Santa Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands (but not included in the Channel Islands National Park), lies 22 miles off the southern California coast. Though it is privately owned by the Santa Catalina Island Company, it’s accessible by private boat or ferries that leave from Long Beach and Dana Point.
I should clarify: the island’s two port towns are accessible to the public. The rest of the island is not. Not, at least, without a permit.
You can get there, to what locals call the "Interior," by obtaining a hiking permit and trekking the 37-mile (one way, 74 miles round-trip) Trans-Catalina Trail, or by purchasing a ticket to ride on the SafariBus.
What to do, you ask?
Most folks visit Avalon because it’s an easy day trip and there's loads to do. Within the hour, after a 45-minute ferry ride along side-leaping (or surfing, depending on your perspective) dolphins, day trippers can be hitting the pedestrian shopping strip along the harbor located just off the docks. There are ziplines, glass-bottom boats and parasailing adventures. There’s tours of the cultural landmark Casino – the art deco ballroom that claims to be the birthplace to Swing. There is also the private Descanso Beach Club and its oceanfront restaurant – the only on the island, just north of the Casino. Descanso has cabanas and lounge chairs for rent if you want a place to relax by the sea in between excursions.
Avalon is a car-free zone and pretty much built vertically from the beach up the steep mountainside. That said, there isn’t much for day trippers up on the slopes, aside from a bit of hiking and the Inn on Mount Ada, which, being built high up on the mountain, affords the BEST dining view in all of Avalon.
The Inn is the former Wrigley mansion (the chewing gum folks and primary developers of the town and everything in it), but offers lunch – and soon high tea – to straggling, dusty trail rats, along with the general public. I ate out on the veranda looking down on the harbor, the town and the picturesque Casino.
If you plan to stay within the shopping and dining district down by the harbor, then you’ll have no trouble on foot. If you want to explore a bit, however, you may want to purchase a day pass on the trolley ($7) that will take you to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens and up to the Inn. The memorial is covered in cobalt Catalina tile crafted on the island between 1927 and 1937. Taxis are available, but pricey. Or rent a golf cart by the hour if you’d prefer some autonomy.
Catalina Island slideshow
I didn’t go for just the day; I stayed a week, arriving on my birthday after a brownie breakfast (round-trip ferry tickets are free if you leave or return on your birthday). I began my trek in Avalon at the southern tip of the island, as I had come to hike the island and would be working my way north towards the historic Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors. The Banning brothers, who had owned the island before the Wrigleys did, lived near Long Beach. Their mansion there is now a museum; the Lodge was their hunting camp. Two Harbors is on the isolated, undeveloped "West End," or the northern tip.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Zane Grey Hotel (currently closed for renovations) overlooking Avalon upon my return four days later, and slept like a baby to the sounds of the sea drifting in the open casement window. I awoke to a cruise ship entering the harbor and sat on the veranda sipping tea as the tourists were ferried into town.
Though there are many hotels down by the harbor in Avalon, I had wanted to be away from it all to unwind after my grueling solo hike. It was an easy choice for me – a writer – to choose to stay at the former home of a famous writer. The 1926 Hopi pueblo-style inn was built high on a bluff with fabulous ocean views by Western novelist Zane Grey, the one who brought the buffaloes that now freely roam the Interior. The hotel is currently under restoration.
In Avalon, my other top votes are the Inn at Mount Ida (with rooms beginning at $390) for those looking for someplace quaint, luxurious and private to stay; the Vista del Mar (rates starting at $175) for its views and colonial Spanish-arched terraces where breakfast is served overlooking the harbor.
If you're interested in hiking or camping, you'll want to grab a permit from the Conservancy. Also offered are ecotourism opportunities through their Island Ecology Travel Program.
The Banning House Lodge (with prices starting at $255) on the West End is a quiet, secluded spot with lovely views and one of the best all-around breakfast spreads I've experienced. It's the perfect place to launch onto the Silver Peak Trail (top) that runs north-south crest with expansive views of both the Pacific and the San Pedros Channel. There are also two cottages available. Other than that, bring your tent.
Where to dine
In Avalon, absolutely the aromatic and mucho romantic (Ristorante Villa) Portofino. Impossible to walk past this place. Also, don't be fooled by the Catalina Island Brew House's name. It's an espresso bar and bakery as well as a taproom for island hop.
In the Interior, you've only got the DC-3 Grill at Airport in the Sky. Awesome food with picnic tables on the veranda overlooking the Channel.
Slim pickings if in Two Harbors: Harbor Reef and the West End Galley.
Review the annual calendar of events before visiting because there’s a wide array of activities you may wish to participate in – from cross-island marathons to the Casino’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration complete with big band music.
Avalon, Santa Catalina Island