Though Catalina Island is part of Los Angeles County, the charming island and its popular waterfront city, Avalon, bear little resemblance to the sprawling metropolis with which the county shares a name.
Situated 22 miles off the coast of L.A., this island can be accessed in a little over an hour via the Catalina Express, a fleet of high-speed vessels that make daily trips from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point to Avalon. Catalina Island is just far enough away to make a perfect day trip from the City of Angels, but it’s also filled with enough activities and attractions to warrant a full vacation on its own. Whether you’re visiting Avalon for a day or a week, here are five can’t-miss ways to make the most of your stay.
1. Visit the Inn on Mount Ada. The palatial mansion that overlooks all of Avalon from its perch high atop a hill was once the private home of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate who developed most of the city. The home now operates as The Inn on Mount Ada, a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel. The best way to experience the beauty and historic charm of this 1921 Georgian Colonial home is to book one of the inn’s six guest rooms. Overnight guests are treated to sweeping vistas of Avalon Bay and the Pacific Ocean, as well as a complimentary golf cart to use during their stay; a full breakfast and lunch each day; unlimited access to the kitchen’s supply of wine, beer, ice cream and snacks; hors d’oeuvres each evening; and, perhaps best of all, the opportunity to learn more about the Wrigley family through firsthand stories that the innkeepers gladly share with visitors over tea and a nice breeze on the outdoor patio. Should the inn be full during your visit to the island, make reservations to enjoy breakfast or lunch — the view from one of the patio tables is the best on the island.
2. Sunbathe in style at Descanso Beach Club. There’s a day at the beach, and then there’s a day at one of Descanso Beach Club’s Presidential Cabanas. This private club sits on a secluded cove, and it recently unveiled three luxury cabanas for guests who want to enjoy the ultimate waterfront day-cation. Each cabana comes stocked with haute amenities such as a flat-screen television, Wi-Fi, chaise lounges and premium bottled water. A personal concierge delivers fresh fruit and smoothies throughout the day, and guests can also order from the club’s restaurant menu. The fare maintains the beach-chic vibe with options such as a cilantro Caesar salad topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and tortilla strips, peel-and-eat shrimp and sesame ginger wings. And, of course, there’s a tidy list of cocktails to sample, too — the Descanso Destroyer (Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Bacardi 151, amaretto, crème de noyaux, orange and pineapple juices) and Descanso Lemonade (Grey Goose Le Citron, Triple Sec, lemonade) are perfect for sipping on a sunny afternoon.
3. Tour the Catalina Casino and Avalon Theatre. Don’t let the name confuse you; the Catalina Casino is not a gambling hall, and residents of the island insist that it never will be. Instead, this is a casino in the Italian sense of the word — a house of entertainment and gathering. The massive building is home to the Casino Ballroom, the Avalon Theatre, the Catalina Island Museum and the Catalina Island Art Association Art Gallery. Take a Behind The Scenes tour to learn all about the ballroom and the theater’s glamorous past, as it was once a regular host to big band legends such as Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Harry James. The tour includes stops inside the theater’s green rooms and dressing rooms, plus a walk through the backstage area and an informative description of the intricate details inside the theater and ballroom (keep your eyes open for murals by iconic art deco painter John Gabriel Beckman and a stunning glass chandelier that has left ballroom guests awestruck since the first time its doors opened in 1929). After the tour, stop by the Catalina Island Museum to learn more about the island’s history, including two of Avalon’s most famous residents: Mr. Wrigley and Marilyn Monroe.
4. Explore Crescent Avenue. The bulk of Avalon’s commercial activity takes place in storefronts along Catalina, Summer, Metropole and Crescent Avenues, making this island town a breeze to navigate. Each street is worth a visit, but you’ll want to block off plenty of time for strolling down Crescent Avenue. Start your trek with a stop at Lloyd’s of Avalon to pick up a treat to nibble during your journey. The candy shop has been churning out sweets such as the delectable saltwater taffy since 1934. Two’s Company of Avalon is another standout shop that sells a carefully curated selection of stone jewelry, custom tile murals and beautiful Franz Collection porcelain collectibles. When it’s time for a more substantial snack, CC Gallagher is a popular place to gather for a quick bite. The bright and airy restaurant serves an impressive array of sake, wine and beer, plus a menu filled with sushi, sandwiches and pastries. For dinner, though, you’d be hard pressed to beat the Avalon Grille’s sophisticated ambiance; the restaurant’s color palette of light and dark woods, pristine white serving plates and glass-enclosed wine cellar all exude classic style. A delectable menu of American favorites such as seared Ahi tuna with edamame purée, twin 4-ounce filet mignon or pan-seared scallops and risotto cements this restaurant as an Avalon favorite.
5. Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour. Sure, the deep blue waters of Avalon Bay and the Pacific Ocean are beautiful from the shore — but just wait until you see them from 500 feet above sea level. The Catalina Zip Line Eco Tour is one of the island’s newest attractions, having led its first tour in 2010, but the high-adrenaline, two-hour adventure is considered by many locals to be a must-do activity for Avalon visitors. Two experienced guides accompany each group of thrill seekers through five separate zip lines, which cover almost three quarters of a mile and send participants sailing through the air at up to 45 miles per hour. The longest zip line stretches 1,100 feet, allowing guests plenty of time to take in the scenery as they fly over canyons filled with trees and native plants. For an even more heart-pounding experience, book a reservation for a night zip tour.
Photo Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company