For Janine's birthday (I'll never reveal which milestone!), I wanted to plan a new adventure. From L.A., we had explored north, south, and east, but not yet (basically) west. Catalina Island had long been a curiosity - a seemingly sleepy land that may have seen its liveliest days about a century ago. Still, I wanted to check out the town of Avalon and the wild bison roaming the more remote areas of the island, with the hope the birthday girl would also like experiencing this new-to-us place.
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On Janine's birthday morning, we got up early, I gave some conflicting advice for what to wear on this surprise ocean and land excursion, and we were soon on our way to the Long Beach harbor. We parked, boarded the ferry, and away we went to Catalina's main town, Avalon.
The historic, retired RMS Queen Mary cruise liner, and equally-massive cargo ships, were interesting sites on the way out to open water. This is also a notable spot, where Howard Hughes piloted the "Spruce Goose" - then the world's largest airplane - on its only flight, during a test run in 1947. The aircraft was housed in its custom-built dome until 1992, when it was sold and moved to Oregon. The dome remains in place and is now a cruise line terminal, operated by Carnival.
The ferry from Long Beach to Avalon takes an hour. Initially, Catalina Island looks like an uninhabited mountain range emerging from the ocean. Soon enough, the Hamilton Cove community comes into focus, followed by Avalon. You've likely seen at least a photo or two of the town, which is instantly recognizable by the Casino ("gathering place" in Italian). The Art Deco building from 1929 contains a movie theater, ballroom, and formerly a history museum. True to the translation, it's essentially a community building and not a gambling hall.
Upon deboarding, we strolled through town and started the next leg of this adventure: a passenger van ride up to "The Airport in the Sky." I thought this would be a neat trip, for a chance to see, then eat, some bison at the airport's small restaurant. The hairpin turns (without guardrails!) and bumpy roads made for a nauseating ride, raising the question "Why did we just go through all this to visit an airport?"
I've spent a lot of time at small airports, but here, I just didn't quite know what to expect. I thought this one might offer a great view of the Pacific (it didn't) and thought lunch would offer something different for everyone (the bison wasn't especially memorable). On the way back, we did at least see a couple of those living, breathing beasts, and our shuttle had to stop while one thundered across the dirt road in front of us.
Next to the mountain road, we spotted some people ziplining, which looked like a lot of fun, but there wasn't time for something like that today. Back in Avalon, what we did have time for was miniature golf. But guess what? Golf Gardens was closed! A note posted said a private event would be starting in a couple hours. Bummer.
With the time that just freed up, we explored some of the shops in town, then took a stroll along the coast, past the Casino, to the beach club and back.
To our surprise, the Buckeyes football game was on at one of the bars in town, so we grabbed a couple beers and watched our earn a "W". The day was cruising along, so we headed to the steakhouse for our early dinner reservation.
With the harbor in view from our table, Janine was getting a little nervous, seeing people boarding the ferry back to Long Beach. Even as the boat pulled away from the dock, I continued telling her "Eh, don't worry about it." We paid the bill, hopped in a cab, and headed to the heliport!
I hadn't put too much thought into what the experience might be like, but it was surprising when a few other people climbed into the helicopter with us. It made sense, but a private flight would have been much better. Still, the birthday girl was impressed (and relieved to find out why we had missed the last ferry of the day), and that's what was most important.
At the end of a busy day, the 45 minute drive home felt like it took at least double that time. We slept well that night, though, and woke up feeling grateful for this opportunity for a temporary escape from L.A.
ABRIDGED HISTORY OF THE ISLAND
This covers 9,000 years, perhaps unfairly condensed to a single paragraph:
Santa Catalina Island has long been inhabited, with evidence of a Native American settlement dating back to 7000 BC. In the 1500s, the island was claimed on behalf of Spain. In the 1800s, it was turned over to Mexico and ended up changing hands through private ownership. After buying a majority stake in the island, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. had the Catalina Casino built in the 1920s and began bringing the pro baseball team he owned - the Chicago Cubs - to the island for spring training. Aside from during World War II, the Cubs continued training on Catalina until 1951. Wrigley's son, Philip, deeded the family's 88% stake of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy in 1972, which was established to protect, restore, and promote the unique destination. In case you were wondering, and I'm sure you were (wink), Catalina salad dressing didn't originate here and may have instead been named for the Catalan cuisine in Spain.
Santa Catalina Island is located 22 miles off the California coast. You can get there and back via the Catalina Express ferry, IEX Helicopters, or via private boat or aircraft. The main ferry sails to Avalon from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. The ferry to Two Harbors departs from San Pedro. As of 2022, the standard roundtrip fare ranges from $76-81 per adult.
Unfortunately, Catalina Express discontinued their "sail free on your birthday" offer in 2017, so if you see anything about it, that no longer applies in 2022.
A limited number of cars are on the island, and they're not available to visitors. Instead, golf carts are the common way to get around and can be rented from several shops in Avalon. It's amusing to see small driveways and garages, built specifically for the carts.
Taxis are available, and Wildlands Express, operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy, provides a shuttle service from Avalon and Little Harbor to The Airport in the Sky.
THINGS TO DO
A day trip certainly limits your options, like in our case, but there are plenty of ways to stay busy, if that's your preference. Some of what the island offers:
- backcountry hiking (free permit required from the Catalina Island Conservancy)
- backcountry mountain biking (permit required via Conservancy membership purchase)
- backcountry Eco Tours (Conservancy again)
- snorkeling and scuba diving
- boat tours (including glass bottom and semi-submersible options)
- Casino tour
- visit the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden
- visit the Catalina Museum for Art and History
- relax at the beach, dine, and shop at the Avalon waterfront
I'm not going to add miniature golf to this list, since they were closed to the public (i.e. "us") well before a private event!
WHERE TO STAY
This isn't one of those sites where the writer licenses hotel images from Shutterstock and writes recommendations for places where he or she has never personally stayed. What I will say from experience, though, is that the lodging choices on the island are fairly limited. Considering the cost of ferry tickets, shuttle to The Airport in the Sky and back, and helicopter ride, at that time I couldn't justify the added expense of staying overnight. More time on the island certainly would have been great, though. The "off-season" (roughly Nov.-March) will generally offer cheaper prices, so consider that if it might influence your plans. Most of the traditional lodging options will be found in Avalon.
If you're looking for more of a rustic experience, consider bringing a tent and staying at one of the five designated campgrounds on the island. As of 2022, there are also options for staying in a "tent cabin" and even tent rentals.
"Exploring: Santa Catalina Island (California) Day Trip" - experienced in 2015
Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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