalina gets most of its supplies.
Along the way, we saw the only gas station in Catalina with shocking gas prices approaching $8 a gallon.
Heading up higher we left the main road and started on the dirt road through the wilderness. Most of Catalina Island is considered wildlands and it is protected by the Catalina Conservancy. The Conservancy owns close to 88% of the land and is responsible for keeping it pristine and protecting the flora and fauna.
As we climbed higher we started to notice the breathtaking views of the ocean from almost every direction. At one of the stops, we were able to see Avalon from a high vantage point. It was a great place to pose for photos.
It is a good thing we were in a hummer. The road is very steep and bumpy at times, but it is worth every minute.
Catalina Lore: Catalina is famous for its Bison (aka Buffalo). The North American Bison was brought to the island in 1920 as a prop for a Hollywood movie. When filming was done, it was cheaper to leave the Bison roaming the island.
On the way back we passed by some of the popular hiking trails like Hermit Gulch and Garden to Sky Hike. Those hikes start from Avalon and cross the dirt roads at the top. More about hiking later.
We also passed by several campgrounds, the Conservancy’s headquarters, and the water reservoir which is protected with the largest pool cover I have ever seen.
After 2 hours full of excitement and adventure we returned to the Tour Plaza and thanked our guide for a great trip. I will definitely be returning to try more adventures with the Santa Catalina Island Company. See tour details here http://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/activities-adventures/land/east-end-adventure.
Some of the hikes start from Avalon but the majority require some kind of transportation inland or to the other side of the Island.
One way to get to the hikes on the windward (west) side of the island is to take the Catalina Express ferry from San Pedro directly to Two Harbors.
Here is a list of the most popular hikes.
The trail is around 1.7 miles but it is a steep climb 1200 feet high. Your effort is rewarded with amazing views of Avalon and the ocean. Once you reach the top - at East Road - turn left and continue for a little while on East Road. Look to the right. You will be rewarded with a great view of the west end (windward).
This part of the trail climbs gradually up to 1600 feet with commanding views of the ocean from both sides. At this point, you can turn back to retrace your steps or turn left to start climbing down back to Avalon. The turn left will take by the Inn at Mt. Ada (the old Wrigley Mansion). The full loop is close to 12 miles long.
Garden to Sky Hike
This is an easy hike and it starts from the Wrigley botanical gardens. You can start by hiking to the gardens – a 20 to 40-minute hike from Avalon depending on your pace – and spend some time at the botanical gardens.
You will need to buy a ticket for around $7 general admission.
While there you can also walk up a flight of stairs to visit the Wrigley Memorial.
The trailhead to the hike starts from the gardens – but if you prefer to avoid paying for the entrance fee, you can take the Hermit Gulch trail around it. The sky trailhead is hidden behind the stairs to the memorial.
Tips: You will need to obtain a free hiking permit from the Catalina Conservancy. Permits are available online, at the gardens ticket booth and at many locations throughout Avalon.
The hike to the top is 1.2 miles and takes you to a viewpoint from which you can see the ocean from both sides of the island. At this point, you can backtrack through the garden and to Avalon or you can continue on a 4-mile loop with more breathtaking views.
You can start your trek from the Hermit Gulch trail or from Renton Mine Road. The trail has 5 main nodes:
- Node 1: Avalon to Black Jack
- Node 2: Black Jack to Little Harbor
- Node 3: Little Harbors to Two Harbors
- Node 4: Two Harbors to Parsons Landing
- Node 5: Parsons Landing to Starlight Beach.
Read full details at the conservancy’s website here.
A great way to explore Catalina hiking trails is with an expert. Those hikes are offered during the summer by the Catalina Conservancy. Check schedules here.
Some images were contributed by the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.
Some images were contributed by the Santa Catalina Company.
Some images were contributed by Catalina Food Tours.