Southern California’s Santa Catalina Island has a magnetic appeal. This wonderfully captivating place feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of a busy world.
Located 22 miles from the mainland, the remote island paradise covers just 76 square miles and is accessible only by boat, plane or helicopter.
A surprising 88 percent of the island remains uninhabited, set aside as a nature conservancy to protect its rugged coastline, hidden coves, unspoiled beaches, rare plants, endangered species and threatened habitats.
Thrilled to be traveling back to this magnificent place, we boarded the Catalina Express catamaran from Dana Point Harbor for a relaxing one-hour journey to Catalina Island for our weekend escape.
Boats arrive in Avalon, the picturesque seaport village reminiscent of a Mediterranean waterfront framed by verdant cliffs plunging into sparkling aquamarine waters.
Relaxing on the Island
There’s nothing better than staying just steps from the beach in the heart of Avalon. And that’s exactly what the boutique and island chic Pavilion Hotel offers.
Tastefully appointed rooms and suites surround a lush, tropical central courtyard filled with flora and fauna. Lounge chairs with umbrellas were so inviting, that when I sat for “just a few minutes,” I ended up dozing under gentle ocean breezes with the sounds of the seagulls and ship horns in the distance. Relaxation comes easy in paradise.
An outdoor fire pit facing the ocean was popular with patrons along with the complimentary wine and cheese reception held each evening on the patio. A hot breakfast buffet is also included with the stay.
Service here was unhurried and impeccable. So much so, that guests are greeted dockside upon arrival by a hotel bellman that transports luggage directly to the hotel.
Getting Around the Island
Cars are scarce on the island. Unbelievably, it takes residents 14 years to obtain a vehicle permit. Walking, along with bikes and golf carts are the principal forms of transportation.
It’s not so different for island visitors. Central Avalon sports an easily walkable ocean promenade. Charming streets veering off the central square are filled with myriad fascinating island boutiques and restaurants.
There are no stop lights on the island and as we noticed very few stop signs.
On our first day, we rented electric bikes (called e-bikes by the locals) from Browns Bikes on the waterfront to more easily navigate the steep curves and inclines. There are more than 20 miles of paved streets through Avalon and its surrounding hillsides, some leading to unparalleled views of the island and the Pacific Ocean.
Catalina Golf Cart Rentals was the perfect answer for venturing a little further out. There’s so much incredible coastal scenery to explore, that having a golf cart gave us the freedom to see it all.
And with the rental company’s preplanned 12-mile scenic route highlighting the must-see spots, it seemed that every stop featured a breathtaking vista more incredible than the one before. And a word of advice here: don’t forget your camera. The views are amazing.
Playing on the Island
Spending a full weekend on Catalina will never be enough time to cover all the fun activities to do here. But there are some definite “musts” for first-time visitors.
The island’s glamorous iconic landmark, the Casino, isn’t a gambling casino at all. Built in 1929, the majestic 12-story circular structure standing watch over a yacht-filled harbor took its name from the Italian meaning of “gathering place.”
Catalina’s premier citizen, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. commissioned construction of the casino to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his 1919 purchase of the island.
Some of the nation’s most famous performers like Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, played here. Thousands traveled across the sea by passenger steamers from the mainland. They came to dine, watch silent movies in the famous art deco theater and twirl away on the world’s largest circular ballroom to the sounds of big band music.
Hollywood’s Golden Era celebrities likewise flocked to Catalina where many entertained on stage at the Avalon Theater.
The Behind the Scenes Casino tour takes visitors to places where the stars once roamed. It was exciting to visit the theater, backstage dressing rooms, some still containing period dresses, brushes and makeup cases used by the stars. The projection room with state-of-the-art equipment now antique is a reminder of the time when talking pictures were first ushered in.
Photos of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and other stars of yesteryear still adorn the walls.
But the highlight of the tour was the magnificent ballroom that once held 6,000 dancers on its wooden floor. A massive colorful art deco chandelier is the stunning centerpiece of the room. Stepping out onto the balcony provided spectacular views of the harbor. And one can only imagine what this must have been like in its heyday.
The Pacific waters were a little chilly for snorkeling this time of year, but the perfect alternative was exploring Catalina’s magnificent undersea world in a semi-submersible.
On Catalina Tours Undersea Expedition, we cruised five feet under the ocean in a spacious cabin. Each passenger with their own seat and porthole oohed and aahed each time another school of colorful fish, bat rays or sea life swam through the kelp beds in the clear, crystalline waters of the bay. Among our unexpected porthole visitors were a curious sea lion and a hungry diving duck.
Not only were the little ones excited, but the big kids were too.
Myriad other island activities include diving, parasailing, zip-lining, fishing, kayaking, golfing, hiking, eco-tours and much more to satisfy the needs of any adventure-seeker.
Sea to Table Island Dining
The best place to get the freshest seafood available is, of course, on an island.
Local fishermen bring in their daily catches of lobster, swordfish, Bluefin, Yellowfin tuna and more, with restaurant specials reflecting what’s coming in off the boats.
Avalon Grille overlooking Avalon Bay is island casual elegance at its best. And for those who love fish, it’s a guaranteed to be the finest meal you’ll enjoy on the island. Entrees here are creative, innovative and enticing with a distinct California coastal influence.
The grilled octopus, a signature starter was definitely one of the tastiest we’ve ever had. Followed by Crispy Scallops and Calamari, the pan-seared scallops and flash-fried local squid tossed in sweet coconut chili sauce and served with braised bok choy over a baby carrot and ginger puree was magnificent.
An absolute must-share dessert is the heavenly Chocolate Lava Cake, filled with rich chocolate sauce, accompanied by velvety Black Market bourbon vanilla gelato, whipped cream and mixed berry compote.
One meal here and we can’t even imagine coming back to the island without eating at Avalon Grille.
Descanso Beach Club’s seaside restaurant with its spectacular views looks like something right out of a Mediterranean painting. But it’s not the vista alone that makes the eatery so popular with locals and visitors. It’s the food and its amazing island drinks.
The experience of just kicking back with Catalina cocktails overlooking the beach, Casino to the right, and massive bluffs to the left was unforgettable.
Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl was superb as was the Creamy Tomato Basil Soup and Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Made with five different kinds of cheese between two crispy sourdough pieces of bread, no one’s ever made comfort food taste so good.
We just couldn’t get enough of Catalina seafood, so, dining at Bluewater Grill was another great choice during our visit. Avalon’s premier waterfront restaurant with harbor-side dining, Bluewater’s mantra is “come in, get hooked,” and we did.
Mussels and clams with Spanish chorizo and toasted bread for dipping were mouthwatering. And we can unequivocally proclaim that their Italian Cioppino was one of the best we’ve had outside of San Francisco, the Cioppino capital of the U.S.
With its many adventure offerings, great dining, relaxation and boutique shopping, Catalina Island is the perfect weekend escape.
This jewel-like island recalls a simpler time with its vintage charm, and glimpses of what an earlier undeveloped Southern California once was. That’s why this magical hideaway across the sea is like a siren calling us back again and again.
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