SoCal’s Favorite Island for Land and Sea Adventures

An island vacation can bring to mind long flights and expensive accommodations, but just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, Santa Catalina can satisfy that island urge with surprising convenience. As the southern-most region in Los Angeles County, Catalina Island is a lush 2.9 square miles of quaint shops, hotels, restaurants, a spa, and a variety of scenic tours that spotlight the area’s culture and history. Catalina has evolved into an active destination that offers water sports, camping, and programs that educate visitors about sustainability and environmental preservation. Think of it as an escape to a charming town on a remote island — except it’s not as remote as you may think. It’s a quick boat trip from SoCal, and with approximately 4,000 people who call it home, Catalina Island is particularly ideal for those who seek an uncongested getaway.

Tourists can visit the island’s two primary communities: the city of Avalon at the east end and the unincorporated region of Two Harbors near the west. The small town of Avalon consists of a picturesque harbor, green hillsides dotted with homes and hotels, and narrow streets lined with shops and eateries. Two Harbors, at the rest of the island’s rugged wilderness, is where camping and outdoor activities take place. A popular boating area, it features an array of water sport activities, miles of hiking and biking trails, and is home to a protected marine reserve.

Catalina boasts quite an impressive history: The Catalina Island Company was established in 1894 when the Banning brothers purchased the island hoping to transform it into a resort destination, but a fire in 1915, which consumed half of Avalon’s structures, devastated their dreams as well as their funds. In 1919 they sold shares of the island to a group of investors that included William Wrigley Jr. of chewing gum fame, who eventually gained the controlling interest in the company. Wrigley invested millions for infrastructure and built the iconic Catalina Casino in 1929. He attracted publicity to the island by bringing his Chicago Cubs to Avalon, where they held spring training from 1921 to 1951. The island grew in popularity, and, in the late 1920s, it became the setting for film production and an enjoyable retreat for the rich and famous.

When William Wrigley Jr. died in 1932, ownership of the company transferred to his son Philip Knight Wrigley and daughter Dorothy Wrigley Offield. In 1972, members of the Wrigley and Offield families deeded 88% of Catalina’s interior and coastline to a private land trust and established the Catalina Island Conservancy, which is responsible for much of the island’s expansion into the resort destination it is known for today.

Upon arrival to the island, you’ll find that the majority of hotels are within walking distance from the harbor, which is where most visitors arrive. One of the most popular is Pavilion Hotel, which features a casual vibe and a courtyard with a large fire pit located in its center. If you’re the social type, you’ll likely make new friends at this friendly spot. But there’s no lack of chaise lounges if you’d rather quietly relax or enjoy a book or magazine. Complimentary wine and cheese are served each night, and the hotel tosses in the Avalon Scenic Tour, the Fly Fish Voyage and the use of the hotel bikes free of charge to guests. Guests also enjoy courtesy access to Island Spa Catalina’s Wellness Studio.

Spa Catalina,located in Avalon’s historic El Encanto building, is the island’s only full-service spa. The spa’s unique treatments, which include facials, massages and signature body scrubs, utilize local plants and marine extracts to rejuvenate both mind and body. Its amenities include a wellness studio offering yoga and virtual fitness classes, an ocean view relaxation deck, a hair and nail salon, the El Encanto Café, a retail shop, nine treatment rooms, a soaking pool, a jacuzzi, a dry sauna, a eucalyptus steam room, and men’s and women’s lockers. That’s quite an array of services, but spread across a generous 15,000 square-foot space, the treatment areas are comfortable and serene.

If the spa is not your thing, there’s plenty more to do. The Wrigley’s Catalina is a guided tour that visits the field where Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs held Spring Training and offers a peek into the lavish collection of sports memorabilia on display at the Catalina Country Club, originally the Cubs’ clubhouse. The tour also goes to the former Bird Park, a popular attraction that exhibited thousands of birds before it closed in 1966 after 40 years, as well as the Catalina Chimes Tower, which has chimed every 15 minutes since the Wrigleys built it in 1925 as a gift to the people of Avalon.

Thrill-seekers will enjoy the Zip Line Eco Tour, which features five separate lines, one towering 300 feet high, and at ziplining speeds of about 30 mpg. This spine-gripping activity comes with a guide who will check that all safety measures are in place as well as shed light on the topography, animals and plants that have shaped Catalina’s unique ecosystem. The Catalina Aerial Adventure is another action-packed excursion that consists of climbing, crawling and swimming through a variety of challenging obstacles suspended in a grove of eucalyptus trees.

If you prefer the arts over the outdoors, the Catalina Island Museum hosts a spectacular collection of historical memorabilia as well as an assemblage of curated works by local and widely known artists. Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing and public relations, describes the museum as a compilation of works and artifacts that tell the Catalina Island story. There are more than 10,000 photographs depicting the development of the island from the early 1880s to present day. The museum also serves as the repository for all archaeological digs on the island. The new home of the museum is a contemporary space with a smart layout that leads guests through an impressive display of artistry and a chronology of Catalina’s bygone days.

The Avalon Diving History Exhibit & Marine Animal Rescue Program is located at the casino and is a magnificent display of diving memorabilia. Jon Council, the lead field officer involved with island marine animal rescues, created the museum to illustrate the evolution of scuba diving and showcase its equipment. An ardent collector of historical diving equipment, Council’s collection is considered the most extensive and diverse assortment of vintage dive gear in the United States.

Also at the casino is the Avalon Theatre, the first movie house designed specifically for talking motion pictures. The 1,184-seat theatre features a huge screen, legendary acoustics and a state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound system. The space is available to rent for large events and conferences.

When it’s time for a meal, there are a variety of world-class restaurants on the island. Bluewater Avalon, Avalon Grille, Harbor Reef Restaurant, Catalina Coffee and Cookie Company, PKW Eatery + Bar and Descanso Beach Club each have signature dishes and a distinct ambiance.  

Catalina Island is accessible by boat from three ports via Catalina Express: San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. The fleet offers comfy seats, a bar and group table seating on board so your fun can start before you get to the island. But don’t get too cozy because the trip will only last about an hour, which is why it’s the preferred method of transportation for people who want to travel fast and get to the vacationing much quicker.

If you haven’t been to Catalina Island in a while, now’s the time to visit. With the great summer climate and so many recreation options it’s likely to become one of your favorite places to frequent for years to come.

Fun Facts

  • Norma Jean Baker, later known as Marilyn Monroe, lived in Avalon for a year with her first husband, James Dougherty, a Merchant Marine stationed there during World War II.
  • Catalina has hosted many A-list stars, including John Wayne, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda and more. Recent visitors include Barbra Streisand, Nicolas Cage, Rob Lowe, Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift.
  • Founded in 1898, the famed Catalina Tuna Club is the oldest big-game saltwater fishing club in the world and is often credited with giving rise to modern sport fishing.

Wait, There’s More!

Additional activities include:

Guided Hikes

Avalon Scenic Drive

Botanical Garden Tour

Catalina Aerial Adventure

Bison Expedition

Catalina Island Golf Course

Ocean Expedition

Catalina Falconry Experience

Skyline Drive

Undersea Expedition

And the list goes on!

Photo credit: Catalina Express