Day Trip to Catalina Island
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Last week Nick and I finally checked off “going to Catalina Island” on our LA bucket list. We had been meaning to visit the location for some time, but the pandemic kind of put a halt on that for the last year. We made day trip out of our Catalina Express ferry to Avalon, but are already dreaming of when we can go back and stay for more than 8 hours / hopefully over night!
Keep reading for what we did on our day trip to Catalina Island, plus more recs for when you want to stay for several days!
In this little section, I’m going to share our exact Catalina Itinerary, but if you keep scrolling, I share lots of other travel guide options!
We took the 8:45 am ferry from San Pedro to Avalon. This apparently never happens, but the ferry was late and we arrived to Catalina Island around 11:15 am instead of 10:15 am. Because of this we missed our Discover Avalon Tour. Again everyone on the island was surprised the ferry was late, so I don’t think it ever actually occurs, but maybe schedule your tours with a little more cushion just in case. We couldn’t re-book it for the same day, because they were sold out. So be sure to book your tours ahead of time as well! The Catalina Express ferry is about an hour and a half (22 miles from the coast) and was a really great way to arrive. One of my favorite parts of the whole day was on the boat, simply because we saw a lot of dolphins.
When we realized we weren’t going to be able to go on the Discover Avalon tour, we moved up our lunch reservation at Blue Water Grill and enjoyed a longer lunch on the beach. They have lots of fresh options and my (virgin) mojito was the perfect beachy drink. We finished a little early for our Golf Cart Reservation at Catalina Golf Cart Rentals, but they let us have it a little early! This was so fun to basically be on a “private” tour with Nick and take in all the island had to offer.
The last portion of our day was spent at the Casino Behind the Scenes Tour, which was amazing. Nick’s Papou was a merchant marine during WWII and had training on the island. We felt like we were retracing his steps to say the least. The casino first opened in 1929 but is still very relevant and full of rich history today. It was the perfect way to end our trip in all of its grandeur.
We had a short amount of time before our ferry, so we trotted into the Marlin Club before our boat ride for a drink. It was a fun local spot and we even made some new friends. We caught the 6:00 pm Catalina Express ferry back to San Pedro. You are given your return tickets at the same time as the entrance tickets, so no need to wait in line. We were there about 15-20 minutes prior to departure.
HOW TO GET TO CATALINA ISLAND
There are three ways of getting to Catalina Island…. five if you want to get specific.
Take your own boat. They actually have a plethora of moorings that go for as low as $25 a night.
Take a speed boat. A high speed ferry can get you there in an hour. There are several services for this. You can also charter a boat service from the mainland.
Take your private plane. If you’ve got it, why not? Private planes are allowed to fly into Catalina’s Airport in the Sky.
Take a helicopter. Helicopter service is available from Long Beach and San Pedro to Avalon.
Take a ferry. This is what we did courtesy of Catalina Express. While I haven’t experienced the other options, I have to say this is probably the easiest and most cost effective way to travel. It costs about $38 each leg of the trip for one adult. Not to mention it is an experience in and of it self! We took the Catalina Express from San Pedro to Avalon, though you can also depart from Long Beach or Dana Point. San Pedro is the newest, though the most departure time options are in Long Beach. We chose San Pedro because it was closest to us. They also offer ferries to Two Harbors if you prefer that port over Avalon. It lasted about an hour and a half, but it flew by. You get to experience a lot of nature and sea life. My favorite part was seeing a pod of 50+ dolphins swim by. Honestly it was probably my favorite part of the whole trip! I’d love to come back and take the ferry during whale season to try and experience their grandeur as well.
AVALON VS TWO HARBORS
Avalon and Two Harbors are your port options when traveling to Catalina Island via boat. I’ll get more specific about what each have to offer, but it was explained best to me by a local. Essentially everyone on the island lives in Avalon. They may visit Two Harbors on a day off, but no one really resides there. The island is so small, you can actually choose to visit both areas of the island no issue if you’d like. Our trip was quick so we only visited Avalon, but I’d love to go back spend more time there, in addition to experiencing Two Harbors.
Avalon. This is the only incorporated city on the island. 88% of it is and will remain untouched, so basically this is the most developed area. There are a myriad of restaurants, shops, hotels, and things to do here; however, don’t let that make you think that there isn’t any beauty on this side. The island and water are stunning, even for the more “touristy” side of the island.
Two Harbors. If you’re an outdoor lover, Two Harbors is the choice for you. While you can do most things like scuba and such on both sides of the island, the west side is a little more remote and known for its hiking, mountain biking, camping, kayaking, boating, fishing, snorkeling, and more. They do have resorts and other places to stay besides camping options if you’d like to experience the finer things and stay off the grid.
WHERE TO EAT ON CATALINA ISLAND
We ate lunch courtesy of the Bluewater Grill as soon as we set foot on the island and it was so good! I had the fish tacos which were delightful, but the real treat was the view. The restaurant sits right by the ocean, so you get dinner and a show ;) The only other establishment we had time to experience during our stay was the Marlin Club. It is a local dive bar that was fun for a quick drink before we had to hop back on the ferry. Here’s a list of places in Avalon that I would love to come back and experience. *denotes I have been there
Descanso Beach Club
Lloyds of Avalon (sweets, not actual meals)
The Lobster Trap
The Naughty Fox
You’ll notice that these are all in Avalon. That’s because that is the only “city” and where most restaurants are! If you’re looking for recommendations for Two Harbors, you can choose from Harbor Sands, Harbor Reef Restaurant, and West End Galley. There are also convenience stores you can purchase small meals and snacks from. A lot of people will bring food on the ferry and picnic instead. There are a lot of good spots for this!! Personally I’d also love to eat breakfast at the Banning House Lodge which is a B&B over on the Two Harbors side.
WHAT TO DO ON CATALINA ISLAND
There’s something for everyone and if you don’t want to participate in one of the slew of activities, you can park yourself on a beach! We did the Casino Tour (m/r) which was amazing! For some reason I thought you could gamble there, but it actually has never had what we know as a casino floor. It’s (still) a movie theater and also houses one of the largest ballroom dance floors! I’d love to go back to watch a movie or even stay for the silent film festival. We also did rented a golf cart for a couple hours courtesy of Catalina Island Golf Carts. They give you a map for a self-guided tour that was really fun and an easy way to see the island at your own pace. *denotes I experienced it
Catalina Island Company Behind the Scenes Casino Tour*
Catalina Island Discover Avalon Tour
Flying Fish Voyage (you do this at night and watch fish fly across the sky!)
Hike the Trans Catalina Trail (over 30 miles long, so lots of trial, but you hike elsewhere too as long as you have a (free!) hiking permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy)
Lay on the beach (I want to rent a cabana at the Descanso Beach Club)
Lover’s Cove (snorkel here!)
Go Bison Sighting (bison were brought to the island for a movie and left - they actually offer a Bison Expedition as a tour option, though you also might see some at Buffalo Nickel)
Rent Catalina Island Golf Carts* (a self guided tour around Avalon!)
Speedboat to Two Harbors
Submarine Tour (I spoke to locals and they suggested this over the glass bottom boat tour)
Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
WHAT TO WEAR ON CATALINA ISLAND
Catalina is an island, but it is also off the coast of California. When you think of Cali you may think of sunny, but you should always think in layers. For one, the ferry over will be slightly chilly if you choose to sit outside. I recommend sitting outside because it is the most fun and you have a better view of the marine life. We visited in June, so it was on the warmer side; however, I wish I would have brought my denim jacket. If the sun ducks behind cloud cover, I got a little cold. I wore a midi dress and sneakers and it was perfect as far as comfort goes. Nick worse short sleeves, shorts and sneakers, but he doesn’t get cold easily. I was glad I wore sneakers just because we walked a lot, so I guess footwear depends on what you plan on doing. I included this section just to remind you to layer up. Don’t forget your sunscreen either. Even if it is mostly cloudy and even a little cold, the sun does not play around!
WHERE TO STAY ON CATALINA ISLAND
Again, I haven’t stayed on the island, but I would love to go back and spend the night! Below are some options I’ve looked into, but there are other available stays too. People do rent their homes out here, plus camping is a main attraction on the island as well.
Banning House Lodge (Two Harbors Side)
Bellanca Hotel (part of the Naughty Fox restaurant)
Hotel Atwater (the first hotel on the island)
Mt. Ada Bed and Breakfast (named after William Wrigley Jr.’s wife as it was their home)
Hotel St. Lauren (included this because I want to stay here because it is cute, pink, and shares my name!)
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP TO CATALINA ISLAND
Go early. If you’re taking the Catalina Express, get to the ferry station early. We got there 45ish minutes prior to the departure time, but didn’t realize we had to wait in line to redeem our online booking for tickets. The line was LONG and didn’t move very quickly. In addition to this line, people line up to board the boat. The people at the front get first dibs on seats, so if you want an outdoor seat, you better be towards the front of the line. We rode there outside and back on the inside, just because I was cold. On this note, I’d book ferry tickets as soon as you know you want to go. We went on a Tuesday (which you’d think wouldn’t be as busy as other days) and we barely got a ticket before it was sold out. Note that it costs $20 a day to leave your car parked in the San Pedro terminal secured lot. Worth it, but wanted to mention the price.
Pack food. You don’t have to, but you can! I saw tons of people with coolers and such which was so smart, especially for a family trip. We didn’t really need to utilize this, but if we take the twins or stay for longer than a day, this tip will come in clutch. There are some luggage size requirements and I assume a cooler would fall into this restriction too, so just be aware of those rules. I just brought a little shoulder bag, but would have brought a backpack had we packed meals.
Book the tours. Okay so I know, I know. Who comes to an island to do the tours? DO THEM. There is so much fun history on the island. We only did the self-guided golf cart tour and the casino tour, but I’d love to come back and do more, specifically the Discover Avalon tour. They are so cool and interesting. Don’t sleep on these!
Bring layers. I mentioned this in the “what to wear” section, but bring a jacket! A hat wouldn’t hurt either ;)
Have you ever been to Catalina Island? Any recommendations? I need them for our trip back! Also, I made it through this whole post without mentioned the Catalina Wine Mixer. Yes it exists and yes I’d love to come back for it. They hold it at the Descanso Beach Club! Good luck with planning and have an amazing trip!
P.S. Apparently the island is known for their “buffalo milk” cocktail. It has kahlua, creme de cocoa and banana, vodka, and half and half. I want to try one next time!
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