European charm and fun adventures abound on California’s Catalina Island
This mid-September trip to Catalina doesn’t even compare with the last one I did, 25 years ago. What’s different this time? Everything. My wife and I have been travelling a great deal, and I’m familiar with75 countries, but I have to tell you that our four day stay in Catalina rivals any trip we have done. During my last visit to Catalina, I made the mistake, that many do, of just walking around Avalon, shopping and eating, spending the night and then leaving.
Don’t get me wrong, Avalon is a delightful place and time spent here is worthwhile, but it’s just not sufficient to fully savor all that Catalina Island offers. Sure, Avalon is a tourist town, but it retains a great deal of charm and authenticity with its colorful homes and shops, a Spanish style bell tower on the hillside that chimes on the quarter hour, the artificial but delightful sand “beach” that provides sunbathers a choice between the calm bay water on one side and the restaurants, bars, and shops on the other. The scene resembles an Impressionist artist’s canvas with stark white boats spread across the bay, framed by multi-colored houses clinging to the encircling khaki hillsides.
Upon arrival, you feel a pervasive energy as golf carts buzz in every direction (a necessity since traditional vehicles are severely restricted) and people walk, jog or bike along the waterfront. Among the many initial surprises was the fact that the weather was cooler than on the baking mainland and the water was warmer.
As someone who is not fond of highly commercialized, touristy “destinations”, I found Catalina to be nicer than most tourist attractions. It has a special island vibe, more European than Californian. There’s no fast food restaurants. Over 88% of the land is protected from development. Few buildings are more than three stories tall.
It is totally okay to visit Catalina Island with a goal of just relaxing, and Avalon is a good place to make that happen. But there’s so much more to Catalina Island than just the main town of Avalon. For those who like to hike, bike, swim and explore places, Catalina can provide an abundant supply of pleasant surprises and pure exhilaration if you follow this three step plan I recommend: visit the interior of the 35 mile long island, explore the ocean both above and below water, and of course enjoy the pleasantries of Avalon.
How do you get there? There are a couple of ferry boat companies, but we took the main one, the Catalina Express, that brings most visitors from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. It was a large, comfortable and fast ferry boat and since it travels up to 43 mph, the journey takes a little over an hour. Arrive early to handle parking congestion. If you are prone to seasickness, some Dramamine (or Bonine) should help you with the brief crossing; I suffered no problem at all. Love a good deal? Travel for free round trip for your birthday! Some visitors arrive on the island via a helicopter service, or their own plane or sailboat.
Here are some of the activities we did that got our batteries turbo-charged:
- Nautilus Semi-Submarine Tour: A good way to get acquainted with the spectacular marine preserve. You’ll love it when you see the fish feeding frenzy after you shoot a “torpedo” of fish food into the water outside your porthole. If you don’t snorkel or scuba dive, by all means do this.
- Dolphin Quest: This trip uses a high speed boat to skim across the waves until someone spots the churning, fin-filled area in which a group of dolphins are feeding. Your heart races when you find yourself in the midst of leaping dolphins and occasional seals, cavorting in the water all around you, sometimes just a few feet away. My favorite scene involved the bottlenose dolphins who delighted in surfing and leaping in our boat’s 3 foot wake.
- Snorkeling in Lover’s Cove: This marine preserve, only a half mile from town, is a world-class snorkeling spot. If you value seeing abundant ocean life, don’t miss this. This underwater fantasy land begins amazingly close to shore, and within a few feet you are suddenly surrounded by a swarm of largish sized fish with unlikely names like Senoritas, Halfmoons, Garibaldi and Blacksmiths. You won’t forget your first encounter with the brilliant orange-colored, pug-nosed Garibaldi fish guarding their territory amidst the waving, golden kelp fronds. Less than fifty feet from shore you’ll find an area thickly carpeted with at least a dozen types of sea plants whose range of sizes, textures and colors (gold/reddish/purple/green/beige) create a scene that is truly breathtaking. NOTE: A scuba diver near the famous Casino dive spot said that Jacques Cousteau placed Catalina among the top ten dive spots in the world.
- The Jeep Ecotour, provided by the Catalina Island Conservancy, that owns 88% of the island, shows you what the rest of Catalina Island looks like. If you’ve never been outside Avalon before, hop aboard this five passenger jeep with its naturalist guide and get up close and personal with bison, native foxes, birds, beaches and tantalizing beach trails. (Bison herds are a famous attraction; the 150 bison are remnants of the ones brought to the island in 1924 for a film. Go figure, the movie never even showed the bison.)
- The Zip Line Tour offers five zips over two hours, with the added benefit of your guide’s intermittent explanations about the island’s human and natural history.
- Kayaking tour from Descanso Beach–not only is it a great experience to kayak here, but where else can you get eye to eye with dolphins as they seek their next fish snack?
- Other options: parasailing, camping, hiking, renting a bike, motorboat or your own golf cart. Don’t forget to tour the Casino and Museum, and hike up to the botanical gardens. Last and not least, try to set aside time to swim, snorkel, sunbathe and snack at Descanso Beach; it’s a delightful place and I’ll share a secret with you: the snorkeling off the north end of the beach is fantastic.
- Last and not least, there are restaurants and accommodations that will satisfy your budget requirements, whether modest or unconstrained. If you rent a place with a kitchen, there’s a nice little Vons market with normal mainland prices. We tried two restaurants, the Bluewater Avalon and the Avalon Grille. Both were deluxe venues, and while the Bluewater Avalon had the better bayside seating (with good food), the Avalon Grille had an elegant ambiance and great food. Look around and you’ll find food venues to match any budget.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for a fuller course of what Catalina Island serves up for inquisitive, motivated travelers. Set aside three days and two nights, or better yet add an additional day and night, and you are likely to have the time of your life. But the key to having a memorable and exciting vacation is to try a variety of the tours offered. You can easily create a thrill-filled itinerary for yourself. Enjoy Avalon, but allow the island to provide you with those special experiences you’ll always remember. Hopefully you’ll find your peace, joy and aliveness on this special island just a ferry boat ride away from the California mainland.
Links to Catalina Information & Services
The official Catalina Island website: http://catalinachamber.com
Catalina Express ferry boat and tour planning information: http://catalinaexpress.com
Lodging: Luxury vacation condos with Catalina Island Vacations Rentals: www.catalinavacations.com; 310-510-2276. Our condo was deluxe, with a fabulous view.
Pavilion Hotel: www.visitcatalinaisland.com; 310-510-2500. Newly upgraded, with free wine and cheese served each evening, and breakfast each morning. Very congenial and attractive location facing the bay.
Nautilus Semi-Submarine Tour: www.catalinaadventuretours.com; 877-510-2888.
Dining: Bluewater Avalon Restaurant: www.bluewateravalon.com; 310-510-3474. Gorgeous balcony view of the bay.
Avalon Grill: www.visitcatalinaisland.com; 310-510-7494. Elegant dining and first class food.
Catalina Island Museum; http://www.catalinamuseum.org
For Jeep Eco Tours, hiking, Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Gardens: http://catalinaconservancy.org; 310-510-2595.
Dolphin Quest and Behind the Scenes Casino Tour: www.visitcatalinaisland.com; 310-510-8687.
Kayak Tour with Descanso Beach Ocean Sports: www.kayakcatalinaisland.com; 310-510-1226.
Zipline Eco Tour: www.visitcatalinaisland.com.