Some 20+ miles off Southern California’s coast lies a delightful island escape from the everyday stresses of life in the city. Just 22 miles long and 8 miles wide, Santa Catalina Island greets approximately a million visitors each year. European charm, natural flora and fauna, a plethora of recreational sports, romance, storied history and … well, bison … are just a few of the reasons we “travel on to Avalon”.
And things are changing on Santa Catalina. During a recent visit, I was amazed to discover that this little island gem is BOOMING! Everywhere I turned, construction was in full swing. Homes, businesses and infrastructure are all getting a facelift. Although a bit noisy at times, it was refreshing to observe that the economy is enjoying a long-awaited upswing. Summer will be here in a nano-moment and tourists crowds will be descending via ferry, helicopter and personal watercraft. So before the island is overflowing with visitors, NOW is a great time to experience all that Santa Catalina has to offer:
Get Back to Nature … Rent a cabin and kayak at Two Harbors (a remote village at the island’s isthmus north of Avalon), then paddle out to discover local sea life including garibaldi, leopard sharks, white sea bass, yellowtail and halibut. If you’re trolling or spearing for dinner, the waters off Catalina are a great spot to hunt the freshest seafood anywhere! Sport fishing charters are also available. Two Harbors is great for camping and offers a number of hiking and biking trailheads with paths of varied lengths and difficulties leading to several different parts of the island. http://catalinachamber.com
Recreation … With the island’s multitude of sea life, Catalina is great for scuba diving and snorkeling. In addition to Two Harbors, the Avalon Underwater Dive Park, Lover’s Cove and Descanso Beach are prime locations for snorkeling and diving. If you’re one who prefers to be on top of the water as opposed to in the wet stuff, zip line adventures, glass bottom boat tours, submersible boats for an interactive underwater experience, and parasailing are available. Catalina Island Tours (http://www.catalinatours.net), Visit Catalina (http://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/activities-adventures/land) and Catalina Adventure Tours (http://www.catalinaadventuretours.com) offer a variety of rental and tour options. If golf is your passion, hit the links at Catalina Island Golf Course. For a tee time, call (310) 510-0530. Triathlons, marathons and other race events are also held on Catalina each year. For schedules and information, visit http://runcatalina.com.
Enjoy Some Well-Deserved RRR&R … Rest: there are dozens of fantastic hotel resort properties and B&B’s on Catalina. Many private homes are also available to rent on a weekly basis. We spent a few nights at Aurora Hotel & Spa, and although it was quaint and cute, the rooms were uncomfortably tiny and the hotel was extremely noisy at times. Trip Advisor is always a great source for reviews and amenities, so check out Catalina’s best at http://www.tripadvisor.com/Catalina_Island. Another resourceful link is Catalina Island Hotels: http://www.catalinahotels.com. For vacation rentals, visit http://CatalinaVacations.com. Romance: That happens to be in abundance on “The Island of Romance”. Wedding venues are also in abundance. Whether its a beach wedding, garden soiree, resort-style wedding or a grand event at The Casino, there’s something to suit every couple on Catalina! Event planners are also available for weddings, anniversaries and special occasions. Relaxation: Did someone say SPA? Most of the resort hotels offer complete spa amenities, and day spas are aplenty on Catalina, so pick your pleasure and book an hour … or a day of relaxation and stress reduction! Restaurants: Dinner of seared scallops with roasted jalapeño aioli at Bluewater Avalon Seafood Restaurant was thoroughly enjoyable! Its prime location overlooking Avalon Harbor was so lovely, a trip back to the patio the following day for a few glasses of vino and some of the best crab cakes I’ve ever tasted made Bluewater Avalon doubly special. http://www.bluewatergrill.com. There are dozens of cafes and restaurants here on Catalina, but I’m also giving a shout out to Steve’s Steakhouse and Avalon Grille, who consistently serve mouthwatering dishes. And if you’re an espresso lover like me, be sure and grab a steamy cup of latte at CC Gallagher, an eclectically delightful locale for coffee, wine tasting, gourmet food, and shopping. http://www.ccgallagher.com. For a scoop of ice cream to soothe your tummy after that decadent meal, stop by Big Olaf’s. You won’t be disappointed!
See Catalina … Golf carts vastly outnumber vehicles on this island of 4,000 residents. They’re also an excellent way to visit the many “nooks and crannies” of Avalon and the hills overlooking the harbor. Grab a map, rent a cart and hit the pavement! It really is a great way to familiarize yourself with this enchanting island escape. Catalina Island Golf Carts has two convenient locations for rentals. http://www.catalinaislandgolfcart.com. Island Rentals also rents golf carts and they’re located just off the boat dock on Pebbly Beach Road. Electric Segways are another way to experience Catalina. For details visit http://www.catalinasegways.com
Shop ’til You Drop … See my notes on CC Gallagher, above. This unique one-stop-shopping boutique just beyond the pier on Avalon’s Crescent Avenue, is a great place to browse, sip and shop. Ciao-Baci also just beyond the ferry dock, offers beautiful ceramics, accessories and art (for stress free shopping here, keep the kiddos out of the store). http://www.ciao-baci.com. Apparel boutiques, galleries, ice cream and confectionery shops, and an abundance of dining options line Crescent Avenue. Metropole Marketplace, tucked behind Hotel Metropole, offers more shopping and the Three Palms Arcade, a sure bet for keeping the kids entertained. The Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce is located at the end of the pier, inviting visitors as they disembark and stroll toward Crescent Avenue and Avalon’s tourism district. The Chamber has a bounty of information on all that Santa Catalina offers, so stop in for some great tips and info. http://catalinachamber.com
Where the Buffalo Roam … The Catalina Island Conservancy oversees the preservation of over 88% of this beautiful isle, including 62 miles of unspoiled beaches and coves. In addition to their remarkable and responsible stewardship of Santa Catalina, the Conservancy also offers jeep eco-tours, issues hiking permits and operates the Wildlands Express. In 1924, 14 bison were brought to Catalina for the filming of The Vanishing American. Hollywood left, but the bison remained. Since then, their numbers have increased ten-fold to nearly 150. If you’d like to get up close and personal with a few of these bovine creatures who roam the island’s interior, a jeep eco-tour is an ideal way to do just that. http://www.catalinaconservance.org
Discover Island History … Catalina Island certainly has a storied past. In 1919 William Wrigley Jr. (chewing gum anyone?) built a home perched high on a hill overlooking Avalon. This estate is now the multi-award winning Inn on Mount Ada. (Awards include the 2011 and 2013 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence, 2011 Forbes Four-Star Award and a Condé Naste Traveler “Best in the World Readers Choice Award”.) Wrigley also brought his beloved Chicago Cubs (whose windy city home is none other than Wrigley Field) to Catalina each year for Spring Training. Then Hollywood arrived. During the 1920s and 30s, Santa Catalina was a frequent escape for the biggest names in the business. Hundreds of movies were filmed here; in fact, the island was often referred to as “Hollywood’s Back Lot”. Marilyn Monroe lived on the island with her first husband, and scandal hit in 1981 when actress Natalie Wood drowned in the waters off Catalina. Catalina’s premiere landmark, The Casino, houses the Catalina Island Museum. It’s a great place to experience the grandeur of the Casino with its own storied past, and catch a glimpse of the 100-year old island’s history as well. http://www.CatalinaMuseum.org
All That Jazz … Art Goode’s 28th Annual JazzTracks Festival will descend again on the isle of Santa Catalina this year during the weekends of October 9-12 and 16-19. Having been lucky enough to score tickets a few years back, I can surely attest that this event is outstanding! Smooth jazz greats including David Sanborn, Brian Culbertson, Keiko Matsui, Dave Koz, Mindi Abair, Peter White and dozens more perform sensational concerts on Descanso Beach and in the Casino’s grand ballroom. Book your accommodations and ferry ride, and purchase tickets EARLY – this world-famous gem of a concert series sells out! For tickets and event details, visit http://www.jazztrax.com/jazz/catalina.html.
So schedule an island escape, plan your adventures and activities, then relax and enjoy the ride. For my excursions to Santa Catalina, I prefer the Catalina Express for the one-hour trip. They offer daily ferry service from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point year-round. http://www.CatalinaExpress.com