The tagline for Catalina Island’s visitors program is Love Catalina, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s because everyone who has been there absolutely loves it. After a weekend on Catalina Island, we would have to agree. I mean, what’s not to love?
Set just 26 miles off the coast of Southern California, Catalina Island is perfectly far enough yet near enough. The Island is as playful and gorgeous as any beachfront SoCal destination can be. A picturesque boat harbor. An historic pier that conjures romantic memories of the island’s early days. A charming lack of cars (most are banned from the Island and golf carts are the main source of transportation if needed.) Walkable and quaint downtown with a mix of new and old restaurants, bars, galleries and shops.
It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Catalina Island.
A Weekend on Catalina Island
We had a perfect weekend on Catalina Island, complete with outdoor and indoor activities. Read on for details and tips about how to enjoy a visit to this gem of a spot.
A Little Bit of History First
Part of Catalina Island’s allure is its ties to Old Hollywood and a storied past. William Wrigley Jr. (of chewing gum fame) took a liking to the island in 1919 and invested to create a playground for visitors. The first hotels and attractions were built by his company. He even made Catalina the spring training grounds for the Chicago Cubs.
Wrigley then built the Catalina Casino and its famous movie theater, which was the first designed to show talking pictures. Still in operation, the Casino is home to the largest circular ballroom in the world and still hosts major events, galas and weddings in its art deco space.
Many Hollywood movies were filmed on the Island, attracting the glitterati of Old and New Hollywood. Celebrities have long-enjoyed vacationing on Catalina Island including Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, John Wayne, and more recently Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and many more.
Things to Do on Catalina Island
For a small island just 20 miles across and inhabited by just over 4,000 locals, Catalina packs a lot of options for fun. There are outdoor adventures, chic beach clubs, lazy strolls, historic icons and plenty of places to please your palate and slake your thirst.
Planning a weekend on Catalina Island may feel a little overwhelming since you will want to do so much. Our advice is to leave room for downtime, since the island moves slowly and naturally beckons you to do the same.
Historic Icons on Catalina Island
Green Pleasure Pier – Back in the day the ferries dropped visitors here, and now you can walk the storied planks and catch a boat ride or fish off the side. Also a spot for some of the best hot dogs and ice cream in town. Instagram worthy!
Catalina Casino – An Art Deco masterpiece, the casino was built in 1929 as a ballroom and movie theater, and has been meticulously preserved. Still in use today, the Casino hosts daily tours for a small fee. We highly recommend this fascinating trip into the past.
Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens – A sweet mix of plants indigenous to the Island and greater Southern California. This is a nice hike or bike ride from the waterfront for a little nature fix. Built in 1933 to honor the Island’s most famous resident, the memorial to William Wrigley Jr. is positioned at the top of the gardens. It used to be his burial spot, but not anymore. Still a great hike with an amazing view as your reward. We walked here from the waterfront in about 45 minutes (uphill).
Catalina Chimes Tower – Constructed in 1925 by Mrs. Ada Wrigley, the tower has been chiming every 15 minutes ever since. (Not in the middle of the night, thankfully!) It’s a strenuous hike up flights of steps from the waterfront, so a good workout. Well worth it for the views.
Outdoor Adventures on Catalina Island
Boating, Kayaking, Paddle Boarding, Fishing, Snorkeling and SCUBA – The clear waters surrounding Catalina Island are teeming with sea life, some of which you can see from shore. Playful orange Garibaldi swim among the rocks, sea lions, dolphins and even whales can be encountered close by. Within Avalon Bay, boats are available for rent and charter, or visitors can book on a larger vessel for aqua outings.
Day Hikes – The island is 95% natural preserve, and trails spiderweb throughout the terrain to explore and enjoy nature. See here for trail maps and other good details.
Ziplining – The Island has it’s own zipline course located on the ridges and peaks high above the waterfront. Daredevils can zip across canyons with some of the most amazing views of the waterfront on the entire island. Check out more here.
Inside Island Adventures – Roam the Island’s rugged interior in an open-air vehicle to see the flora and fauna up close, including Catalina’s famous bison. These enormous creatures were brought to the Island for a movie long ago and have now prospered. So many cool things to see,
Electric and Traditional Bicycles – Bikes of both varieties are available for rent on the Island, and there are many places to explore in this hilly landscape. Visit Catalina Bike Rentals to find out more.
Places to Eat & Drink on Catalina Island
Before we name a few choice spots for cocktails, we must talk about Catalina’s signature drink. The Buffalo Milk cocktail is something you must experience. Made from a delicious concoction of vodka, Kahlua, crème de banana, crème de cacao and vanilla ice cream, it’s delish.
You. Must. Try. This.
Descanso Beach Club – Located on the other side of the Casino from downtown Avalon, this has a private beach with cabanas, restaurant and bar, and a bunch of fun activities. Famous for having what we consider to be the best Buffalo Milk on the Island.
Luau Larry’s – Home to the famous Wiki Wacker rum cocktail, guests walk away with your Wiki Wacked, a buzz, and a free bamboo hat. A Catalina icon, this spot is a must-go for newbies.
Marlin Club – If you’re feeling down and dirty, try this dive bar for some history, grit and good times. Always packed and full of happy people, it’s a party from the time it opens until last call.
Naughty Fox – Inventive drinks, a great bar menu and an outdoor patio for people watching make this spot a must. We love sipping an afternoon cocktail on the patio here after a day in the sun.
Avalon Grille – If you are looking for a nice – even romantic – dinner along the waterfront, this is your spot. Home to a delicious menu and elegant bar with some of the best martinis to be had anywhere.
El Galleon – A close second on the Buffalo Milk scale, this historic spot is fun and lively day or night. Try their Prime Rib and loaded baked potato because it’s delicious – and you’re on vacation!
Original Jack’s Country Kitchen – Great diner-style breakfast with the works. Everything you would hope to find for breakfast is on this menu, and then some. We devoured waffles, bacon, eggs, hash browns, chicken sausage and heaps of coffee.
Places to Stay on Catalina Island
There are no big hotels to spend a weekend on Catalina Island, and you won’t find Hiltons or Marriotts or Hyatts. All the hotels and resorts are smaller, boutique properties with history and charm. Here’s a few of the many to consider.
Wrigley Mansion/Mount Ada – The Wrigley’s former home on the island, the mansion is now a boutique hotel and event space called Mount Ada. Named after Mrs, Ada Wrigley, this is a special spot with unmatched views of the harbor. A little spendy with prices starting at around $600.
Catalina Island Inn – A sweet boutique right downtown, the Catalina Island Inn occupies an historic building filled with authenticity and charm. Rooms here are recently renovated and spacious, some with fireplaces and outdoor patios or balconies. Rooms start at $129.
Zane Grey House – Author Zane Grey lived on the Island for many years, and his home is now a luxury hotel perched on the hill above town. We’re told the spa and pool area here are both incredible. Rooms start at $289 and go up to over $1,800.
Camping –There’s always the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors if hotels are not your thing. Various campsites dot the island, some easily accessible and some reached by hiking only. Permits required. See here for more details.
How to Get to Catalina Island
Catalina is reachable by the Catalina Express ferry from Long Beach or Dana Point to Avalon, with a roughly 90 minute easy excursion. The waters are seasonally filled with migrating whales, pods of dolphins, jumping fish and plenty of sea birds. Ours was a smooth ride where we dozed in the fresh air and enjoyed drinks from the full bar on board.
Honestly the ferry ride is not bad. I’ve been known to have an unfavorable reaction to boats occasionally, and took a dose of Dramamine before boarding. I don’t think I needed to since the slight rocking was more soothing than jarring. If you absolutely cannot do it, there is also a flight option with IEX Helicopters from Long Beach. I’ve done that too on a stormy day, and the ride to Catalina is about 15 minutes.
However you choose to arrive, your visit will leave you planning the next one.