24 Hours in Catalina Island: A Nearby Tropical Paradise
Take a ferry across the ocean
With ferries that depart all along the coast near LA, it's surprisingly easy to fit a day trip (or longer) into whatever other travel plans you have in the area. We opted for an early morning ride on the Catalina Express out of Long Beach. The trip was filled with people going on all types of excursions: families visiting for multiple days overloaded with luggage, beach chairs and umbrellas, older folks looking for some R&R, or couples like us, with no additional bags, just going for the day. With snacks and drinks for purchase, it’s a relaxing ride (when you're not feeling seasick like I was) on the open water, eventually pulling up to the port of Avalon, the most prominent of the two small towns on the island.
grab a quick bite at Avalon Bake Shop
Before exploring too much, pick up some breakfast at Avalon Bake Shop, just off the main drag along the water. This little cash-only bakery has delicious homemade $2 donuts. No better way to start your day of exploring with an inexpensive bite to eat...especially when you're all ready splurging to spend time in LA (spoiler alert...it can get a bit expensive).
zipline 300 ft in the air at 30 MPH
We continued to our first stop and the only pre-planned part of our Catalina trip, a two-hour zipline and ecological tour of the island. We rode in an open-top hummer up to the top of the mountain and headed back down for 5-6 zips. While some were steeper and some were longer, all gave an amazing view of the water and beach below. Ziplining is an awesome experience and this was definitely the longest zip-trip I've ever done. The first step off the ledge is a seriously heart-pounding moment but within 15 seconds you’re good to go. Go no hands if you’re feeling daring or just sit back and enjoy the view. We had quite a few nervous people in our group but the onslaught of dad jokes from our guide kept everyone calm and relaxed.
Avalon features a lot of outdoor tours and excursions. There's literally something for everyone. Additional activities include a high ropes course, stand up paddle boarding, fishing trips and rides on glass-bottom boats.
88% of the island is in the hands of the Catalina Island Conservancy who are trying to bring the land, animals and plants back to their natural state. Ask anyone running any of the excursions about the wildlife and history of the area and they'll be more than happy to chat. The people that work on Catalina have some serious heart for their little slice of paradise.
eat lunch on the beach
Food was calling our names and our stomachs after ziplining all morning in the summer sun. We headed back towards the water to eat at the Descanso Beach Club, one of the most well-known destinations in Catalina. This resort has a laid-back outdoor dining space with great island-inspired food like ahi tuna burgers and tropical cocktails like the margarita that I ended up spilling all over my lap. The outdoor bar features DJs and beach parties into the summer evenings and you can live in true luxury with a private cabana rental near the water.
Descanso is what really makes Catalina feel like you're in the tropics. People are running past with giant pool floats, dogs are relaxing in the sun, and people are just in a good mood. A few of our waitresses were originally from the UK and Europe, in for the summer just to work on the island...not a bad gig!
Stroll through town and enjoying “island time”
Walking through the small side streets of the town gives you a peek into the island lifestyle. Almost everyone you run into is there to getaway from their day-to-day lives. The relaxed vibe can be felt wherever you go. Make sure you watch out for golf carts; cars are only allowed on the island in extreme circumstances (and there’s a 14 year waiting list to even be considered). You can rent golf carts to get around which is especially convenient if you want to explore the higher elevation and bluffs. We opted to walk everywhere due to our shorter stay.
Places around town:
The Avalon Casino: The most iconic landmark of Avalon, the casino doesn’t have any gambling or slot machines inside but can hold 6,000 people within its rooftop rotunda.
The Wrigley Mansion: Looking at the top of the hill, you can see the Wrigley mansion. The island was purchased by the family of the Wrigley gum fortune in the 20’s and they still fund the Conservancy to this day. The Chicago Cubs used the island for spring training into the 50's. Cubs flags scattered quite a few of the bars on the main drag making us feel like we were back home in Chicago.
Lloyds of Avalon Confectionary or Scoops: Make sure you pick up some Avalon fudge at Lloyds or some amazing homemade ice cream or frozen lemonade for those hotter days at Scoops. Scoops mint chip ice cream flavor is actually bright blue making it perfect for an Instagram pic.
Golf Gardens Miniature Golf: Mini golf has been a staple of vacations for my family since my childhood so trying a new course is never out of the question. Mini-golf pairs perfectly with the quaint island-town feel of Catalina and it's a great way to kill time while waiting for your ferry back to the mainland.