With its swaying palms, white-sand beaches, warmest water in summer, and melt-your-heart sunsets, Santa Catalina stands out as pretty-much-perfect island getaway just 22 miles/35 kilometers off the Southern California coast. Catalina, as it’s most often referred to by locals, has all the things you’d want from an island retreat—appealing lodgings, fresh seafood dinners, plenty of family-friendly water sports—but it’s also got unexpected finds, including a star-studded history (Marilyn Monroe lived here), remarkable wilderness adventures, and even its own wine estate. Climb aboard a Catalina Express ferry for the 1-hour ride across the sea, or splurge on a 15-minute helicopter ride, for an easy escape to California’s ultimate island paradise.
Visiting a town that can only be toured on foot, bike, or golf cart says a lot about the pace of things. While Avalon’s residents can tool around in (mostly) tiny cars, vans, and trucks (see if you can spot the world’s smallest Fed Ex delivery truck), visitors can’t rent cars to get around. That may seem like a hassle, but visitors often say one of their favorite things to do on Catalina is to noodle up and down Avalon’s steep and twisty roads in one of the toy-like carts, where 5 miles/8 kilometers per hour seems plenty fast enough for the pace of island life. Even without a cart, there is plenty to do along the flat and pretty waterfront—visit souvenir shops, splurge at ice-cream parlors, browse galleries, or take a guided walking tour of historic Avalon Casino (with arguably one of the most beautiful promenades on the planet).
"Dining? Order fresh oysters and sparkling wine at romantic Ristorante Villa Portofino and take in sunset view of the harbor."
Dining? Order fresh oysters and sparkling wine at romantic Ristorante Villa Portofino and take in sunset view of the harbor. To venture further, catch a trolley, cab, or bus, or take a guided Jeep tour.
On an island, undersea adventures beckon, especially on Catalina, where the water sparkles brilliant blue, water clarity is outstanding, and fascinating sea life abounds. The hub of many water sports and activities is Descanso Beach, a pretty 1-mile/1.5-kilometer stroll north of Avalon Harbor. Here you can rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (lessons and guided tours available)—a great way to see dolphins, seals, sea lions, and, if you’re lucky, resident flying fish.
While California’s Pacific waters are refreshingly comfortable here (up to 70°F/22°C in summer), most snorkelers and SCUBA divers don wetsuits to explore underwater; gear and instructors are available on the island. For a novel way to see pumpkin-orange garibaldi fish and other ocean creatures, join a Seatrek adventure: A specially outfitted diving helmet lets you literally walk across the sea floor while breathing fresh air. If you prefer to keep your feet dry, join a glass-bottom boat tour or entertaining mini-submarine tour of Avalon Harbor.
Adventure seekers can take a ferry ride or rent a boat in Avalon to reach rustic Two Harbors, on the island’s west end; the off-the-grid hamlet is a popular place for overnight sailboat and powerboat trips, as well as snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. Head all the way around the island to the remote and wild Little Harbor cove—one of the state’s prettiest campgrounds.
Founded in 1972, the Catalina Island Conservancy, one of the oldest private land trusts in Southern California, protects 88 percent of Catalina Island as a carefully managed preserve. Home to more than 60 endemic plant, animal, and insect species found nowhere else on earth, Catalina’s so-called “Interior” is home to rare species, including the Santa Catalina Island fox.
Join a guided Eco Jeep Tour (or guided hikes in summer) to bounce along on dirt roads with experienced naturalists; they’ll share information and insights about the foxes and other native species, as well as Catalina’s most unexpected residents, a lumbering herd of American bison (their ancestors were brought to the island in 1924 as extras for a movie). The popular Wildlands Express bus tour takes visitors to the famous “Airport in the Sky,” a small airstrip atop a peak at the island’s center. Mountain bikers can buy a day pass to explore 40 miles/64 kilometers of trails and unpaved road (gear and guided tours are available).
Tee up at what’s touted as the oldest course west of the Rocky Mountains. The meandering Catalina Island Golf Course at the base of Avalon’s rugged, scrub-covered hills seems like a private resort, but its nine challenging holes are open to all. (Two sets of tees at each hole allow you to play 18 holes if you wish.) There’s also a shady putting green, popular with dads and kids (in fact, Tiger Woods played here as a young boy). The course is the site of the historic Catalina Country Club (a nice choice for a relaxed al fresco lunch, even if you’re not a golfer), originally built as a retreat for the Chicago Cubs, who once trained on the island—a hint at the island’s primary owners, chewing gum magnate (and Cubbies owners from 1920 to 1981) the Wrigley family.
*FYI: The nine holes each feature two sets of tees for 18-hole play.
From its regal setting at the north end of Avalon Harbor, this dramatic circular building has stood as a welcoming sentinel since just before the Great Depression. The impressive Art Deco building was the dream of by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who bought controlling interest of Catalina Island in 1919. Wrigley saw the casino as a way of casting a magical spell on all who arrived—a way of seeming to say, “look, here is beauty, relaxation, and fun,” and a way to—for at least a little while—escape the country’s troubled times.
"Wrigley saw the casino as a way of casting a magical spell on all who arrived"
Inside, Wrigley hosted lavish dances and performances. Today, the tradition continues, and annual events guests (many dressed in period attire) still twirl in the casino’s grand ballroom, or watch first-run movies in the elaborately painted theater on the lower level. (On Friday and Saturday evenings, arrive an hour before show time for a live performance on the theater’s spectacular pipe organ.) Guided walking tours are also a must, shedding light on Avalon’s history and Hollywood connection. The Behind-the-Scenes Tour lets you peek into dressing rooms that had been closed for 70 years, and to walk on the stage where famed musicians like Benny Goodman played to adoring fans.
What’s an island getaway without a swanky place to sleep? Choices on Catalina include the Avalon Hotel, the carefully restored California Craftsman-style building that combines rich mahogany wood with Catalina’s signature tile artwork. And the hotel’s rooftop deck might just be the perfect place to relax with a glass of bubbly. Rooms at the oceanfront Snug Harbor Inn rooms come with jetted tubs and fireplaces. Hotel Metropole, named for the island’s original grand hotel (which burned in 1915), was rebuilt with sumptuous, coastal style—for an unforgettable splurge, book the 2-bedroom, 2-bath Beach House, where you can wrap yourself in soft robes and take in panoramic ocean views from your private deck.
High above Avalon, with fantastic twilight views of the harbor and Avalon Casino, there’s The Inn on Mt. Ada, housed in the original Wrigley mansion, with nice touches like ice cream available for guests in the butler’s pantry, plus appetizers, wine, and California bubbly, served every evening. For a roomier option on the island, consider renting a condo in the posh Hamilton Cove area; many units include golf carts so you can make the 5-minute drive down to Avalon—if you ever feel like budging from your chaise on your deck or by the pool. Exclusive Descanso Beach Club rents chi-chi private cabanas, plus beach valets and other spoil-me touches.
For a more remote getaway, travel to Two Harbors, north of Avalon, and Banning House Lodge, with expansive views of the Isthmus of Catalina and Catalina Harbor.
Devoted to art, culture, and island history, this gem of a museum is a great way to orient yourself when you first get to Avalon. Currently situated on the first level of the Catalina Casino—and slated for a much larger downtown location in the future—the museum includes a small digital theater, history galleries, and a special gallery, where shows can range from a focus on famous residents, like Norma Jean (a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe) to the island's role during World War II. Learn about Catalina’s original inhabitants, the Pimungan tribe, as well as early European settlers who worked as otter hunters and miners. You’ll also learn about the legacy of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who bought most of the rights to the island in 1919 and turned it into the island vacation destination it is today. (The Wrigley family still owns and manages much of the island.) After your museum visit, walk, bike, or ride your golf cart to the Wrigley Memorial in the island’s botanical garden, near the golf course on the east end of town.
Remote canyons, windswept ridges, secret coves and beaches—here’s a place where you can recharge your mental batteries rather than your phone. Managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, the pristine interior—the name for the 88 percent of the island that isn’t developed—is a permit-only mini-wilderness, perfect for a day of off-the-grid hiking. While you might not be up for trekking the entire 37-mile/60-kilometer-long Trans-Catalina Trail, you can do just a few miles. Get trail maps and tips from the staff at Catalina Island Conservancy, in Avalon; they’ll also issue you a free hiking permit (required), or you can get one online. Hikers typically ride the local shuttle bus to the airport to avoid the big hump up the main access point.
To really get away from it all, consider an overnight at one of the island’s five campgrounds or 17 boat or kayak-in campsites (again—you’ll need a permit, available in Avalon, at Two Harbors, or Hermit Gulch). Closest to Avalon is Hermit Gulch, a good option if you’re a camping newbie or you have little ones. Two Harbors, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, offers tent cabin as well as campsites. Little Harbor offers beachfront camping on the island’s wild and beautiful oceanfront side—just note it can be windy here. Want even more adventure? Take the tough hike—or paddle a kayak—to remote Parson’s Landing, shaded by pines and eucalyptus.
If that doesn’t get your adrenaline running enough, take Catalina’s Zip Line Eco Tour, a nearly 4,000-foot/1,219-meter descent down the canyon to Descanso Beach.
That beautiful stretch of ocean between Catalina and the Southern California coast does make for a magical setting; it also makes for a little bit of extra planning to get to the island getaway. Ferries leave regularly year-round from four mainland ports (Long Beach, Dana Point, Newport Beach, and San Pedro). Keep your eyes peeled—dolphins and whales are frequently seen.
On this island, walking is the preferred mode of transportation. In fact, cars are so frowned upon that there’s a 14-year wait list to own one on the island. Luckily, the main town of Avalon is only one square mile, making most attractions an easy stroll apart. Cabs and shuttles meet all incoming ferries, so it’s easy to catch a lift to your lodging. Or just walk into town from the ferry landing. There’s also a taxi stand in the center of town, and trolley services run regularly along two scheduled routes in the summer, plus weekends in the off season. Golf carts are popular for touring the hills above town—rentals are easily available, as are bike rentals. If you plan to explore beyond Avalon, shuttle bus and charter van services are available from Avalon to the Airport in the Sky, the town of Two Harbors, and campgrounds in the island’s center.
Ready to arrive in style, or maybe just in a hurry? Private plane or helicopter service is available.