A Visit to Catalina Island – A World Away from LA

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Just over an hour by ferry and about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles sits Catalina Island or Santa Catalina Island as it is properly called.

It’s a world away from Los Angeles despite its proximity.

Catalina Island is a rocky one measuring 22 miles long by eight miles wide with mountains rising to 2.097 feet above sea level. Its home to about 4,100 people, most of whom live in Avalon, the small town you dock at in when you arrive by ferry.

"The ferry in San Pedro"

The ferry in San Pedro

"Leaving the busy LA port"

Leaving the busy LA port

"In December it's warm enough to enjoy the ferry ride outside"

In December it’s warm enough to enjoy the ferry ride outside – at least I thought it was

"The harbour in Avalon on Catalina Island"

The harbour in Avalon on Catalina Island

Once you arrive on Catalina Island time will take on a different quality. The pace of life is slower on Catalina Island. That may be because the bulk of the population either walks, bikes or gets around via golf carts. Cars are severely restricted.

The island feels super clean and pristine – in large part because of the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Conservancy oversees over 90% of Catalina Island, including 60 miles of unspoiled beaches. It’s goal is to promote restoration and preservation efforts through education. Interestingly there are 60 species of plants, animals and insects found here that exist nowhere else in the world.

"One of the charming waterfront cafes"

One of the charming waterfront cafes

"Golf carts are the main form of transport"

Golf carts are the main form of transport

"The waterfront in Avalon"

The waterfront in Avalon

So what can you do on an island where time has slowed down?

There is actually plenty to do though in the winter not all activities are offered – at least every day like they would be in the summer. This is the sort of place where it feels right to do nothing at all.

I did a zipline eco tour thanks to Santa Catalina Island Company. It was just me and my two guides – Nick Flores and Douglas Hippe and what a blast I had. Five ziplines whisked me over 4000 feet and offered up glorious views of this rugged island.  Not only did I learn about the fauna and the flora of the area but I had lots of time to chat one on one with the guides – both who have lived either full time or extensively on the island and so had lots of local knowledge to share.

"Ziplining course that takes you through pretty country"

Ziplining course that takes you through pretty country

"Me enjoying the ziplining course"

Me enjoying the ziplining course

"Beautiful harbour views along the ziplining course"

Beautiful harbour views along the ziplining course

Kayaking is available out of the Descanso Beach Club, and would be a glorious summertime activity.

And then of course there is hiking. I would like to return one day to hike the full 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Trail though there are plenty of easier ones to do too especially out of the Two Harbors area.

There is lots of biking as well, though unfortunately I ran out of time to go for a ride with the light fading so early on a December day. Brown’s Bikes, located within a one minute walk of the ferry terminal offers bike rentals and maps illustrating routes of varying difficulties. As Catalina Island is extremely hilly, you do need to put some thought into your route.

The snorkeling and scuba diving around the island is reportedly excellent. Waters are crystalline and marine life is diverse thanks to a confluence of currents. According to Mother Nature Network, Scuba diving magazine ranked the waters as the world’s healthiest marine environment – a big surprise to me considering the proximity to LA. There are a number of companies offering snorkeling and scuba tours on the island.

"Kayaking is another option in Avalon"

Kayaking is another option in Avalon

Beautiful buildings along the shoreline"

"Entrance to The Tuna Club of Avalon"

Entrance to The Tuna Club of Avalon – & the birthplace of modern sportfishing – though stressing conservationist ethics and sporting behaviour

"Good balance"

Good balance

"Beautiful tile work along the waterfront"

Beautiful tile work along the waterfront

And then there is the Casino Tour – which you MUST do!

This was a lesson for me on when a casino is not a casino.

On my itinerary for the day, the Casino Tour showed up. My first thoughts were – do the fine folks at Visit California not know that my blog has an adventure focus – and that I’m not into gambling?

I regretted even thinking that thought.

Casino, before the word was bastardized by Vegas, comes from Italian and means a social gathering place. And that’s actually what the Catalina Casino has been since 1929 – a place to dance, enjoy theater and be entertained. It was commissioned by William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley chewing gum fame. From start to finish it took just 14 months to build at a cost of two million – 1.4 million over budget.

There are so many highlights to the building – but before you even get inside your eyes are drawn to the murals. They were designed and painted by John Gabriel Beckman. He originally wanted to do them all on Catalina tile, made from local clay – but ran out of time so only one mural over the entrance is made of tile. The rest were painted on concrete and feature underwater life found in the waters around Catalina Island.

"Incredible hand painted murals at the Casino"

Incredible hand painted murals at the Casino

"Entrance to the Casino"

Entrance to the Casino

The Avalon Theater is unbelievable though none of my photos do it justice. Murals adorn the walls. Add in gold leaf and sterling silver leaf to many of the artistic touches. Throw in a rare pipe organ, one that’s still in action on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The quality of sound thanks to the acoustics is phenomenal and in fact has been copied by many leading theaters. The Avalon Theater currently offers movies that change every week.

The design of the building was incredibly thought through on so many levels. Because the building was commissioned by someone who happened to also be the owner of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley had knowledge of how to move crowds. To get up to the ballroom level ramps instead of stairs were installed – that meet code to this day for handicapped access.

The ballroom is magnificent. And it’s huge – 10,000 square feet. It owns the title of the world’s largest circular dance floor. Still active, it plays host to a number of big band dances throughout the year. The all-time record for dancers at one time is 6,200 people.

Despite the abuse over the years of thousands of dancing feet – and the fact that one year the ballroom was used as the basketball court for the local high school team when their gymnasium was unavailable – the wood floors have never been replaced.

"The world's largest circular ballroom"

The world’s largest circular ballroom

"View from the ballroom"

View from the ballroom

Of course there is the usual shopping and dining on Catalina Island – some of which is first rate.

If you can make it to Catalina Island try and spend at least one night. I wish I had. Check with the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce on ideas of where to stay on the island. There is a wide selection including camping, B&B’s, seaside hotels, cottage vacation rentals and condos.

Getting to Catalina Island

There are three ferry terminals offering access to Catalina Island. They include San Pedro, Dana Point and Long Beach Downtown. Tickets are in the order of $72.50 round trip per person – unless it’s your birthday – in which case it’s free. I believe free tickets are only offered in the low season – and be prepared to wear a birthday ribbon. There were about four people on my boat doing the trip on their birthday.  Parking fees are extra and range from $12 – $15 per day.

There is also the option on some trips to visit Two Harbors, a small island village with one B&B, a restaurant, camping and a place I’m told where the hiking is excellent.

Have you ever made the trip to Catalina Island? Where would you recommend staying or eating?

A big thank you to Visit California and the Catalina Chamber of Commerce for making my trip possible. All thoughts are entirely my own.

Leigh McAdam

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