Window to the world: Catalina Island, California

Window to the world: Catalina Island, California

If you’re planning on a trip to California to see the palm-lined streets of Laguna Beach and the vineyards of Napa Valley, then we recommend setting some time aside to visit the secluded bays of Catalina Island – you won’t regret it.

Despite being twenty miles or so west from Los Angeles, California’s one and only island is worlds apart from the crowded mainland. Relatively unknown and uncrowded, most of the island is preserved as a nature conservation park, with the idyllic yet quirky town of Avalon being the main destination for visitors, home to a population of just 3,000 people. With dramatic cliffs, expansive ocean views, and a surprisingly diverse range of adventurous activities, there’s no greater sense of freedom than visiting this quiet but beautiful island to get away from it all.  

You can travel to the island by private yacht, or book a VIP spot in the Commodore’s Lounge on the high-speed Catalina Express boat that will take you to one of the island’s ports in just under an hour. Keep a look out for dolphins or whales along the way, which you can see from the exclusive top deck. 

Don’t worry if you don’t manage to spot any of these amazing animals on your journey – you can see dolphins and sea lions from the piers and along the crescent-shaped harbour in Avalon Bay.

The heart of the island…  

The small, walkable town of Avalon is clustered around the harbour, with its pier and waterfront facing to the north-west of the Pacific. With plenty of hotels, restaurants, and activities to enjoy, Avalon can keep you perfectly entertained for a weekend visit. It has a calm, tranquil feel in comparison to the fast-paced hustle of Los Angeles, giving you the opportunity to take things slow and browse the stretch of charming shops and cafes, or divert down the little side streets to explore away from the main routes.  

Avalon can’t be mentioned without making reference to the golf carts. It really is unlike anything you’ve seen before, with these unassuming but nippy rides being the transport of choice across the town. Being a protected area, car permits are so restricted on the island that there is currently a 14-year waiting list to own one in Avalon. After a day or so, visitors tend to be a little disappointed at having to leave their fun little carts behind when it’s time to move on. 

Once a year, to celebrate Independence Day on the 4th July, Catalina Island treats visitors and locals alike with their infamous Golf Cart Parade, which travels along Crescent Avenue in Avalon. The Trojan Marching Band from the University of Southern California travel to the island especially for the occasion, playing throughout the day and into the evening. If you’re lucky enough to be there during this special time, you can enjoy beach barbecues, dock cookouts, the Yacht Club’s Dinghy Parade and live music performances.

Wine and dine in Avalon…

Reserving a table at the riverside Avalon Grille is highly recommended, where you can sit with bottomless mimosas while enjoying the breathtaking sunset views across the harbour. Enjoy fresh seafood like grilled octopus or New York strip steak with blistered heirloom tomatoes. 

For an alternative evening, head to the Descanso Beach Club which is set in a quiet cove near the iconic Catalina Casino. Rent your own private cabana, lie back in a comfortable chaise lounge and let the waiter bring you a drink as you enjoy the ocean views. The club was once known as the Hotel St. Catherine, which was a favourite with movie stars in the 1930s and was adored by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford. It’s easy to spend all day there if you desire, with the open-air restaurant serving a delectable lunch.

Not far away from the beach club is the spectacular Avalon Theatre, which shows a first-run film every evening on the ground floor of the historic casino building. The theatre is a beautiful space built in the late 1920s, decorated with art deco hand-painted murals.

 There’s also a 1.1-mile Garden-to-Sky Hike, which starts at the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden – it’s a bit of a climb, but it gives you magical views of the island and ocean beyond. If you’re looking for a thrill, the Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour launches from 600 feet-high platforms, taking you on an exhilarating 40 mph ride over the Descanso Canyon and the Pacific. 

Following the adventurous path….

While Avalon has plenty of attractions to keep you busy, Catalina has much more to discover. Where the island is primarily owned and protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy, the astoundingly beautiful, rocky surroundings are not to be missed. An unforgettable way to explore the wider island is by an open-air, biofuel Hummer which will take you on a wild, jolting two-hour tour to the summit above Avalon. If you get the chance to, try to enjoy the coastline views as you plunge down some of the deeper caverns and hills. 

For experienced hiking enthusiasts, the challenging but beautiful, trans-Catalina trail will take you past oceans and mountainous cliffs. It is one of a kind, and should only be attempted by experienced walkers, but prepare to spot herds of buffalo, wild foxes running about the sandy rocks, spiky cacti, and palm trees along the way.  

If you manage to make it to the west of the island, there’s an opportunity for experienced divers to take the plunge into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. At Farnsworth Bank, the North American continent gives way to the vast Pacific Ocean and features deep, blue waters, rocky ledges, big currents, and large open-sea fish. Observe sunfish, tuna, sharks, and marlin in their natural habitat. 

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