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Catalina Island

Take a boat cruise from the mainland to this sun-drenched isle and its romantic city hub, Avalon

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Swaying palms, white-sand beaches, and melt-your-heart sunsets—that’s what you’ll find at island getaway Santa Catalina Island, just 22 miles/35 kilometers off the Southern California coast. Catalina, as everyone calls it, has all the elements you want in an island retreat—appealing lodgings, tempting seafood restaurants, beachy splendor, and family-friendly water sports. But you’ll also discover the unexpected, including a star-studded history—Marilyn Monroe lived here—exotic gardens, and even a wine estate.

Climb aboard the Catalina Express passenger ferry for the one-hour ride across the sea from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point, or take the Catalina Flyer from Newport Beach. Or, splurge on a 15-minute helicopter ride from various Southern California locations to quickly soar over the Pacific Ocean to Avalon (island tours are also available). Once you arrive, get around with rented golf carts or bikes, or just amble around on foot to explore the town of Avalon, play along Descanso Beach, or stroll down bustling Green Pleasure Pier, home to the Catalina Island Visitors Center, several restaurants, and other activities. There’s also a taxi stand in the center of town, and a fixed-route bus service runs regularly in the summer, plus weekends in the off season.

Catalina Island is a favorite spot for those in love with the outdoors and water sports, but the island also offers some exceptional dining experiences. Enjoy fresh seafood—on this island, restaurants often catch their own fish—at places like the NDMK Fish House and The Bluewater Grill in Avalon, or, in Two Harbors, Harbor Reef Restaurant.

Deciding where to stay can be half the fun—choose from luxurious hotels, vacation rentals, or even sleep under the palms at one of the island’s many campgrounds. Book a sojourn at a bed & breakfast in a historic home and get tips from the local proprietors—they might share some valuable insider tips. Once in place, divvy up your island time with an array of outdoor activities. Play a round of golf, zipline above Descanso Canyon, or ride across the island on an eco tour with the Catalina Island Conservancy (look for the rare Santa Catalina Island fox and the resident bison, who have lived here since a movie shoot in the 1920s).

With brilliant blue water and fascinating sea life, undersea adventures beckon in Catalina. 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. For a novel way to see pumpkin-orange garibaldi fish and other ocean creatures, join a SNUBA adventure: You can  walk across the sea floor without all of the heavy scuba equipment, all while breathing fresh air through a special hose connected to an air supply on the surface. If you prefer to keep your feet dry, join a glass-bottom boat tour or entertaining mini-submarine tour of Avalon Harbor.

In the island hub of Avalon, take a few hours to visit the Catalina Island Museum, splurge at ice-cream parlors, and browse galleries and souvenir shops. Don’t miss taking a guided walking tour of the non-gambling Catalina Casino, a dramatic circular Art Deco building that has stood as a welcoming sentinel since just before the Great Depression. Steer your golf cart up the twisty roads to Avalon Canyon’s Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, 38 acres filled with plants endemic to California’s islands. Within the garden is a striking stone memorial to William Wrigley Jr. The head of the Wrigley chewing gum empire, who died in 1932, purchased most of Catalina Island and protected it as a private land conservancy.

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. You can also take a 30-minute power boat ride from Avalon to Two Harbors aboard the Cyclone, operated by Catalina Island Company. 

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