The sun-soaked island of Catalina, only 20 miles off the coast of Southern California, is a Mediterranean-style paradise that’s a world away from the traffic and crowds of Los Angeles.
The island was uninhabited when it was purchased in the early 20th century by industrialist William Wrigley, who set about turning it into a world-class resort island. First he brought his Chicago Cubs for spring training and then he built resorts and infrastructure to lure his wealthy and celeb friends from Los Angeles.
Selling tourists on Catalina wasn’t difficult and the island has been a premier resort destination for Los Angelinos ever since, though it’s still a bit of a hidden gem for out-of-state visitors. But that’s a good thing, as it means the island still retains much of its charm.
Most travelers will arrive via the Catalina Express, which is a ferry that makes regular trips from Long Beach ($36 each way and 65 minutes), but wealthier travelers can also choose to arrive via the Island Express helicopter service, which makes the trip in only 15 minutes ($92 each way).
The ferries dock at Avalon, which is the island’s main settlement. It’s a gorgeous little town with a sheltered harbor, casino, shopping, bars and several attractions. Almost everything can be reached by foot within a few minutes, but there are also bicycle rentals available.
If the weather’s nice, the first stop for travelers has to be the beach. Avalon’s main beach, just off Crescent Avenue, is very nice, though it can get quite crowded during high season. The Descanso Beach Club provides a luxurious alternative, as the club is situated on its own private cove and offers a restaurant, several bars, private cabana rentals and sea kayak rentals.
One way to beat the crowds in Avalon during the summer is to spend the night, as the crowds will invariably return to Los Angeles County with the day’s last ferry. Catalina Island Vacation Rentals is one option, as the company has a host of cottages and condos in and around Avalon.
Another attraction in Avalon is the Grand Casino, which is housed in a beautiful art-deco building and harkens back to glamorous Jazz Age. Somewhat of a misnomer, the building is not a casino and is instead a ballroom and cinema. Travelers can stop by to appreciate its circular design and waterfront location or even take in a film.
A few miles inland, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden is a peaceful retreat that showcases indigenous flora and offers fantastic views of the island from its privileged location.
To really get the most out of one’s visit to Catalina, however, travelers should venture out of Avalon and into the island’s rugged interior. Completely free from human encroachment, as it is owned by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, the scenery consists of rolling hillsides, canyons and intimate coves.
Cars are forbidden on Catalina, so most locals get around via golf carts. While visitors can rent the golf carts as well, a better way to explore the countryside is by foot. The Trans-Catalina Hiking Trail crosses the entire island in 37 miles, but with nearly 200 miles of trails on the island, the options are endless.
Hikers should pick up their free hiking permit and trail maps from the conservancy office in Avalon before heading out. Keep an eye out for buffalo while hiking! If it seems odd for the island to have buffalo, it’s because it is. Brought to the island in the early 20th century as film extras, the buffalo have since become a fixture on the island.