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

19 Comments

  1. Catalina holds the promise of a great and enjoyable time with the family. As the place is small, and most of the sights/activity areas within walking distance and near the beach, it means more time to really enjoy oneself rather than spend time in travelling. I am sure you had a great time and really chilled out.

  2. Pingback: A Local's Guide to Orange County California - The Daily Adventures of Me

  3. Looks like you had a fun trip! The Newport Beach ferry to Catalina is just 15 minutes from us and we went once. Unfortunately I was 32 weeks pregnant and let’s just say the motion of the boat and pregnacy didn’t mix too well! Hoping to give it another try soon.

  4. I would love to go back to Catalina Island. Spend just 1-day on this lovely island. It was a packed day as we tried to see as much as we could. Would love to go back to just hang out at the beach or do some snorkelling. Thanks for reminding me of this place!

  5. Great inspiration for adding it to a SoCal trip. It really it a cool place and worth the boat ride, for sure.

  6. What an informative post on Catalina! I have never been and it looks beautiful. But I do wonder about the crowds… is there anywhere to go that is quieter and more secluded? That would be my norm but I can see it being super fun for a family gathering, especially with kids. The photos are great and you can really get a sense of the beauty of the island. Thanks!

  7. You are making me want to go to Catalina! My mom went for her birthday last September and found out the Express is free on your birthday. She also went ziplining. How’s that for a 71st birthday party!

  8. I loved Catalina! We just stopped there on a 3 day cruise but I want to do back and spend a long weekend there 🙂

  9. I bet Catalina Island would be fun to explore in the off season. It looks beautiful, but I think I would be frustrated with the crowds. Love your photos!

  10. This is on my go to destination list! Thanks for inspiring me to get it higher on the to go list, as it looks amazing!

  11. I lived in LA for most of my life and never went to Catalina!!! Too bad I’m not close by to visit anymore because your post makes it look fun! I had no idea there was so much to do there.

  12. This was really interesting for me to read. Lately, I have been looking for a place, in California, where we could get that California feeling you get from old movies (that’s our main cultural reference!) but had no idea where to start. Now I believe we know! We are hoping to go to this area next summer so who knows, maybe we’ll manage a trip
    To Catalina island too – it looks fantastic!

  13. Richard Reply

    Yep, Catalina has that 1920s and 30s California vibe to it. You can see it all in one long day from LA. I’d also recommend Santa Barbara, which is just up the coast.

  14. We have friends who go to Catalina regularly. I can see now why they are so enamoured with it!

  15. I’m quite grateful to only live a short boat ride away from Catalina but I have to admit that I don’t get there often enough…I think I’ll need to head there on my next birthday…when it’s free!!!

  16. Wow, I went here a long time ago- I don’t remember it to have that much development! I do remember the cruise out to the islands, it was a great day. Thanks for the memories.

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