If you asked me to hop on a plane and fly anywhere in the world, I’d say: “Take me to the Mediterranean!” Who doesn’t love indigo water, crystalline shorelines, charming villages, fresh food, and an abundance of outdoor cafés? But European destinations along the region tend to be quite pricey, not to mention a long haul for Americans (and even more so for other Californians, like me). That’s why I couldn’t be more surprised, delighted, and somewhat obsessed with the European-esque destination I recently discovered in my own backyard.
Catalina Island isn’t exactly “new.” It’s been inhabited for at least 8,000 years, and was originally home to the Native American tribe, the Pimungans. In more recent years, William Wrigley acquired the island and, from 1921 to 1951, shuttled his baseball team to its shores for their annual spring training sessions. And, of course, Hollywood also fell in love with Catalina, using it as the location for many classic films as well as a playground for stars and show-biz elite. After visiting the island myself, I can see why it has been such a popular destination for so long.
- Location: California, USA (southwest of Los Angeles)
- Area: 75 mi² (194km²)
- Population: 4,096
- Highest peak: Mount Orizaba
- Island group: Channel Islands
- Largest city: Avalon
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
I visited Catalina with a group of friends in early March — far beyond the island’s high season, which typically runs from June through September. Off-season and shoulder-season travel are some of my all-time favorite travel hacks. Traveling during either season generally results in a quieter experience overall — one where you aren’t battling crowds, lines, or high prices. To maximize the best weather and the least amount of people, visit Catalina in either March through May or late September through November. However, don’t forget that it is Southern California, so even December or January could surprise you with perfect weather!
For this trip, we also opted for a weekday stay, as opposed to the more popular weekend trip, arriving on a Monday and departing on a Wednesday. Like off-season travel, weekday adventures usually result in lower rates and fewer people, which allows you to focus on enjoying the destination without added hassle.
Catalina Island is visible from Santa Monica to Laguna Beach, but this large island is actually much further away than it looks. The Catalina Express offers daily shuttles via high-speed catamaran that whisk passengers out onto the Pacific Ocean and onshore in about an hour — and it’s a fun ride. We departed from Long Beach and enjoyed the salty breeze and the sparkling views. We even spotted a dolphin along the way!
For those who have less time and the itch to splurge, there are also helicopters that can bring you to the island in just 15 minutes!
WHERE TO STAY
Though it’s possible to experience Catalina in one day, I recommend staying at least one night — ideally two. During the day, the main town of Avalon is usually bustling with daytrippers and cruise passengers. But by night, the town empties out so you’ll be able to enjoy the calm, quiet beauty of this island gem.
There are a handful of conveniently located hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts in the center of town. Be sure to book them early, though, as they do fill up. Your budget will determine the amenities and perks, so if fire pits, complimentary breakfasts, or water views are important to you, you’ll end up spending a little more. Personally, I felt that the location was the most important factor, as I wanted to be within walking distance of Avalon’s shops and restaurants. (Note: There are limited ride-sharing options on the island.) If you’d prefer to rent a house, check out the offerings on Airbnb. As with hotels, these do book-up early, particularly on weekends.
WHERE TO EAT
Although there are many great places to eat on Catalina, these are a few of my favorites:
As one of the nicest options on the island, Avalon Grille boasts a classic menu that has everything from well-cooked steaks to local seafood and mouthwatering burgers. The atmosphere is a bit on the polished side and the interior makes for a romantic evening, but the wraparound bar also offers casual cocktails and appetizers. It was even busy on a Monday night, proving that the islanders love this spot as well. Tip: Order the fried green beans to share!
The Lobster Trap
Another great Catalina dinner option at a lower price point is the Lobster Trap. This seafood joint is an institution in Avalon and it gives off an overwhelming “Cheers” vibe the moment you walk in. While we were there, the owner handed out shots, our makeshift table was on top of a pool table, and there was a live lobster running around. That said, the service could not have been friendlier, and the no-frills seafood plates were fresh and delicious. I could see how a simple dinner could turn into an all-night affair here, as the bar was hopping — even on a Tuesday at 7 p.m.
This local establishment wins best location, as it is set on top of the water. We went to Bluewater for a sunny lunch and enjoyed a tremendous view of the Avalon Bay while munching on fun, casual fare like shrimp caesars and fish tacos. I’d definitely go back for dinner or check out their bar in the evening. Just like Europe’s sunny outdoor patios, this waterfront restaurant is a place you could easily hang out at for hours with a coffee or a cocktail.
Lloyd’s of Avalon
You have to give a lot of credit to a candy shop that’s been in business since 1934. Lloyd’s makes all their own chocolates, salt water taffy, and fudge — and even claims to have served Marilyn Monroe. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a visit.
As expected, I sought out the best ice cream in Avalon, and every local I spoke with pointed to Scoops. And it didn’t disappoint. This is the place to go if you have a hankering for homemade ice cream or gelato. Beware, though — in the summer, the lines can get long!
WHAT TO DO
There is a lot to do on the island, with activities ranging from outdoor exploration to hiking, shopping, scuba diving, boating, and more. Normally the adventurer, I toned down my typical itinerary to focus more on relaxed experiences, as I was seven months pregnant — and I’m glad I did.
Ride a Golf Cart
Not only is the golf cart the mode of transportation on the island, they are so much fun to drive. When you’re behind the wheel of these small vehicles, it really does feel like you’re on vacation. There are self-guided routes across the island that you can take to access the best vistas. So be sure to hop on a cart and take in Catalina’s varied landscapes!
Go to a Spa
Island Spa Catalina is a secluded hideaway located at the end of Avalon’s main drag, and it really is an oasis. When you step inside, you’ll quickly discover the private courtyard complete with a sun deck, a beautiful pool, a lounge area (with sea views), and even a café. Take a class in their Wellness Studio or indulge in a massage at the spa. Or, just grab a day pass for a bit of R&R.
Hit the Beach
Just a 15-minute walk along the water from the center of town, the Descanso Beach Club is one of the true gems of Avalon. The sandy beach is bookended by natural cliffs on one side and the Catalina Casino on the other, making it feel like your very own private beach. If you get there early enough, you’ll have it all to yourself, but as the day wears on, the beach club kicks it up a notch. The outdoor restaurant-bar definitely becomes the place to be on the island.
The crystal-clear water isn’t just for swimming, though; you can walk to Descanso Beach Ocean Sports to rent a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) or kayak. Or, take it a step further and go on a kayaking tour. I highly recommend the guided two-hour tour to Frog Rock. Our morning paddle out on the glittering water was breathtaking, and I loved learning more about the life under the water from our knowledgeable guide. Along the way, we also stopped on a beach that was only accessible by kayak to rest, take photos, and enjoy some freshly made cookies. The pebbled beaches, giant rocks, arid cliffs, and sparkling ocean sure made it seem like we were in the Mediterranean.
Try Your Luck at the Casino
If you’re a history buff, you will definitely appreciate all that the Catalina Casino has to offer. Housing the first theater in America “designed for talkies” and a pink Art Deco ballroom, as well as views of Avalon and the bay, it’s sure to be a highlight of your visit. Plus, the Casino is the icon of Catalina, so you might as well explore why.
Go on an Adrenaline-Pumping Adventure
Many of my friends were able to partake in the more adventurous activities on Catalina, and the best reviews came from touring the East End via Hummer, seeing the island’s famous wild buffalo, parasailing 800 feet above the Pacific, ziplining through the island’s canyons, and tightrope-walking along the treetop ropes course.
Though it’s clear that Catalina is a popular getaway destination, most of the island remains relatively untouched. In fact, 88 percent of the island is a nature preserve, and the town of Avalon itself is only home to 4,000 residents. The rest of Catalina belongs to the bald eagles, the bison, the fox, and the flora and fauna that live on and around its shores. For an island that is in plain sight of one of America’s busiest cities, it is incredible that it has retained its natural landscape and retro charm.
Though you don’t need a passport to get to Catalina Island, it certainly feels like you step off of the catamaran into a whole other world.