There’s a fleet of time machines in Southern California. Their ports: Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Their identity: the Catalina Express. Where these boats transport passengers in as little as 60 minutes (depending on the port) is Santa Catalina Island, circa 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. As it turns out, the romance and pristine nature of those decades are very much still thriving on the island. Our recommendation? Set aside at least two days for full-on Catalina Island family vacation immersion.
Day 1: Welcome to Avalon
The trip to Catalina brings with it its own thrills. Dolphins following in the wake of the Catalina Express might be encountered along the way. Cruise ships may be setting a course in the same direction (their passengers visit the island on Mondays and Tuesdays). Travelers who prefer air transport wave as they fly past via helicopter. Today’s initial destination: Avalon.
Even from a distance, it’s easy to understand why chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. fell in love with and purchased the island in 1919.
Alerting arrival, a view of the iconic Catalina Casino on the horizon. This iconic round building isn’t a casino in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it garnered the Italian meaning of the word casino, as in “gathering place.” Since its 1929 opening, the Art Deco venue has hosted movies, dancing and, most recently, guided tours (check availability). A favorite: the Behind the Scenes tour where it’s possible to see the film projection room and ballroom that speak to the Casino’s heydays.
Entering Avalon Harbor, the Catalina Express drops passengers off at the Cabrillo Mole Terminal. A short stroll along the main thoroughfare of Crescent Avenue finds visitors in the heart of Avalon. Plan a stop at Trailhead, the flagship facility of Catalina Island Conservancy.
The Trailhead is the place to dive into Catalina’s sustainability efforts and learn about native plants. If you haven’t already reserved (recommended) a tour of the island’s interior, look into booking a Conservancy Eco Tour (see Day 2). Check for any needed hiking or biking permits. Do a bit of shopping. Head up to the second floor to take in a plein art display, or the third floor observation deck for sweeping island views and a look at some of Catalina’s native and endemic plant species.
Next up, an idyllic overwater lunch at the Bluewater Avalon. From this historic waterfront terminal building, it’s possible to watch seagulls swooping over Avalon Harbor. Making for the perfect lunch — Oysters on the Half Shell paired with a Bloody Mary. Follow up with the Chipotle Blackened Swordfish with Dirty Rice topped by Tropical Fruit Salsa.
Just across the street is the Marketplace Metropole. French Quarter ambience greets with cobblestone walkways, trickling fountains, restaurants, galleries, gift shops and boutiques. Kids will note the game offerings, including bowling, at Three Palms Avalon Arcade and Restaurant.
The Marketplace is also home to Hotel Metropole, with accommodations just right for families, especially the Beach House, an 1,800-square foot, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom space with a full kitchen, living room and a deck with ocean views. The lure of settling in with a book from the built-in library may come on. However, there’s too much to see and do. Time to hit the water onboard one of Catalina’s Glass-Bottom Boats.
Departing from the Green Pleasure Pier, Catalina’s glass-bottom boat voyage makes its way to Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve. As fishing is prohibited here, marine life is plentiful with everything from Garibaldis to jellyfish. Don’t just keep eyes trained on the vessel’s windows that peer to the ocean floor. Fish food is released, causing a flurry of activity both above and below the water.
Afterward, get an overview of other Avalon sites to visit with a rental from Catalina Island Golf Cart Rental & Tours. Spotted along the way: the entrance to Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Gardens, Chimes Tower and Descanso Beach. Don’t forget to look up to catch sight of visitors undertaking ropes course at Descanso Beach, or flying through the clouds on a Zip Line Eco Tour. Be on the lookout, too, for the unique-looking Catalina Island foxes who might just be visiting the local pet cemetery to pay their respects.
End the day with dinner at Hotel Metropole’s M Food and Drink. The Italian restaurant offers up panoramas of the bay and dishes inspired by the sea, such as a Calamari appetizer and Cioppino entrée. Prefer a “turf” selection like Filet Mignon? Theirs is made all the more flavorful with blue cheese butter and thyme.
As the moon rises over the ocean, stroll along the waterfront, taking in the moored boats and twinkling stars.
Day 2: Into Catalina’s Wildlands
There are myriad ways to explore Catalina’s interior, including hiking, biking and hopping aboard the Wildlands Express (reserve through Catalina Island Conservancy). Perhaps most exciting and informative, though, is on an Eco Tour that showcases Catalina’s biodiversity. This two- or three-hour Conservancy tour has access to 165 miles or roads and trails, much of which is unpaved terrain – no problem for the heavy-duty transport vehicle.
Catalina’s interior is a stark contrast to the bustling Avalon. The land here is largely untouched, home to American bison, who were brought to the island in the 1920s for a film and stayed, California mule deer, Catalina California ground squirrels and American bald eagles who return each year to nest (check out the Institute of Wildlife Studies’ live nest cams; link below). And then there are the Catalina Island foxes, who have their own “Foxpital,” part of Catalina Conservancy’s efforts to protect this endangered species found only on the island.
Incredible vistas are encountered along the tour. There are 62 miles of coastline. Ben Weston Beach, Cottonwood Beach, Whales Tail (with Little Harbor and Shark Harbor)… Awe-inspiring, remote beaches with rugged cliffs, rocky outcroppings and powder white sand compete for louder oos and ahhs as they appear. Also camera-ready is Summit Vista Garden, where plants found only on Catalina grow (keep an eye out for the Giant Coreopsis, which makes an appearance in Dr. Seuss’ Lorax). There’s more to be about Catalina’s native and endemic plant life with a stop at Catalina Island Conservancy’s James H. Ackerman Native Plant Nursery in Middle Ranch. Bringing with it an extra thrill – a sneak peek inside the nursery’s seed bank.
A mountaintop lunch stop takes place at Airport in the Sky in DC-3 Gifts & Grill. Menu faves: bison burgers and massive home-baked cookies (peanut butter-chocolate chip rock).
All too soon, the Eco Tour and visit to Catalina comes to an end. Climbing aboard the Catalina Express for the trip back to “current time” may seem bittersweet, but the good news… no matter the time of year, return visits are easily accomplished.
Catalina Island Family Vacation — Sources
Catalina Island Conservancy
Catalina Island Tourism Authority
Catalina Island Company
Three Palms Avalon Arcade and Restaurant
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
Catalina Island Golf Cart Rentals & Tours
Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden
Catalina Aerial Adventure
Zipline Eco Tour
Eagles’ Nest Live Cams