Santa Catalina Island: magic at your fingertips
Skeptical. That’s the word this story started with.
Last-minute idea for a weekend getaway, almost fully booked hotel rooms in a “non-season” time, and a lot of the unexpected and undiscovered lying ahead.
“Ultimately, isn’t it what our whole life is about?” I remember me thinking this before clicking on the “Book Now” button. Challenge accepted. And off we go!
I had to pick from literally only two rooms available, mine was $350/night at Hotel Catalina. In order to get to the island, you have only two options: a ferry and… helicopter. The Catalina Express ferry would cost you around $70 per adult roundtrip over the weekend, and helicopter ride would cost over $200 per person.
The Catalina Express ferry connects Catalina Island with three ports: Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. I picked Long Beach as the closest one to the downtown Los Angeles.
Those who like to save time and enjoy the view from above pick the helicopter, but I was in the mood to enjoy the ocean views that Saturday. The express ferry runs only about 65 minutes, providing you with the utmost comfortable experience. Beautiful sunset, dolphins along the way… You sit down, relax, open your laptop, and the next thing you see through your window is the Catalina Island port.
The magical fleur of the island
Most of us cannot take a day trip to The Mediterranean Europe. But… you can get the same exact feeling by going to Santa Catalina. The island has the charming vibe of small European towns along the Mediterranean Sea, with no rush, but absolutely unique ambiance and atmosphere.
The first thing you notice – there are almost no cars. And I mean it. During the whole stay we were able to spot only five of them, at most. Instead of vehicles golf carts are being used here as daily means of transportation. Frankly, you don’t even need a full-size vehicle on streets that small and cozy. However, if you still do want to drive it – you can, after signing up for the waiting list, which is currently taking for about… 15 to 20 years. To add even more island feel, there’s only one gas station here, with an almost $8 per gallon price tag, which is basically three times higher than the current average on the continental USA. So, next time when you plan to complain about gas prices in your town… Think again.
Needless to say there is no rideshare here, and you don’t really need a taxi either. Everything on the island is literally a 10-15 min walk.
Despite the exotic island feel, Santa Catalina is still part of the Los Angeles County, proudly wearing the southernmost point badge. The biggest city is Avalon, located at Avalon Bay. Its current population is only 4,996 residents, however, there is about a million of visitors the island gets during summer. Since Santa Catalina is administratively a part of the LA County, there’s one small court building here, which shares the facility with the sheriff station and the public library. Needless to say the court clerk office is open only every second Friday of the month. There’s little to no crime in Avalon.
Santa Catalina Island is operated by Catalina Island Company for over 123 years. They’ve managed to keep only 10%-15% of the land occupied by houses, businesses (most of them located in the city of Avalon) and different attractions. The rest is dedicated to wild life, with a thoughtful intention to save the true look and feel of the island.
Top things to see and do in Avalon
Despite Avalon being so small and cozy, there’s a multitude of places for you to enjoy. One of the well-known touristy spots that you can’t miss is Catalina Casino. Interestingly enough, there was never an actual “casino” in this building. The name came from Italian word “casino,” which means “gathering place.” It was a spot to escape big cities to enjoy movie, dinner, and dancing during the casino’s early days as the hub of the Avalon nightlife. Until 2016 it was a place to host Catalina Museum, which then moved, and right now it’s open for tours, movies and private events.
The round-shaped Catalina Casino building was built during the Great Depression by William Wrigley Jr., the famous Chicagoan, one of the richest businessmen of his time, the founder of the Wrigley Company famous for its chewing gum, among other things. In 1919 he bought a major stake of Catalina Island Company, and received the island along with it. He and his wife Ada made Santa Catalina Island the one we know it today. Notably, there’s one more Chicago trail to the island – Wrigley Jr. bought Chicago Cubs in 1921 and transferred their spring training here.
Another spot you have to check out is Wrigley Botanical Garden. It was built in 1972 at the top of Avalon Canyon – just a short 30-minute walk from downtown. It has over 60 local plants and animals that you cannot see anywhere else on the planet. Great place to take a longer walk, enjoy the variety of hiking trails, and camp.
If you like exploring but prefer to do it in a more relaxed way, you can take a submarine with the glass bottom, or go scuba diving. Rent a boat or just enjoy crystal clean water and beautiful sand. Like golf? Check out Catalina Country Club 9-hole course that features one of the most challenging spots to play. Notably, that was the first golf club on the entire West Coast.
If you want to see more sights – hop on the bus for the 50-minute Scenic Tour, and enjoy the view, the sights, and the rich history of this magical town.
When it comes to dining, you can expect everything, but… sushi. Italian, American, Mexican cuisines are all around you, but no Japanese. At least, we weren’t able to find it! By now, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that first big (by the island’s “size chart”) supermarket, Vons, just opened a store here on January 30, 2019, becoming the main and only grocery shopping hub, surrounded by golf carts and dazzling crowd.
After checking out a few different places we stopped by Avalon Grille, discovering one of the most exclusive dining spots in town. Inviting interior, incredibly attentive personnel, and a great menu selection. Brunch was unique, and my choice of “Poke Trio” was absolutely best you can find anywhere for $20. Fresh spicy salmon, sesame avocado, salmon roe, steamed white rice… I would do it again! Like most of the other dining spots on the island, it has its own vibe and you can enjoy ocean view while sitting outside, since most of the downtown spots oversee the shoreline.
Unique. That’s the word we would use to describe Catalina Island after this visit. When you’ve been around the globe and seen everything, sometimes it’s hard to be excited. It becomes more and more challenging to be impressed with “another destination.” However, even during such a short weekend day trip, Santa Catalina Island did it. This is the truly exquisite U.S. island escape that keeps its own charm over the years. The charm you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.