As the gift shop’s t-shirt says, a visit to laid-back Catalina Island is “time well wasted.” The island’s main port, Avalon, is picturesque even when bustling with visitors. Away from the main drag, you’re never too far from a fresh catch or an island-inspired cocktail. Though Catalina may be part of Los Angeles County, there’s hardly a hint of La La Land glitz. Instead, the stylishly casual island town, which has also served as the location for over 500 films, exudes a cinematic magic all of its own
Catalina Island’s two mainland departure points are in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and San Diego’s can make the journey by ferry from Dana Point. That Catalina Express offers two daily trips from Dana Point Wharf direct to Avalon. Arrive at the quay early to check in, secure tickets, and park your car in a dedicated parking spot. (Arrive even earlier and grab a light meal at the wharf.) The 23-mile ferry ride takes less than 90 minutes, with indoor and outdoor seating, restrooms, and a full bar (get the Bloody Mary!). Once you arrive in Avalon Bay, the ferry will take you straight to Crescent Avenue, the tiny town’s colorful main street.
Attention: pack hiking shoes! There are few cars or taxis on Catalina (and you don’t need them). Golf carts are available for hire and hotels are within easy walking distance.
Settle into the “island deco” vibe of the casual-chic ambiance Hotel Atwater. Just half a block from Crescent Avenue near downtown Avalon, the 100-year-old property offers 95 recently renovated rooms and suites. Celebrate your arrival with two complimentary sparkling wines. Prices for both high season (spring and autumn) and low season (summer and winter) are very affordable. The hotel’s airy lobby area is filled with cozy hangouts and has a closet full of board games to keep you entertained. Take a moment to admire the harp and accordion exhibits – both formerly owned by Helen Atwater Wrigley, the hotel’s namesake, a respected entertainer.
If you want to treat yourself, check availability below Mount Ada. This elegant bed and breakfast was the mountainside retreat of former island owner William Wrigley Jr. (of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame). There are only six guest suites. The property features a billiards room, a cave and bar area, and a wraparound deck overlooking Avalon Bay. Guests have free use of a golf cart for forays into town.
Nature lovers will want to explore the unincorporated community of Two Harbors, a narrow strip of land between Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor. Check in Banning House Lodgea Craftsman-style bed-and-breakfast, or explore one of the four campgrounds on the west end of the island for more solitude — Parson’s Landing has secluded beach access, and Black Jack places you just below Catalina’s highest peak.
Get a feel for the island’s history and natural beauty by signing up for a Jeep Eco Tour. The guided tours are operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns nearly 90 percent of Catalina. Because of this, the island is largely untouched and undeveloped. The tours take you from the starting point of Crescent Avenue up into the mountainous interior of the island. Buckle up in an open-air six- or nine-seat Tundra or Jeep. On the 2-hour tour, you might catch a glimpse of the local herd of bison. Fourteen of them were imported in 1924 for the film version of one of Western novelist Zane Grey’s books, The Vanishing American. After production was complete, it proved too expensive to export the giant beasts back to the mainland. The Wrigley family wisely chose to keep and grow the herd, making it a unique tourist attraction.
Locate Cartopia car rental for a bird’s-eye view of Avalon on your own: Four-person golf carts can be hired in advance, but some same-day rentals are available. Follow the provided map to head out of town along the coast and climb Mount Ada, where there are plenty of photo ops. You’ll circle behind town and descend through a canyon to Descanso Beach Club while passing the Zip Line Eco Tour, which features five separate zip lines descending from 600 feet down to the beach. Total distance: three quarters of a mile. The fastest zip line can reach a speed of 30 mph.
Once you zip, you’ll end up at the back entrance Descanso Beach Club. The luxury of the island offers an abundance of sun loungers to relax on. A vacation here means cocktails in hand, ceviche from the day’s catch on the go, and a DJ spinning beats while you lose track of time.
If you’re not the type to sit still, there’s more to explore on the Trans Catalina Trail. The 38.5-mile trail begins in Avalon and winds its way inland to Two Harbors (serious hikers can expect to complete it in about four days).
Crescent Avenue also serves as the island’s culinary hub. For the best restaurants see Avalon grill. The restaurant features a lively central bar area, high ceilings and large windows opening onto the bay. Almost every island restaurant has a seasonal menu; Look out for the Grille’s andouille and lobster linguine or Pacific sea bass.
Blocks away is the two story double whammy Steve’s Steakhouse and Maggie’s blue rose. Steve (second floor) and Maggie (ground floor) are a married couple. Steve’s offers expansive views of the bay, juicy rib eyes and the catch of the day. Maggie’s offers authentic, home-cooked Mexican dishes. You’ll be impressed by the corn and crab empanadas and the duck enchiladas braised in moles.
Speaking of catch of the day, the only place to get sushi is Newcomer NDMK fish house, whose poke bowls are munching and lively. Ask for seasonal sashimi. Another welcome restaurant addition: the indoor/outdoor Cheeky fox at the Hotel Bellanca. Visit for breakfast classics with a twist (their Naughty Baked French Toast changes daily) or easy grab-and-go lunches like the Korean-spiced calamari or ahi-poke nachos.
Want to dine like a local? Summon the shuttle Buffalo Nickel and just drive out of town. You can mingle with the regulars over a slice of pizza or a plate of fresh mahi-mahi tacos. The islanders who frequent the place are hospitable, and like the rest of Catalina, you’ll quickly be drawn to the unassuming charm of this off-the-beaten-path rustic restaurant.