There’s always something new to do in Catalina. “Catalina reminds me of a Greek island with its golf carts, clear blue ocean water and laid-back European atmosphere,” a Norwegian visitor told me while we waited in line at Avalon’s only grocery store. I nodded in agreement because Catalina is a pretty special place, accurately labeled “California’s island escape.” My wife and I have become big fans of Catalina, even though I had written it off a few decades ago, when a then-girlfriend and I went over for the day, walked around Avalon, had lunch, and took the ferry back. That was a formula that didn’t work for me, which we have since corrected.
So what makes Catalina so special? Let’s start with its fascinating history. Some rich guys bought the whole island more than 100 years ago, got financially burned (by a huge Avalon fire), and then sold it to mega-wealthy William Wrigley Jr., of Chicago’s chewing gum empire. After buying the island, Wrigley proceeded to develop it while conserving most of the island’s land. He created a unique ambiance in Avalon with a bird aviary, an art-deco building called the Casino (which was strictly a dance hall and movie theater), a nine-hole golf course and other exotic touches like the hilltop Spanish bell tower that still chimes every 15 minutes.
As the owner of the Chicago Cubs for 30 years, Wrigley brought the team to Catalina for spring training. Finally in 1972 the family donated 88 percent of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which now carefully stewards the island’s ecology and development.
If you go to Avalon’s relatively new museum, which I recommend, you’ll learn about many more intriguing historical tidbits, including the fact that 17-year-old Marilyn Monroe first discovered how attractive she was to men while she lived in Avalon as a young newlywed. After a short marriage, she left Catalina and launched her fabled Hollywood career. In 1936, Ronald Reagan decided to take a day off from his baseball announcing job and he went over to the mainland for his first Hollywood audition, and the rest is Gipper history. For whodunit types, there is an exhibit about the infamous death of Natalie Wood, wife of Robert Wagner, at Two Harbors.
Based on our past four visits, I think the key to an enjoyable Catalina vacation is to set aside at least two nights and three days so you can see different parts of the island, especially Two Harbors, dine in the beachfront restaurants and, most important of all, do a variety of the water and land-based tours.
Here are some of my suggestions and updates on new attractions:
Getting there: The Catalina Express leaves from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro daily, but be sure to arrive at least 45 minutes before departure in order to deal with parking and waiting in line. And best of all, the Catalina Express Birthday Promotion allows two to travel for one adult fare if you travel on your birthday. The ferry ride itself is part of what’s special about a Catalina trip — it’s exciting watching the yacht-filled harbor recede as the ferry glides into the channel, then glimpsing the craggy outline of Catalina Island as the ferry finishes its 22-mile trip. All eyes gaze at Avalon’s harbor, alive with all kinds of boats and the sound of kids yelling as they jump into the water. Note that it’s also possible to reach Catalina by private boat or airplane, or by commercial helicopter.
Where to stay: We prefer staying at the Pavilion Hotel, located across from the beach and the pier; it’s a short walking distance to everything in Avalon. The rooms are attractive, and in the afternoon the hotel offers free wine and cheese. Avalon has numerous house, condo and hotel rental options while Two Harbors offers one nice hotel and a bunch of ocean-view campsites.
Where to eat: Avalon has a plethora of options for eating. We ate delicious sandwiches and pastry desserts for lunch at Ben’s Bakery; for dinner we chilled in the upscale Avalon Grill and savored great food and wine while we watched people of all ages strolling along the beach.
What to do: This is where the magic of Catalina happens. Among many other choices, here are a few activities and places we recommend checking out:
Descanso Beach Club. Having a private, shady, beachfront cabana made all the difference in our day by the bay; we lounged in our comfy chairs while an attentive server regularly brought us buckets of cold water, drinks and food we had ordered.
For the physically adventurous types, stroll up the hill from Descanso Beach Club and try the new Catalina Aerial Adventure’s five self-guided courses suspended by ropes and cables in a grove of trees; also, check out the nearby five-line Zip-line EcoTour and climbing wall.
Snorkeling. We found two great spots: the Casino Dive Park in Avalon, and the University of Southern California marine science center’s protected bay near Two Harbors. They have gorgeous plant life and a good amount of fish, especially brilliant orange garibaldis. If you like to snorkel, you can rent gear if you didn’t bring your own.
Note: If you don’t snorkel, go on one of the underwater viewing tours in Avalon; the boats look like floating submarines but stay at the surface. It’s a blast feeding the waiting hordes of fish and observing their surprisingly colorful, plant-filled wonderland.
If time permits, visit Two Harbors for a full day (or longer for a completely different, tranquil experience). The new Cyclone ship sped us there in just 30 minutes, giving us from 10:30 a.m. until 5:40 p.m. to enjoy the tranquillity of Two Harbors. We loved the South Pacific-like ambiance at the new Harbor Sands, where we blissfully lounged in one of the new, thatched-roof palapas by the beach. There’s nothing better than being served hot food and cold drinks in a shady refuge before going swimming and snorkeling. Also, at this narrowest spot on the island, you can walk from one side to the other in just 15 minutes (about a quarter-mile).