As the gift shop t-shirt says, a visit to laid-back Catalina Island is “time well wasted.” The island’s main port, Avalon, is picturesque even when it’s buzzing with visitors. Off Main Street, you’re never too far from a fresh catch or an island-inspired cocktail. While Catalina may be part of Los Angeles County, there’s hardly a hint of La La Land glitz. Instead, you’ll find that the sleek and laid-back island town, which has also served as a filming location for over 500 films, exudes its own kind of cinematic magic.
Both Catalina Island departure points are in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and San Diegans can make the ferry trip from Dana Point. the Catalina Express offers two trips a day from the Dana Point wharf directly to Avalon. Arrive at the dock early to check in, secure tickets, and move your car to dedicated parking. (Arrive even earlier and grab a light meal at the dock.) The 23-mile ferry ride takes less than 90 minutes, with indoor and outdoor seating, restrooms, and a full bar (take the Bloody Maria!). Once in Avalon Bay, the ferry takes you directly to Crescent Avenue, the small town’s colorful main thoroughfare.
Warning: prepare your walking shoes! Few cars or taxis exist on Catalina (and you don’t need them). Golf carts can be rented and hotels are within easy walking distance.
Settle into the “island decor” vibe of casual elegance Hotel Atwater. Just half a block from Crescent Avenue near downtown Avalon, the century-old property has 95 newly renovated rooms and suites. Celebrate your arrival with your two complimentary portions of sparkling wine. Rates for high season (spring and fall) and off season (summer and winter) are very reasonable. The hotel’s spacious lobby is filled with comfortable gathering places and has a cabinet full of board games to keep you entertained. Take a moment to admire the harp and accordion exhibits, formerly owned by the hotel’s namesake, Helen Atwater Wrigley, a respected artist.
If you’re looking to splurge, look for availability at Mount Ada. This sophisticated bed-and-breakfast was the mountainside getaway of former island owner William Wrigley Jr. (of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame). There are only six guest suites. The property features a billiards room, lounge and bar and a wraparound deck that overlooks Avalon Bay. Guests get free use of a golf cart for forays into the city.
Outdoor enthusiasts will want to explore the unincorporated community of Two Harbors, a narrow strip of land between Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbour. Check in Ban House Lodgea Craftsman-style Bed & Breakfast, or explore one of the four campgrounds on the west end of the island for more solitude – Parson’s Landing has remote beach access and Black Jack puts you just below the Catalina’s highest peak.
Experience both the island’s history and natural beauty by signing up for a Jeep Eco-Tour. Guided tours are organized by the Catalina Island Conservancy, to which almost 90% of Catalina belongs. This is why the island is largely unspoiled and undeveloped. Tours take you from the Crescent Avenue trailhead to the mountainous interior of the island. Buckle up in a six- or nine-passenger open-top Tundra or Jeep. During the two-hour tour, you may be able to spot the local bison herd. Fourteen of them were imported in 1924 for the film version of one of Western novelist Zane Grey’s books, The Vanishing American. After production ended, it proved too expensive to export the huge animals to the mainland. The Wrigley family wisely decided to keep and expand the herd, making it a unique tourist attraction.
To research Cartopia trolley rental for a self-guided bird’s eye view of Avalon: Four-passenger golf carts can be rented in advance, but some same-day rentals are available. Follow the provided map out of town along the coast and up Mount Ada, where photo ops abound. You’ll turn behind the town and descend through a canyon to Descanso Beach Club via Zip Line Eco Tour, where five separate ziplines descend to the beach at an elevation of 600 feet. Total distance: three quarters of a mile. The fastest zip line can reach speeds of 30 mph.
Once zipped you will land at the rear entrance to Descanso Beach Club. Island Luxury offers an abundance of rental lounge chairs for relaxing. Vacationing here feels like a cocktail in hand, a ceviche of the day on the way, and a DJ spinning beats while you lose track of time.
If you’re not one to sit still, there’s more to explore on the Trans-Catalina Trail. The 38.5-mile hiking trail begins in Avalon and winds through the interior to Two Harbors (serious hikers can expect to complete it in about four days).
Crescent Avenue also serves as the island’s culinary hub. The best cuisine is at Avalon grille. The restaurant has a lively central bar, high ceilings and large windows that open out to the bay. Almost all the restaurants on the island offer a seasonal menu; be on the lookout for andouille and lobster linguine from Grille or Pacific sea bass.
A few blocks away is the two-story double punch of Steve’s Steakhouse and Maggie’s blue rose. Steve (second floor) and Maggie (ground floor) are a married couple. Steve’s offers stunning bay views, juicy rib eye steaks and the catch of the day. Maggie’s offers authentic homemade Mexican dishes. You will be impressed by the corn and crab empanadas and the braised duck mole enchiladas.
Speaking of the catch of the day, the only place to buy sushi is a newcomer NDMK fish shop, whose poke bowls are lip-smacking and animated. Ask about seasonal sashimi. Another addition to the welcome restaurant: indoor/outdoor naughty fox at the Bellanca hotel. Stop by for breakfast classics with a twist (their cheeky baked French toast changes daily) or easy-to-share lunches, like spicy Korean calamari or ahi poke nachos.
Want to dine like a local? Call the shuttle for Buffalo Nickel and just head out of town. You can mingle with the regulars over a slice of pizza or a plate of fresh mahi mahi tacos. The islanders who frequent the place are welcoming, and just like the rest of Catalina, the unpretentious charm of this rustic, off-the-beaten-path restaurant will quickly draw you in.