I have traveled to California most all my life. As far south as San Diego and up north past San Francisco in the wine country. Los Angeles and Orange County have been my sweet spot for decades as I enjoy the hustle of Hollywood and the nearby sunny beaches.
I’ve spent countless years staring out at the Pacific Ocean wondering how far it is to Hawaii, in my mind the closest land mass to the west of SoCal. But how could I forget another famous island where people go to play and enjoy the sun, but just 22 miles away?
Catalina here I come.
The only things I really knew about Catalina Island were from a Beach Boys song and a memorable scene from the Will Ferrell movie “Step Brothers.” It seemed beautiful (though most of that scene was not shot on the island) but it was presented in a way that one must visit the lush, mountainous landmass with sparkling blue harbors.
During a recent swing to the left coast I decided to make a trip to Catalina to see what all the hubbub was about, if not to find remnants of that (explicative) wine mixer made famous in that 2008 film.
I suppose the rich and famous take their private helicopters across the water to Catalina. A helipad sits about a mile south of Avalon, the largest community on the island. There is even an airstrip for planes up near the highest point. However, most visitors come by boat.
Catalina Express operates the main charter service to-and-from Catalina Island. Departing from three ports – San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point – the company offers up to 30 daily departures to Avalon and Two Harbors. According to a company spokesperson, Catalina Express transports nearly one million passengers annually.
Ticketing is like booking a flight. I logged on to the website and booked a few tickets from Long Beach to Avalon in a matter of minutes. There is even a higher “class” of seating called the Commander Lounge that offers a quieter and comfier experience than a standard ticket. The lounge has retractable seats with an attendant who serves a drink (alcohol or not) that comes with the ticket.
We arrived at the Long Beach terminal about an hour before our morning departure. Parking was convenient – if not pricey at $19 per day – in a covered garage.
Though we were going only for the day equipped with a small backpack, several passengers were wheeling luggage into the terminal. These were travelers who were staying on the island for a few days in some of the private homes and hotels. Each passenger rolled their luggage onto a storage area on the boat and retrieved them upon arrival.
Our vessel held around 400 passengers and departed right on time. It was a smooth cruise across the Pacific as a I sipped a Bloody Mary, watching the sun rise and keeping an eye open for dolphins that sometime swim near the boats.
We arrived in Avalon about an hour later ready to soak in the atmosphere that looked so inviting in the Catalina Express brochures.
Best Way Too See The Island
As we stepped off the boat onto the long dock, we could see how tall and hilly this 76-square mile rock really is. Large, leafy trees crept up the slopes with colorful houses and apartments popping out of the green scenery.
This is an ideal place for hikers and we saw many of them. I’d recommend a good pair of walking boots, a hiking stick and lots of water should you journey his way.
We opted for an easier mode to explore and traverse the steep terrain by renting a golf cart. Automobiles are scarce on Catalina so many residents get around via these gas-powered vehicles. They are the perfect size for the small streets and certainly easier to park in the tiny town.
Catalina Island Golf Carts rents 4- and 6-seat carts for about $50 per hour. It is a good idea to make a reservation before you arrive especially on a weekend. I signed in at the kiosk near the dock and off we went. Up, up, and up.
We headed south to follow the scenic tour signs to be sure and catch the most picturesque sites on Catalina. The convenience of a golf cart allows you to go at your own pace and stop as often as you’d like. Within 10 minutes we were perched on one of the highest overlooks of Avalon and the harbor. It was breathtaking and gave us bearings for the rest of our day.
Hundreds of feet below us, dozens of private boats were floating in the calm harbor water. It seemed as if they were anchored there overnight, if not for days. And why not? Catalina has long been a getaway destination to lounge in the sun and splash in the crystal blue water. If I lived in SoCal and had a boat this is where I’d hang out on most summer weekends.
Beyond the boats sits probably the most iconic landmark of Avalon, the Casino. Built in 1929 at a cost of $2 million, no gambling takes place – or ever took place – at the enormous, round auditorium. The word “casino,” it seems, means “a gathering place” in Italian. The building is used for events and shows movies regularly.
After snapping a ton of photos, we hopped back on the golf cart to continue our tour through town. Another hill led us past a golf course to the picturesque Wrigley Museum. The same Wrigley family as in the chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs held their spring training camp on Catalina Island from 1921-1951, except for a short break during World War II. The Wrigley name still has a large presence everywhere you go.
We passed several hotels and some over-the-top homes wondering if people lived here year-round or just used them for leisurely escapes. Most all of them have wonderous views of the harbor down below.
We finished our island excursion in about 90 minutes as we returned the golf cart back to the waterfront just in time for lunch.
Eat, Drink, Enjoy The Views
There are many options to dine in Avalon with most centered around the harbor and dotting the nearby streets. Small cafes serving crepes and sandwiches were crowded with visitors and locals soaking in the sun on flower-filled patios. Sounds of laughter could be heard drifting out of bars that offer exotic drinks and cold beer.
We wanted to find a place with a perfect view of the water to enjoy the nice breeze on this Sunday afternoon. The Bluewater Grill was the perfect destination. The only true waterfront restaurant in town, this centrally-located building has a large deck that juts out over the harbor. We didn’t bother opening the menu for at least 10 minutes as we stared out at the water on a picture-perfect day.
The restaurant is part of the Bluewater Grill group on the Mainland and sources the globe for the freshest seafood. It’s a casual, fun setting with a large, open bar area, sushi and oyster bars and great hospitality.
Our waitress recommended some of the more popular cocktails and appetizers. Within minutes we were sipping and snacking to our hearts’ content. The artichokes with lemon butter tasted like they were picked fresh that morning and the chicken wings had just the right spice. I was talked into the menu favorite – lightly fried shrimp and fish with a large helping of French fries. I was on vacation, after all. Deliciousness.
The lobster tail was tender and there are vegan and child options. We were told we couldn’t leave without trying the bread pudding, so we had to oblige. The memorable meal left us feeling like fat, happy cats, but we knew we would work it off with the rest of the day’s activities.
Catalina From Above
While we saw most everything on land during our golf cart tour, there is another angle worth seeing. From high above the harbor. 800 feet high to be exact. While being pulled from a boat with a large parachute above your head. Yes, it was time to parasail.
I have parasailed a few times during trips to Mexico, but this “flight” was extra special. Catalina Island Parasail offers the experience of floating through the air while a speedboat navigates in-and-around the harbor. And the view is spectacular.
It’s a surreal experience. A two-person harness is launched from the boat’s deck to let you float in almost absolute silence. The panoramic view of the island is something you don’t see every day and certainly can’t see from land.
The experienced crew safely guided us up towards the sky for a 10-minute tour that could have lasted for hours. We opted to purchase photos they took from the boat so we could prove to everyone that we floated in paradise.
We didn’t want to leave Catalina without experiencing a little more adventure. We then walked north a bit past the Casino into the Descanso Canyon. Catalina Aerial Adventure is set up here complete with zip lines that crisscross the mountains and a thrilling obstacle course suspended in trees.
We harnessed up and spent the next hour laughing like kids as we negotiated wood planks and slides that led from treetop to treetop.
Our daylong trip to Catalina Island was coming to end so we scurried through town towards the Catalina Express. But not before stopping at Lloyd’s of Avalon. The line stretching out the front door sensed something good was being served.
Lloyd’s has been making salt water taffy, caramel apples, peanut brittle, fudge and chocolates in the window on Crescent Avenue in Avalon since 1934. The sweet smell of sugar was wafting throughout the deep store, but our snack of choice was hand-dipped ice cream cones. Families gathered outside with all sorts of tasty treats, possibly to reward themselves of a day well spent.
Our boat was right on time as the sun was still in the sky. Passengers were starting to board, headed back to Long Beach from at least an overnight stay somewhere on the island. We fell into our Commodore Lounge seats with barely enough energy to order one final round of beer during the hour-long trip to the Mainland.
Halfway through the voyage we watched the sun begin to set into the Pacific Ocean through the large, tinted windows of boat. I took a stroll outside on the large, open, back deck to make sure I got a few last photos of the water and took in a final breath of the clean, sea air.
And just like that, we were back at the Catalina Express terminal.
There are many things to do and see on Catalina Island. Had we stayed another day or two I probably would have got in a round of golf, camped in a tent overnight, and hiked across the rugged wilderness. But our one day visit to this beautiful piece of land gave us something to look forward to the next time we head out to west to California.
After all, I still did not find that (expletive) wine mixer.
LISTEN to my recap here as heard on my radio show:
Catalina Island Parasail
Catalina Golf Cart
Bluewater Grill Avalon
Catalina Aerial Adventur
Lloyd’s of Avalon