I love rediscovering great destinations in my own backyard!
Jason and I have both been to Catalina Island before, but it had been many years. And for some reason all of our trips here had been separate. So the opportunity to visit again, as a couple, was a lovely opportunity for a romantic getaway.
If you’re not familiar with Catalina, it’s a small island off the coast of Southern California, part of the Channel Islands. It’s home to 4,000 people and 115 bison. The island was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr.–founder of the chewing gum empire–in 1919, and since then has seen 30 years of Chicago Cubs spring training and the filming of over 500 movies and television shows.
As I’m writing this, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so if you’re looking for a romantic getaway, consider Catalina Island. But quite frankly, with temperate weather and 286 days of sunshine each year, this is a great destination any time.
Stroll Along The Waterfront
Most visitors to the island arrive by ferry in Avalon, the largest of the two cities on the island. If you’re like us, and arrive on a warm, sunny day, then you’ll want to start your visit with a stroll along the waterfront.
Two sights got our attention right away–the Green Pleasure Pier and the Casino. The pier is an ideal first stop since it’s home to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. Pop-in to get a map or ask questions. Also on the pier are kiosks for tour companies. We spent time enjoying the view from the pier and the chance to get a few great photos.
Then continue along the waterfront towards Casino Point. Along the way you’ll pass the Tuna Club of Avalon, and the Catalina Yacht Club, both housed in historic buildings. A bit further and you’ll see the impressive Catalina Casino (we’ll come back to this a bit later). Walk past the Casino and continue along the waterfront to the Descanso Beach Club.
At a leisurely pace, this entire walk will take no more than 20-30 minutes, but it’s a nice introduction to Avalon and offers dozens of photo opportunities.
To learn more about our two days on Catalina Island, watch the short video below.
See The Wild Side Of Catalina Island
I was surprised to learn that 88% of Catalina Island is part of a nature preserve managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. So to really appreciate all that this place has to offer, it’s essential to explore its wild side. We had the opportunity to do this by taking the two-hour Bison Expedition.
Jason and I were both really excited about this tour. We knew the island had a herd of bison, but had never seen them. So we met at the tour kiosk, boarded an open-air biofuel Hummer and headed into the hills.
If you’ve ever been on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland, then you’ll get a sense of what this tour was like–bouncy, windy and dusty. But we loved it. And it’s really so much more than just an opportunity to see bison. With every turn of the Hummer we had a new view of the rolling, green hills or the ocean, or both. As we returned to the city we watched the sunset in the distance. And for two hours we were entertained by the charming Devon. She was a wealth of information about the island’s history and its wildlife. She also tried to convince us that we could call the bison by saying, “here kitty, kitty.” I love a tour guide with a sense of humor!
If the Bison Expedition isn’t for you, or you want to explore on your own, consider hiking on the island. There are 165 miles of trails ranging in length and difficulty. Really ambitious hikers can attempt the 37 mile Trans Catalina Trail. Permits are required when hiking outside Avalon and can be obtained for free from the conservancy.
Tour The Catalina Casino
Nothing is more iconic on the island than the Catalina Casino, and any visit should include a tour of this landmark. If you’re lucky enough to have Frankie from Avalon (seriously, I didn’t make that up) as your guide, you’ll especially enjoy the experience.
Discover the Casino tours begin in the lobby and this is where Frankie explained to us that this is not a place for gambling, as the name suggests. Instead, its an Italian word that means “gathering place.” And that’s exactly what Wrigley intended when he built the current structure which opened in 1929. Over the past ninety years this has been the central gathering spot for both locals and visitors to the island.
After the lobby we moved into the theater, then upstairs to the ballroom and ended with a walk around the promenade. A highlight of our time was Frankie teaching ballroom dancing to one of the guests. Anyone can point to the architectural features of a room, it takes someone special to bring the room to life.
Our tour lasted about 50 minutes. There’s another, 90 minute tour that takes visitors behind the scenes, but whichever tour your choose, be sure to see the Casino.
Explore the Island's History
Jason and I didn’t know that Catalina has its own museum, but it does, and it’s excellent. The Catalina Island Museum began life in the basement of the Casino, but in 2016 moved to its current location on Metropole Ave. (just a two minute walk from the waterfront) where it now offers 18,000 square feet of exhibition space.
I’d recommend that visitors start with the exhibt, The History of Catalina Island, as a great way to learn more about the island you’re exploring. As the daughter of a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, I really enjoyed learning about the team’s time on the island and the Wrigley family’s 65 years of ownership.
Then head upstairs to the outdoor gallery, which is currently featuring works by artist, Elizabeth Turk, who explores the concept of extinction in her exhibition, Tipping Point. This large installation is not only beautiful to look at, but is intended for interaction since visitors can touch and move the pieces. (And don’t miss the chance to appreciate the views of Avalon from this outside space!)
Finally, step into the exhibit, Esther Williams: The Swimming Queen of the Silver Screen. I knew a bit about the movie star, but learned so much more about her successes and challenges, both on screen and off.
The museum has some exciting new exhibits on the horizon including Frido Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray.
Select A Romantic and Historic Hotel
The right hotel can make or break a romantic getaway. For us the Hotel Atwater definitely made our experience perfect. This historic hotel was originally built in 1920, but was completely renovated in 2019. It was named in honor of Helen Atwater Wrigley, the daughter-in-law of William Wrigley.
Jason and I arrived and immediately appreciated the stylish lobby with several comfortable seating areas and arrangements of fresh flowers on every table. Our room was cozy, and filled with everything guests could need. From our window we could see the waterfront just a block away. Guests enjoy a wine reception each evening in the lobby and a full breakfast at the Avalon Grille.
The location of the Hotel Atwater is perfect. The tour kiosk where many island tours begin is across the street. The waterfront is just one block away, and most restaurants and shops can be reached in minutes.
Take advantage of the Catalina Island packages currently being offered that include hotel, ferry transportation, and a Casino tour. These packages are available at three Catalina Island Hotels; Hotel Atwater, the Pavilion Hotel, and Mt. Ada.
Dine With A View
I’m of the opinion that if I’m visiting a beach destination, most of my meals should include an ocean view. That wasn’t a problem with the Avalon Grille where Jason and I had a romantic dinner. The Avalon Grille is directly across from the Green Pleasure Pier, providing the perfect view from the front tables. It’s also among the top rated Catalina Island restaurants according to TripAdvisor.
The General Manager of the Hotel Atwater, Andrew, recommended the brussel sprouts, and he was right–if only all veggies tasted like that. Then we ordered the ribeye steak and scallops for our entrees. Accompanied by two martinis, and this was an excellent way to end our first day.
This was the same location for our breakfast the next morning where we once again enjoyed the view along with a wide variety of breakfast items.
Planning Tips For Your Trip To Catalina
If you’ve read any of our other travel articles, you know that Jason and I are big fans of traveling off season. Not only are prices lower, but there are fewer crowds as well. That was definitely the case for us while visiting Catalina. Fall and winter are a slower tourist season on the island, but since the weather is nice year round, you’ll still have a great time. Also, if you can manage to visit during mid-week, like we did, it may just be you and the local residents.
95% of visitors to the island arrive by ferry. You can select the Catalina Express which departs from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point or the Catalina Flyer which is available in Newport Beach. The ferry websites can provide the schedules of departures for each location. Depending on your point of departure, the ferry ride lasts between an hour and an hour and a half.
If like me, you sometimes experience seasickness, I’ll offer the following tips. Sit on the lower level of the ferry and towards the back–you’ll feel less rocking hear. And I usually wear Seabands which can be purchased online or at most drugstores.
We only had time for the Bison Expedition and Catalina Casino tour, but there are several others Catalina Island tours to choose from including the glass bottom boat, zip line eco tour, and a falconry experience. If there are tours you are really eager to take, be sure to reserve those online in advance, especially on weekends or during the summer. Be sure to check the return time of your ferry prior to booking a tour.
So Many Things To Do On Catalina Island!
I’m already planning our return trip to Catalina. Next time we plan to hike and kayak. And I just might need to try one of those tours I mentioned above. I was impressed by how much there is to do on Catalina Island and constantly awed by the beauty. This is one of Southern California’s gems, so I hope I’ve inspired you to visit soon.
We’d like to thank the Catalina Island Company for hosting our visit,
but want you to know that all opinions expressed in this article are our own.