This post was most recently updated on July 27th, 2020
I’m not even sure how we first heard about Catalina Island. It was many years ago when we made our first visit. But once we went, we knew we’d be going back again! First of all, we wanted to share the experience with our children. And we happen to like getting away from the busy-ness of southern California, without having to travel very far or dip into our wallets for airfare.
Going to Catalina Island is almost like visiting a different country, though it’s only 22 miles off the coast of southern California. The colorful homes packed onto the cascading hillsides remind me of photos of Capri or even Cinque Terre, Italy. The fact that most of the streets are reserved for pedestrians reminds me of much of Europe’s tiny medieval villages. And the beautiful snorkeling and crystal clear waters surrounding the island remind me of the Mediterranean. But on the plus side…everyone speaks English, the commerce is handled in US dollars, and there are no customs to go through.
(click on any photo to enlarge for more detail)
What makes Catalina Island unique?
Catalina Island is a very unique place for a reason. Most of the island is owned and managed by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, which seeks to protect its natural resources and restricts vehicle access. Most people get around Avalon (the only incorporated town) by foot, bicycle, or golf cart. Getting to Catalina Island is also unique as you must arrive by passenger ferry, helicopter (there is a small airport on the top of the mountain), or private boat.
We took a boat from Long Beach the first few times we visited. For years, the “slow boat” cost only $25 round trip and took about 2 hours to get to the island from Long Beach. The last time we visited, we used the “Catalina Flyer” from Newport Beach, a large streamlined boat that rides above the water and is much faster – only 1 hour and 15 minutes. The price for an adult is now $70 round-trip, but you can often find these tickets for sale on Groupon. I’ve also heard a ticket is free on your birthday, though I’ve yet to try it. Still, it’s a lot cheaper than a day at Disneyland, and you’ll avoid the crowds and lines!
Avalon is a tiny city, but there’s plenty to do, especially if you’re willing to get your toes wet. On our first visit, our highlights included snorkeling in Lover’s Cove, touring the Casino, and going on a Flying Fish tour at night. Because Lover’s Cove is protected, there are a lot of fish there, from the brightly-colored orange garibaldi to large schools of little silvery fish darting in and out. Glass-bottom boats glide through the cove, feeding the fish, and attracting a large volume of fish for snorkelers to see.
The Catalina Casino is not a place of gambling!
The Casino was built in 1929 as a theatre, ballroom, and promenade. It now houses a museum as well. The term, Casino, means “gathering place” in Italian, and there is no gambling in the Catalina Casino. I’m not going to tell you everything about the Casino because I think the Casino tour is a must-do if you visit Catalina Island, and I don’t want to give away all the good stuff! However, here are just a few tidbits:
- the art-deco inspired theatre seats 1,154 people
- the ballroom is the world’s largest circular ballroom
- the ballroom is insulated so people in the theatre below cannot hear the 3,000 dancers in the ballroom
- materials used to build the Casino include the finest woods, and the cost was $2 million (the equivalent of nearly $14 million in today’s dollars)
- there is enough food and water stored inside the Casino walls to feed all the residents of Avalon for two weeks
- a walking tour of the Casino is $12 for adults
Catalina Flying Fish Tour
Now I want to tell you about our Flying Fish tour! Can fish really fly??!! Apparently, they can.
Flying fish tours are taken at night and during a season when the waters are a bit warmer, typically July thru September. Boats are equipped with huge searchlights to help you see the fish as they fly out of the water, and the light actually helps entice the fish to jump. You might even end up with a fish flying into your boat! I have to admit I doubted we’d actually see anything.
This was a surreal experience for my husband and I. We saw dozens of fish flying out of the water, sometimes even over the top of the boat, or over our heads! Nowadays, the price for a flying fish tour runs $30 for adults. It’s well worth the price for the WOW factor. We were so sad that when we returned with our children a few years later, we were unable to take them on this tour because of the colder water (we went in October).
Holly Hill House
We also took a tour of the Holly Hill House, a now-famous Queen Anne styled home built in the late 1880’s by Peter Gano. After falling in love with Catalina Island, he bought the prime property overlooking Avalon bay and built the gabled home for his fiancee in only 18 months. When he could not convince her to move to Catalina, he chose the home, swore off women, and lived there till the 1920’s. It’s a sad story, but a beautiful home.
Taking the family to Catalina Island
After making two visits to Catalina sans children, it was finally time to take the entire family. We knew there was plenty to do to warrant staying overnight, but it can certainly be expensive with a family of six! I did some research and discovered the Hermosa Hotel, a budget hotel that includes family rooms with kitchenettes, individual cottages, or even small rooms with shared baths for those seeking ultra-low rates. We had a room that slept all six of us with a kitchen for preparing meals for about half the price of a hotel on the mainland! Our children were young and didn’t appreciate dining out, so we took advantage of the cute little Vons grocery store next door. We let them choose whatever they wanted to eat, and they were thrilled!
In fact, one of the things that our children liked best about going to Catalina is the freedom they felt they had because they could walk everywhere they wanted to go. Sometimes we forget how much our children depend on us to drive them everywhere. But without a car, we were all in the same boat, so to speak. Avalon is only about one square mile, so everything is within walking distance. So, whether we were browsing through stores, walking to Lovers Cove to snorkel or exploring Descanso Beach, the kids could often run ahead and lead the way. They felt so much more independent!
More fun things to do
What else did we do with our children? We played miniature golf, kayaked at Descanso beach, fished from the Pleasure Pier, rode on a glass-bottom boat and fed the fish, and hiked to some of the canyons above Avalon for greater views and exploring. We also shopped for souvenirs and played games at the Arcade.
Couples Day Trip
Our children are all grown now, but we have many fond memories of that Catalina visit! Just last year in November, I discovered a Groupon special on Catalina Flyer tickets to Avalon, so my husband and I decided to go for just a day trip. We left Newport Beach at 9:00 am and returned by 5:45 pm. We loved strolling the streets of Avalon, eating lunch at a restaurant along the water, and hiking above Avalon. Even the boat ride from Newport Beach to Avalon and back was relaxing and beautiful.
This visit was primarily to “get away”. You know how it is — when life gets so crazy that just removing yourself from the scene for a day breathes some life back into you. We enjoyed beautiful weather, no crowds at all, and plenty of time to do whatever we wanted. Which was mostly doing nothing!
We had renewed appreciation for the stillness of Avalon in the fall. Most businesses were open, so we browsed and bought a postcard or two.
And then we left. The sun began to set as we were making our way back to Newport Beach, so it was dark by the time we arrived. After another beautiful day on Catalina, we were still captivated. I’m pretty sure you will be too!
For your information:
- Hermosa Hotel has some special packages, including more information about the free birthday ride here.
- During the summer, there is a small fee to hang out at the private Descanso Beach. It’s worth it because the free Avalon beach is about the size of a postage stamp!
- The green Pleasure Pier is where all the boat tours and fishing charters leave from. It’s also a fun place to go for fish and chips or to people-watch.
- There’s a lot of rich history behind the city of Avalon and the island of Catalina. Read a quick recap here (and also learn how a herd of buffalo ended up on the island!)
- Avalon and Catalina Island have put together an entire birthday package of discounts and freebies if you visit on your birthday.
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