Every Angeleno knows that one of the greatest things about living in our beloved city is the ease with which we can escape it. But among the myriad getaways at our disposal one of the more special and (surprisingly) accessible destinations is a mere “26 miles across the sea.” In just an hour, you can take a high-speed ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point and find yourself transported to the charming island of Catalina.
The 405 and 10 freeways will be a distant memory when you’re chilling at Descanso Beach Club, enjoying cocktails brought to your lounge chair or a cabana mere yards from the ocean, zip lining while enjoying ocean views, taking in the rare SoCal opportunity to see buffalo roam freely, or even just partaking of delicious food from the 30 or so island eateries.
Spend a day or a weekend here and you’re likely to return refreshed and (hopefully) even more appreciative of all that is L.A.
So let’s take a look at some of the best that the island has to offer (in no particular order), and maybe give you a bit of motivation to go see Catalina for yourself.
1. Descanso Beach Club
“Feet in the sand and a drink in your hand” is the motto at Descanso Beach Club. Despite a name that seems to indicate that this is a private club, DBC is actually a restaurant and bar perched right on the beach. Enjoy a poke bowl, burger or a seafood banh mi while you unwind with a pina colada, rum punch, or a Newcastle ale. Want to get even more horizontal? Rent a lounge chair or cabana and savor a most relaxing afternoon.
2. Zip Line Eco Tour
Take in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island’s terrain as you hurtle through the air at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. The Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour sends your harnessed self careening along five zip lines as much as 300 feet above the canyon floor, from the top of Descanso Canyon to just above the shores of charming Descanso Beach. Two guides accompany each group to instruct and ensure safety while teaching about the history and wildlife of the area. Zipping along aerial lines up to 1100 feet long while marveling at Catalina’s natural beauty is truly exhilarating.
3. Luau Larry’s
This convivial tiki bar offering casual bar food — wings, fries, poppers — is responsible for one of the island’s more iconic fashion statements. Drink the “wiki wacker” (a medley of light rum, brandy, pineapple/orange juice and grenadine) and you’ll be presented with a showy palm frond hat that let’s everyone else on the island know exactly what you’ve been drinking.
4. Pavilion Hotel
Recently remodeled and renovated, this boutique hotel is a great place to stay. Located just 14 steps from the beach, the hotel’s 71 rooms surround a lushly landscaped tropical garden perfect for lounging, socializing and sunbathing. The light-filled library is ideal for people watching and reading and where you’ll enjoy complimentary continental breakfast that includes cappuccinos and other coffee drinks, freshly baked pastries, oatmeal, charcuterie and several cheeses, along with the daily complimentary wine and cheese hour at 4:30pm.
5. Avalon Ball
Harken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and Catalina during the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles’ annual homage to elegance. Now in its 14th year, the ball takes place in the 10,000 square foot Art Deco ballroom at Catalina Casino. The world’s largest circular ballroom, the beautiful ballroom boasts rose-colored walls, a 50-foot ceiling adorned with five Tiffany chandeliers, and a vintage bar. Back in the days of the big bands, musical luminaries like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller played here for as many as 3000 dancers. Now you can float on the same dance floor dressed in vintage attire while the acclaimed Dean Mora and orchestra play music from the ‘20s and ‘30s.
6. Jeep Eco Tour
Catalina’s famous buffalo have been here since 1924, when a herd of bison was brought here for the filming of a movie and were left behind. Currently around 150 in number, one way to get a good look at the bison is by taking the Jeep Eco Tour. Go off-roading with your guide in a Jeep and you’ll also enjoy visiting remote areas of the island while viewing its wildlife.
7. Visit for Free on Your Birthday
Are you looking for something fun to do on your next birthday? Catalina Express has been offering free rides to and from the island on your birthday for the last few years, and that’s been extended through the end of 2016. Just make sure to book online ahead of time.
[RELATED: The Best Birthday Freebies in Los Angeles]
8. Catalina Casino Tour
The aforementioned Catalina Casino is the island’s most recognizable building. Contrary to what we usually when of we hear the word “casino,” in this case it references the Italian word, meaning a “gathering space.” Built in 1929 and merging the style of Art Deco with Mediterranean Revival, Catalina Casino isn’t just home to that gorgeous ballroom —it also houses a beautifully maintained first-run movie theater whose walls are painted with gorgeous Art Deco murals.
During the casino tour, you’ll visit the theater and its vintage pipe organ, see a short film about the building’s history, go behind the scenes to visit dressing rooms and green rooms used by Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, explore the ballroom and its stellar ocean views, and learn about the history of this stellar structure.
9. Bluewater Grill
One of Avalon’s nicest restaurants, Bluewater Grill is located in the historic terminal building, with stunning views and a patio set right above the water. Sustainably caught fresh seafood is the order of the day here. You’ll want to savor such dishes as San Francisco-style cioppino, pappardelle with shrimp and scallops, or mussels steamed with wine, cilantro and lime. Bluewater Grill also offers events such as wine dinners and oyster tastings.
10. Catalina Island Helicopter Tours
Another way to see the island’s famed buffalo on the less-populated parts of the island — not to mention a great way to see all of Catalina — Island Express offers scenic helicopter tours that take you around the entire island, offering breathtaking views along the way.
11. Catalina Island Museum
This charming small museum often has exhibits of interest to fans of pop culture of yesteryear. Currently displaying an exhibit on Catalina’s history as a playground for Hollywood stars, other recent exhibits have focused on Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, the Beatles, and the Chicago Cubs, as they all had connections to the island). The museum’s permanent collection includes photos and other objects relating to island history, along with striking Catalina Clay products from the ‘20s and ‘30s.
12. Flying Fish Tour
This evening tour takes place on a boat built especially for this excursion back in 1924.
Catalina’s flying fish have oversized front fins that help them soar and glide above the ocean waves when attracted by light. This open boat is equipped with searchlights that entice the fish to sail through the air. It’s an amazing sight, especially for kids.
13. Paddleboarding or Kayaking
With water all around you, why wouldn’t you try water sports like standup paddleboarding or kayaking, on your own or with a guide. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports offers these fun activities, along with snorkeling in Catalina’s clear water laden with fish.
14. Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden
Walk up Avalon Canyon for 30 minutes (or take the trolley if you’re pressed for time) and you’ll reach this botanical garden paying homage to William Wrigley, the chewing-gum heir who bought most of Catalina back in 1919. This 37-acre hillside garden with hiking trails preserves plants endemic to California’s islands and is an excellent place to hike and take in views of Avalon and the ocean.
15. The Lobster Trap
This casual, fun restaurant and bar with a dive-y vibe offers dishes like coconut shrimp tacos, oysters Rockefeller, clam chowder, monkey balls (tempura mushrooms stuffed with ahi), and bacon-wrapped scallops. You may want to try one of their signature drinks: the Pancake Breakfast (Jameson and Buttershots with a shot of orange juice and a slice of hot bacon) or the island’s signature cocktail, Buffalo Milk (vodka with coffee liqueur, banana liqueur, crème de cacao and milk topped with whipped cream and nutmeg).
16. Mini Golf at Golf Gardens
Golf Gardens is an 18-hole course located a block from the beach. Highly regarded by miniature golf enthusiasts for its challenging holes, this course avoids the kitsch factor of castles and windmills, instead revolving around a garden with native plants. This relaxing course takes about an hour to complete.
Have you been to Catalina in recent days? What are your favorite things to do when you make the trip? Let us know in the comments below!