Just an hour from Long Beach, offseason Catalina Island delivers outdoor action overload, multigenerational fun, and a big dose of authentic “Old California.”
By Maryann Jones Thompson
Everyone but the dogs and cats had arrived on Catalina: Kids, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and parents had all docked in Avalon, just an hour’s ferry from the LA metropolis.
We aimed to ring in the 2019 New Year together, but our paths to that midnight were divergent. Everyone had a personal list of must-dos: We were looking forward to two days of scuba diving; my brother’s family planned a big hike; my sister’s toddlers wanted to ride the submarine; Grandpa and Grammy planned a happy-hour tour; and every kid was psyched for ziplining and mini golf. By the time New Year’s Eve arrived, we celebrated with a dinner of local lobster and a movie in the Casino theater. Perfect!
Catalina is one of the ideal destinations for multigenerational trips. All members of any family can spend their days running in opposite directions, doing exactly as they please, and still meet up for a game of pre-dinner tag in the sand, a golf cart trip up the hill, or a trip to the candy store.
Our off-season week showed us the depth of the island’s true character: Not only do its natural landscapes show visitors what the state looked like pre-development, but Avalon is a living and breathing example of a West Coast tourist town frozen in time decades ago.
And it is purely delightful.
One-hundred-plus-year-old bungalows line the handful of downtown streets. Each cottage unique and narrow enough to make San Francisco row houses look wide; Some perfectly dingy and crumbly, some updated to Restoration Hardware chic, and just about all of them available to rent by the night or the week.
When I used to make day trips to the island as a kid, I don’t think I noticed much aside from the still-charming Green Pleasure Pier and the candy store. But to be fair, in the LA of the 1970s and 80s, Hollywood-era bungalows, Spanish-influenced architecture, ancient palm trees, vintage ocean decor, and cowboy placemats were still very much a part of what we saw in daily life. Over the decades, these original icons of Southern California have been bulldozed or remodeled away.
To be sure, the 21st Century has arrived in Catalina, too, just not to the widespread extent as on the mainland. While locals lament the push to renovate Avalon, today’s lucky visitors stand in one of the last places in the state to experience so much Old California – both natural and man-made.
Fully 88 percent of the massive 21-by-8-mile island is undeveloped, preserved by the descendants of its original owner, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., and managed today by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Trekkers can literally hike for days across the island through hills covered in oak, cactus and chaparral, and be rewarded with stunning vistas of the Pacific and beach-side campsites – as Catalina vacationers have done for more than one hundred years.
The island boasts the longest undeveloped coastline in the state, and 60 plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. The island’s famous bison herd once numbered near 600 but is now managed at around 180. The packs of wild boar and goat that roamed the interior when kids of the past used to roam the interior are long gone.
Its protected reefs and waters teem with giant kelp, California’s state fish – the overgrown goldfish-looking garibaldi and countless other fish, critters and mammals. Charles Holder founded the Tuna Club in Avalon in 1898 and along with it, modern big-game sportfishing and fisheries management.
Atop a hill in the heart of the island’s “wild” side stands the small-craft Airport in the Sky. The exterior of the tiny terminal looks like it popped from my grandparents’ 1940s Angeleno backyard – chunky, uneven, circular picnic tables covered in years’ worth of bright paint sit aside brick planters where the mortar oozes out the edges and adobe walls embedded with Catalina-made tiles, all surrounded by succulents and palms.
But the island isn’t just nature and architecture: There’s a thriving community of 4,000 year-round residents in Avalon. The Catalinians have a certain windswept, youthful, suntanned look. They’ve grown up here, gone to school here, and now work here. The natives will tell you about the old days; one driver talked about riding bikes (pre-”mountain”) on moonlit nights through the hills, easily outrunning the single ranger, “because you could see his headlights coming.”
Plenty of transplants have also called the island home for decades, initially drawn to Catalina by the work but stayed for the lifestyle. We met a couple of folks who had worked on the island, returned to mainland life, and then came back. Most residents will tell you they only head back to the mainland “when I have to.” We had some fun chatting with locals during evening escapes to Avalon’s cool dive bars – a “must” when traveling with a big family group. 😉
In the end, Catalina delivered far more than a seaside getaway for our extended family. Yes, there were nonstop things-to-do and yes, we loved the whole place – from the people to the town, the reef to the hills. But we also got a glimpse of our fabulous Southern Californian ancestry – the mission, rancho, seafaring, silver screen, artisan, beach-going, nature-loving ethos that made this state into the mecca it is today.
- Travelers: The Thompsons – A multigenerational trip, with 3 sets of parents, 1 set of grandparents, and six kids age 3-15
- Date: Five nights around New Year’s Day 2019
- Cost: Winter cottage rental ran about $500 per night for six people. Meals and activities run about the same as elsewhere in California. Return ferry from Long Beach costs approximately $75 per person.
The Good Stuff
Scuba Diving with Kids on Catalina
On weekends, scuba companies set up on the road behind the Casino. Beginning divers looking to get their open water dives mix with mainland veterans as they suit up. In 60-degree-water winter, only a few dozen folks are waiting to descend the civilized staircase into the marine preserve at Casino Point, but in summer, there can be hundreds of divers gearing up to dive in.
All the effort and chill is worth it: We saw big garibaldis (California’s overgrown-goldfish-looking state fish), towering stands of kelp, and a big sheephead bass called Oscar. The sargassum seaweed is also beautiful but invasive and quickly becoming a serious problem for the island’s reefs. There are opaleyes, rockfish, starfish and many more critters to see underwater.
After guiding us on dives around the marine reserve, we joined Catalina Divers Supply for a two-tank boat dive. The team took advantage of a bluebird December day to head to the other side of the island for a different reef environment. We loved the boat ride almost as much as the diving: Cliffs that look like something from Greece, Risso’s dolphins hanging out near the boat, and a bald eagle waiting for us on a Sunday morning at Church Rock. Aside from a quarry, there is no development on this side and you can really get a glimpse of what Southern California would look like without people.
Conditions were perfect for a late December day, with air and water as clear and calm as it gets. We dove at Salta Verde and Church Rock. Both sites mix large rock formations below and above the water, with sandy bottoms. We dropped in right on top of a purple nudibranch, and proceeded to see lobster, abalone, and large schools of fish.
Water Activities for Families on Catalina
There are plenty of options for getting out on Catalina’s water without breathing compressed air. Run by the descendants of the Wrigley family, the Catalina Island Company is the epicenter for all island activities.
There are a variety of boat excursions, including one to see flying fish! Snorkel and snuba trips, sportfishing excursions, parasailing and boat charters are also available to take your family exactly where you want to go. And right in Avalon Harbor, glass bottom boats and submarines let non-divers see big schools of fish and some big stands of kelp. (The submarine is not for the claustrophobic or those prone to motion sickness, however.)
Hiking Around the Airport in the Sky
For day trips into the island’s interior, you can book the Conservancy’s Wildland Express shuttle all the way to Two Harbors or just to the hilltop Airport in the Sky, Catalina’s small craft airport, about an hour from Avalon. Your journey will start with a trip up the curvy, eucalyptus-lined road that used to be the stage route for the Wrigley family. (The trees were planted to keep the horses from spooking at the cliff’s edge.)
The road then heads across the top of the hills, with ocean and valley vistas, keeping an eye out the whole way for buffalo, deer, squirrels, and foxes – the only four mammals living on the island’s land. We were lucky to spy a lone bull bison hanging out near the road.
A variety of trails head off from the airport. The easiest and most little-kid-friendly hike is the Airport Loop. The flat route meanders around the runway for an hour or so and provides a close-up view of the native flora and a far-away view of the ocean.
The airport has a grand old bison head over the grand old fireplace, a cafe, gardens, and a large patio overlooking the island, perfect for a picnic or one of the DC3 cafe’s famed cookies (they really are darn good.) Long ago the spot for big buffalo barbeques, now the few buffalo that are left are so prized that the bison taco meat must come from the planes that land here.
The Conservancy web site details every hike on the island, including half-day, full-day and multi-day treks from Avalon. All day hikers on Conservancy land need a permit that is obtainable online for same-day treks (though you must first create an account and it takes a bit of patience to go through the process.)
Movies & Tours at the Catalina Casino
The grand, Art Deco Catalina Casino was never the scene of any gambling. Originally designed as a dance hall, it is widely recognized as the landmark building on the island.
A lobby of massive murals greets visitors, with underwater scenes of mermaids, crabs, fish and other stylized seascape inhabitants. Casino tours run daily and are a must for historical and architectural buffs.
On New Year’s Eve and at other times of the year, there are big parties and events in the ballroom with views of the entire town and bay. But more exciting for families are the nightly first-run films that screen in the sumptuous ground floor movie theater – the first in the world built to screen “talkies.” The setting makes seeing “Bumblebee” on New Year’s Eve feel like the hottest ticket in Hollywood.
Family Bike Rentals on Catalina
Bike rentals are widely available on the island – in fact, the Pavilion Hotel and many others include them for guests. We chose regular bikes because they were included with our room, but we were passed many times by smarter, richer visitors who choose electric bikes to get up and around Avalon’s hills – or maybe even smarter, a golf cart to get up to the excellent views.
It’s fun just cruising up and down the blocks of downtown Avalon to see all the town’s fun cottages. You can also ride out past the ferry terminal and along Pebbly Beach Drive. But most visitors ride up the canyon to the Wrigley Monument and Garden, a gradual uphill route through the town, past the golf course, the Visitor’s Center, and into the gardens of succulents, cacti and other native plants.
The massive monument is a tribute to William Wrigley, Jr., who was briefly buried there; His wife Ada created the gardens. We saw several foxes darting around the grounds, near the beginning of the Garden to Sky trail, another popular day hike for visitors.
On the way down from the memorial, stop in at the Avalon Canyon Visitor Center for more information about the island’s biodiversity and then at the Sandtrap restaurant for a snack/drink after your trip into the hills.
Mountain biking is also serious business on Catalina. Trails cross the entire interior and multi-day trips are possible for avid bikers and their kids.
Cruise a Golf Cart
No kid will leave Catalina without riding in a golf cart. The whining will begin upon arrival at the port, continue until a seat belt clicks across their lap, and restart the minute you return the golf cart. Riding up and down Avalon’s downtown streets and up into the hills above the town is a blast for the whole family. Staff at Catalina Island Golf Cart Rental was very friendly and the locations are convenient. Cart prices are not for the faint of heart – starting at $100 per two hours for a four-seater – but they do provide a lot of shared smiles for the group.
Beach Time and Ziplines at the Descanso Beach Club
The weird thing about Catalina is that for an island, it really isn’t all about swimming and sunning (especially in late December) but maybe that’s the reason why there are so many other things to do! There are few swimming pools and the main beach in Avalon is tiny.
But when you’re just wanting a chaise and some sand in your toes, head to Catalina Island Company’s Descanso Beach Club. Built on the site of the historic St. Catherine Hotel, Descanso is set on a calm cove just past the Casino and is a destination in itself, with a long rocky beach, restaurant, activities, and trails. A European-style chair and cabana rental situation is the perfect spot for a day by the sea – and would be a good idea if you want to be guaranteed to have a patch in the sun, with to-your-chair beverage and towel service.
Descanso is also the base for the Aerial Adventure ropes course, Climbing Wall, and the eagerly anticipated Zip Line Eco Adventure! It isn’t cheap, but if you can only do one land-based activity on the island, the zip line will allow you to see the upper canyons and the vistas and have a thrilling time doing it.
The guides orient and train each group, and then everyone hops in a van to head up the canyon to the start of the course. The kids worked on mentally psyching themselves up.
Five runs descend 600 feet of elevation back down to the beach. There are epic vistas the entire way. One run extends 1,100 feet and hits 30mph! We got going in mid-afternoon but with December’s early sunset and a two-hour run time, the adventures continued after dark with cool red headlamps on our helmets.
Golfing on Avalon
Our family has a real soft spot for miniature golf. The Mini Golf course in the center of Avalon is a great choice for a multigenerational or multi-family outing.
There are no dinosaurs or windmills on the holes, but each has a bit of info or trivia about the island – and each one is legitimately challenging (or so say the real golfers in our family.) We liked the mini golf so much, we went twice 😉
For real golfers, there is a 9-hole course right in Avalon. The greens run up the gorgeous Avalon Canyon and the views make for a pleasant afternoon.
The Not So Good
100-Year-Old Beach Cottages Most cottages for rent have been updated but all of the units we rented did not have central heat, only wall or portable electric heaters. This isn’t an issue in the summer, I’m sure, but for the prone-to-cold members of our party were quite chilly. There are also other issues with staying in a tiny old beach house, so set your expectations accordingly, or stay in a hotel.
Not Much Beach As stated above, Catalina is known for its outdoor fun – not its beaches. The best “beach” is the Descanso Beach Club, the Avalon Harbor, and the campground beaches.
Island Issues Being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean – especially in winter – your Catalina schedule is at its mercy. If the seas become high or a big wind is blowing, all the water-based activities get halted, including diving, submarine riding, and anything else near water. The ferries back to the mainland can also be canceled – as happened during our visit. In this case, cottages and hotels offer a discount “stranded” rate. We had to rebook ferry rides and even a flight from Long Beach, and everyone was very accommodating when we explained the situation and did not charge any change fees. The good news is that over the five days we were on the island, we had two days with high seas and postponed activities, but just hours later, the ocean chilled out and all systems were “go” again.
Water Bottles I understand that the water supply is limited on Catalina but man, the entire island uses plastic water bottles like it’s 1999 – even restaurants serve water in single-use containers. I’ve stayed in places with far worse water situations that have it figured out. With the island’s eco-focus and LA area just an hour’s boat away, it seems someone could come up with a better drinking water system.
Good to Know
Catalina is Big It takes five days of hiking for 38 miles to get from Avalon to the northwest parts of the island. It’s 22 miles long and 8 miles across at its widest point, so it’s not possible to run around the entire place without a backpack or a lot of time.
Getting to the Island Unless you have a friend with a yacht or small plane, the Catalina Express will be your transport to the island. Just 15 minutes from the Long Beach Airport, ferries depart from the cruise ship terminal-area several times a day for the one-hour trip to Avalon. Ferries also depart from San Pedro and Dana Point in South Orange County. Seasonal ferries head direct from San Pedro to Two Harbors.
We found Catalina Express to be friendly and accommodating with reservations in the offseason. As stated above, we had to change the time of our trip a few times – some for personal reasons and some for weather reasons. They were cool about our changes. The Long Beach parking lot is right across the street from the terminal and costs $19 per 24 hours. The ferry allows you to bring diving equipment and surfboards, if needed.
Catalina Express offers a “Commodore Lounge” premium seating but we couldn’t see why someone would pay extra to be in a smaller, indoor space when you had to leave to use the bathroom or get a snack. The ride is fast enough that it is hard to get seasick but if the winds are up or the sea is high, take your Dramamine.
Go Off-Season Not surprisingly, summer is super busy on the island. And because there is only one small public beach for the entire town of Avalon, it is a bit tough to find towel-space. But spring and autumn are beautiful times to visit – even winter is clear and cool – perfect for long hikes and bike rides.
Renting a Cottage There is no shortage of accommodation on Catalina. We rented cottages for our week in downtown Avalon because we had a large group and many kids. It was a great call because we were able to have living rooms and patios for everyone to gather in. There are strict occupancy rules for each rental, and few allow more than 6 people. But our spot has a big covered patio in front, which was fun for meals, games and people watching.
There are many listings on VRBO or Airbnb but we found cheaper rates and great service by calling Catalina Island Vacation Company, an Avalon agency with an office right in the center of town. They also helped our extended family find cottages near each other since we needed more than one.
Our places were on Claressa, near Third Street, which was easy walking distance to the Town Plaza Mini Golf, the Lobster Trap, and other key spots. It might have been nicer to be closer to the Casino if we were going diving or to Descanso Beach Club every day but we loved the location and walked everywhere. For that reason, I might choose a rental in the “flats” versus the hills, however.
The Pavilion Hotel We also stayed at the Pavilion Hotel, right on Crescent Avenue in the heart of the promenade. The outdoor heated patio lets guests enjoy free breakfast, happy hour and game time with a view of the water, the pier and the hundreds of jealous people strolling the boardwalk.
The property is an updated motel-type layout, so the rooms are small but comfortable and overlook a mature garden with amazing palms, banana trees and a huge firepit. The location really can’t be beat. And if you’re looking for a non-hundred-year-old lodging situation, the Pavilion is the right call.
Hamilton Cove The other main tourist area near Avalon is Hamilton Cove, a large condo development with beaches and pools and ocean views to die for. It’s only about a 20-minute walk from the charm of Avalon, in the bay past Descanso Beach. You can rent units from the typical online sites or rental agencies on the island.
Camping/Hiking Many believe the best part of Catalina is the 88 percent that is unpaved and undeveloped. Early bird-planners can reserve a campsite at one of the island’s campgrounds and spend a few nights in a tent on a lovely beach. One local told us that LIttle Harbor is thought to be the most beautiful. Two Harbors also has a number of accommodations that aren’t tents and a ferry service from San Pedro (read about SF Chronicle’s trip here.)
Getting Around Avalon is really all about walking. We had thought we would rent a golf cart for the week to get the grandparents and youngest kids around but that’s not really a thing: Rates begin at about $100 for two hours. This should be kept in mind when planning a multigenerational trip. Taxis are very expensive – about $20 for the 10-minute ride from Avalon to the Beach Club – because gas is more than $9 a gallon on the island. But taxis and hotel vans meet all the incoming ferries and will get you where you want to go – but you might have to pay a pretty penny.
Getting to the Airport in the Sky or any of the other areas of the island’s interior must be done via a Conservancy’s Wildland Express shuttle or another organized tour. Hikes and bike trips into the interior always require a permit.
Port Baggage Delivery & Storage If you’re staying in Avalon, the best thing to do is arrive mobile, with backpacks, wheeled bags or a tricked-out/loaded-down stroller. It’s only 10-15 minutes to whereever you might be staying. But if you just can’t carry all your gear, Avalon Baggage Claim is right at the ferry dock. They’ve got lockers, day storage and bag delivery – they’ll even deliver your scuba kit to Casino Point!
Groceries on the Island We [stupidly] brought bags of food and drinks from the mainland, loaded them on the ferry, carried them to Avalon, and only then saw a massive Vons right in the center of town. I’m sure the prices are not as cheap as they are in LA but they’re close. So you don’t have to bring anything you can get at your neighborhood grocery store.
Food in Avalon You will not starve on Catalina. Whether you want to cook for yourself or eat out, there are plenty of amazing food options to keep even gourmets happy for a week. Everything is a bit more expensive than the mainland but not ridiculously so – especially considering most visitors are only there for a day and/or a night.
Along the Crescent Avenue waterfront, the restaurants and bars are glitzy and touty, with many catering to day trippers. Some are actually great but it pays to do your research. We had good luck by consulting Yelp – not Trip Advisor – in hopes of getting reviews from California eaters.
If you visit during fall or winter, you will hit local lobster season, a very yummy time to be on the island. And all year long, fantastic local fish is served – but be sure to ask whether or not it is local, especially in the offseason. Otherwise you might think you’re celebrating New Year’s with local lobster when it was actually shipped from Maine 😉
The Lobster Trap was our favorite seafood spot. We actually saw their traps while diving so their lobster is a hot ticket – but everything is great. They don’t take reservations but the dining room is quite large and can accommodate large family parties. We would put our name in and head home to wait or hang out in the plaza across the street. The Lobster Trap also takes take-out orders, which makes eating great seafood even easier for families with wriggly little ones or large parties.
Our second favorite was Bluewater Grill, serving fresh fish right on the harbor, with a kid’s menu and outdoor tables. Again, they don’t take reservations for large parties but they are right next to the beach so the kids can run around for an hour while everyone relaxes and waits.
Pete’s Café is an outdoor stand in the transport plaza with a walk-up window serving everything you could want, from Mexican to American favorites, from breakfast to late-night snacks. Everything is reasonably priced, served in large portions, and available for take out.
For breakfast, the Pancake Cottage is really the best – not cheap, but you get a big beautiful plate of traditional favorites for the money, they can accommodate large parties, and the service is lovely.
Original Jack’s (O.J.’s) is part of the restaurant group owning a bunch of longtime Catalina haunts that have seen better days. We definitely enjoyed the nostalgia of the place more than the food. The café feels like it popped out of the 40s, replete with cowboy-themed placemats and career waiters who don’t entertain long-winded questions about the menu. But it’s a fun atmosphere for a quick, basic plate of breakfast.
The best ice cream, gelato, and crepes are at Scoops on Crescent but it closes early during the winter (as does just about every place…) There’s also the Lloyd’s candy store, which makes everybody happy at the end of the evening.
Maryann Jones Thompson – March 2019
The Thompson family received media discounts on selected activities during their stay on Catalina, however, ROAM contributors do not accept media discounts or free travel in exchange for positive reporting.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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