After visiting with Jen’s parents in Cayucos, it was time for our annual family trip with Rich’s family.  This year the choice was the stunning Catalina Island, a jewel of an island only 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.  Catalina is one of the eight Channel Islands, and the only inhabited one, known for its “Old California” vibe and well-maintained Art Deco architecture.  The island became popular in the 1920s as a playground for Hollywood, and the Wrigley family famously built mansions and the “Casino”.

Getting There

Unless you have a private plane or boat, the best way to get there is by taking The Catalina Express, which runs from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point to the port of Avalon.  The boats are comfortable with air conditioning, bathrooms, and a snack bar.  The ride can be choppy so be ready if you are prone to motion sickness.  We have found that sitting outside on the roof deck made for an easier ride.  Adult fares are currently $72 per person round trip, children 2-11 are $56.50 and infants are $5.

Getting Around

Catalina is not that large, so it’s easy to get around.  Most of the hotels, condos and vacation homes are located right in Avalon, so it’s really easy to just walk from the boat.  Many hotels have shuttles and there are taxis by the ferry terminal.  A trolley runs daily from June through August (check for off season schedule) and goes from the dock to Descanso Beach and up to Wrigley Gardens.

Many people on Catalina use golf carts to get around.  It’s a fun way to get around but you may be shocked by the price tag–about $40 per hour for a cart that seats 4.  It is a fun thing to do for a short tour of the island.

Avalon Beach

Catalina has a small public beach in the center of town.  You can relax on the sand, swim or paddleboard right from the beach.  On the adjacent pier, you can rent Kayaks and snorkeling equipment.  It tends to get crowded quickly in the summer, so arrive early to grab a spot.

Descanso Beach Club

We were hoping for a little more space, so we decided to splurge on a private cabana at Descanso Beach Club.  The club is located on a beautiful private beach.  Getting there is easy with a shuttle from downtown.  They have 17 Cabanas available for rent and prices vary depending on the season.  Our cabana was around $400 for our party of 11 and included smoothies, water, towels, Lounge Chairs.   The cabana was large and comfortable.  The rental hours are 10 to 4.

It was an expensive afternoon but the kids loved the beach and the food.  They went snorkeling and rented paddle boards.  We were hoping to spend the day relaxing but the beach club draws a pretty lively twenty something crowd.  It was really fun but not relaxing.

Catalina Island Casino Ballroom

Catalina Island Casino Ballroom (or as locals call it, “The Casino”) was built in 1929.  It’s actually a theater and not a gambling hall: the name Casino is Italian for “gathering place”.  They offer a fun behind-the-scenes tour where you can walk on the same stage that has hosted hundreds of celebrities from Hollywood’s golden age, including Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. The tour visits the green room, editing room, theater, ballroom, and concert hall. The building is beautifully architected, with a rich history.
The 70 minute tour costs $27 for adults and $25 for seniors and children.  Tours are offered twice daily at 12:45PM & 3:15PM
There are also first-run movies shown every night during the summer in the main theater.  It’s a beautiful Art Deco theater and definitely worth catching a movie there, even if you don’t take the tour.

Joe’s Rent-a-Boat

Catalina is gorgeous from the water, and you really need to get out onto the ocean to appreciate it.  It’s a great place to snorkel and we were lucky enough to be visited by a frolicking sea-lion.

– Edited by Harrison Gaushell

For a good time on the water, Joe’s Rent-a-Boat offers 6 person motor boats for rent by the hour.  They’re reasonably priced and well-maintained, and the staff is easy to work with.  They’re located on the main pier.  You can take their boats 6 miles up the coast and 4.5 miles down the coast from the harbor, and they include fuel and lifejackets.  You can rent snorkels from them too.

Great Places to Eat

For a great quick breakfast, we recommend Original Jack’s Avalon Bake Shop at 122 Catalina Avenue.  They have all the basics of a great bakery, plus they make delicious breakfast burritos and they have excellent coffee.  It’s a walk-up counter that serves everything to-go.  Even if there’s a line, it goes pretty quickly.

For lunch with a view, our favorite was Bluewater Avalon Seafood Restaurant, right near the main pier in Avalon.  We enjoyed sitting on the deck and watching the boats drift by while eating delicious California seafood.  The salmon was fantastic and they had an expansive wine list.  It was kid friendly with a kids’ menu and special drinks like the Shark Attack (blueberry soda with gummy sharks).

For dinner or drinks, we really liked Avalon Grille at 423 Crescent Avenue.  It’s a stylish indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, with a sophisticated drink list and excellent food.  You can people watch while enjoying some brussel sprouts with pork belly or ahi tartare.

Looking for more fun things to do in Southern California?  Check out A Local’s Guide to Orange County California

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Chillin' in Catalina