Santa Catalina Island - Travelogue, Tips and Highlights

Santa Catalina Island – Reisebericht, Tipps und Highlights
Santa Catalina Island - Travelogue, Tips and Highlights

USA, California. Santa Catalina Island is a popular resort and a beloved natural paradise. The capital of the island, Avalon, offers a perfect mix of relaxation, sports and cosy restaurants with Mediterranean charm. Furthermore, the town is the starting point for varied excursions into the wilderness of the island's interior, as well as for boat trips. It will certainly not be boring here. And to make your stay on Catalina Island an unforgettable experience, you will find lots of tips on highlights, excursions and activities in my travel report. You will also find many other helpful tips and information for your trip to Catalina Island.

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Blick vom Airport in the Sky über die Insel
From the cafe in the "Airport in the Sky" you have a great view over the island.

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Table of Contents and Quick Navigation

Santa Catalina Island - Celebrity Paradise and Wilderness
Highlights & Attractions on Catalina Island
More helpful Tips for Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island - Celebrity Paradise and Wilderness

Catalina Island is located off the coast of California. The island is the southernmost of the eight so-called Channel Islands and has just 4,100 inhabitants. Due to its proximity to Los Angeles it is a popular destination for excursions. Many city dwellers come for a long weekend or just for a day at the sea. Because with the ferry it is only a stone's throw from the big city to the wilderness.

Strandpromenade in Avalon, Santa Catalina Island
A great mixture on the promenade: beach, seating, shops, cafes and restaurants

The development of the island into a resort began at the end of the 19th century, but with little success. A fire in 1915 also destroyed half of the town of Avalon. In the year 1919, William Wrigley Jr. bought the island. The "chewing gum millionaire" promoted tourism and opened the Catalina Casino in 1929.

Das Casino Catalina in toller Lage direkt am Wasser ist absolut sehenswert
The Casino Catalina is the symbol of Avalon.

The Mediterranean flair of Avalon attracted many stars and starlets from Hollywood. Soon the place had become the "Playground of the Stars". Catalina became the celebrity paradise of the 70s. In order to save Catalina from total development and settlement, Wrigley founded the Catalina Island Conservancy and signed over 88% of the island to it. Since 1975, the Conservancy has been responsible for maintaining the natural state of the island.

Catalina is largely inhabited in only two places: the main town of Avalon and the smaller town of Two Harbors. The rest of the island is wilderness and only accessible with restrictions. Here live bisons, foxes and eagles. In the interior of the island sandy tracks cross a hilly semi-desert where cacti and agaves grow.

Watch out for foxes!

Also under water Catalina Island offers a lot of variety and is a highlight for divers of all levels. Clear water, kelp forests and a diverse underwater fauna and flora attract many divers all year round.

Highlights & Attractions on Catalina Island

Avalon offers a lot of variety and is the perfect starting point for tours and excursions. There is something for everyone. You have the choice between guided sightseeing tours, safari excursions into the interior of the island or sportive adventures in the air or under water. And of course you can also explore the island on your own. In the following I have arranged some highlights on Catalina Island for you.

The way to the Casino Catalina leads through a small archway. In the foreground you can see one of the guarded city beaches.

Catalina Casino - the Symbol of Avalon

It is the landmark of Avalon and hard to miss. The Catalina Casino has a height of 12 floors and also a prominent location directly on the waterfront. The Art Deco style building, completed in 1929 after 14 months of construction, houses a movie theater at the bottom and a ballroom with a balcony and sea view at the top. The building cost 2 million US dollars at the time and is an architectural masterpiece. Today, the building is only used for film festivals, as the number of visitors is too low for regular operation as a cinema.

Das Casino Catalina ist das Wahrzeichen und ein Highlight der Insel
The Casino was built in a great location directly on the waterfront.

By the way: The word "casino" has nothing to do with gambling. It comes from Italian and means something like "meeting place".

To get an impression of the former glamour of the Catalina Casino, I recommend a guided tour through the building. You will see the interior decorated with sterling silver and gold leaf, murals and the largest round ballroom in the world.

Der größte runde Ballsaal der Welt befindet sich im Casino Catalina und ist eine der Haupt-Sehenswürdigkeiten der Insel
The largest round ballroom in the world is at Casino Catalina and is one of the main attractions of the island.

Tours are offered almost daily by Catalina Tours. You can either book online or buy tickets in Avalon directly at the ticket shop next to the miniature golf course.

Discover the Casino: about 40 minutes; price about 20 US Dollar
Casino Behind-the-Scenes: approx. 70 minutes, price approx. 31 US dollars
Twilight at the Casino: about 90 minutes, price about 52 US Dollar

The entrance of the casino is decorated with maritime murals.

On the way to the casino you walk along the bank wall, which is decorated with paintings. These show the nature and history of Avalon.

Flying fish can be observed in summer. For this purpose evening boat trips are offered. The fish are attracted by a large spotlight.
Seafaring Indians of the Tongva tribe settled on the island. They were forced to move to the mainland in 1811.

Safari inside the Island

Fancy a safari? Then I suggest a safari tour with a convertible bus*.* It will take you on a two to three hours tour through the interior of the island. Over a tree-lined old stagecoach road, the tour takes you up to a height of 489 metres (1,604 feet). From there you will have a breathtaking panoramic view over the island. During the safari tours you can see bisons, foxes and bald eagles in addition to the beautiful island landscape. However, we were not so lucky on our trip and could only spot a single bison on a distant hill. So, next time, I'll book the more wildlife specialized Bison Expedition*.

You prefer to travel a little more individually? Then the Jeep Safaris*are just right for you.

Safari im Inneren von Catalina Island
With a converted army vehicle BJ 1994 we go from Avalon to the Airport in the Sky.
The first section of the road to the airport is lined with eucalyptus trees.

A Boat Trip with the Glass Bottom Boat or the Half Submarine

A trip with the glass-bottom boat* is one of the must-do's during your stay in Catalina. Alternatively, you can also take a trip on the semi-submarine Nautilus* *. Its design is reminiscent of the first nuclear submarine in the USA, the U.S.S. Nautilus. You'll be able to see various sea creatures, such as the orange Garibaldi fish. It is the state fish of California.

Halb-U-Boot Nautilus auf Catalina Island
Mit dem Halb-U-Boot Nautilus geht es unter anderem in die “Lovers Cove”.
The Green Pier in Avalon, Catalina Island
At the green pier you can buy tickets for almost everything. There is also a tourist information office and snack bars.

Snorkeling and Diving

You would rather dive completely into the clear water of Catalina? Nothing easier than that! Because in Avalon there are three dive centers where you can rent equipment for snorkeling and diving. You can also book courses and guided dives from land or boat. Diving on Catalina is absolutely worthwhile and an incomparable experience! Because the kelp forests here are among the best in the world. And you can also experience them on a snorkel tour, because the plants grow to the surface.

Topp-Tipp für Catalina Island: Tauchen im Casino Dive Park
Top-Tipp für Catalina Island: Tauchen im Casino Dive Park. Hier gibt es viel Fisch, Kelpwald und mehrere Wracks

You want to discover more? From Avalon, daily boat trips to other dive sites are offered. You can book a 2-tank dive at Catalina Divers Supply for 100 US dollars (without guide and equipment). There is also the diving base Two Harbors Dive & Recreation in the town of Two Harbors.

Kelpwald im Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island
Diving like in a labyrinth

Dixie toilets are available at the Dive Park. You can fill up your water bottles in the public toilet opposite the casino. There are public showers on the way to the casino, as well as a towel rental. There is also an emergency call point right next to the entrance (mobile phone reception is poor here). The diving centers are on site with mobile trucks with the rental equipment. Bags are deposited during the dives at the shore wall or in the truck of the diving base. There was no snack at least in December. So bring your own snack and hot tea or coffee.

Kelpwald in Catalina Island
Kelp Forest at Catalina

Tip for your surface interval: On the ground floor of the Catalina Casino, right next to the parking lot at the Dive Park, you can visit a small diving museum. The opening hours are from 10 to 17 o'clock.

The diving museum in the Catalina Casino.

Photo Tip: the most beautiful View of Avalon

Directly above the ferry pier Cabrillo Mole is the viewpoint Buena Vista. From here you have the best view over the port of Avalon and the casino. To get to the viewpoint, walk or drive up Wrigley Road. You will pass a small animal graveyard. The viewpoint itself looks a bit neglected, but after all it is all about the great view.

Foto-Tipp: die schönste Aussicht auf Avalon
Already on the way to the viewpoint Buena Vista you have a great view of the port of Avalon and the Casino.

Hiking inside the Island

Santa Catalina Island is blessed with a unique wildlife and many endemic plants. In addition, you will always find bays and great views. What could be better than discovering the island on foot? There are short hikes on circular trails, longer day trips or even multi-day tours, such as the Garden to Sky or the Trans Catalina Trail.

  • The Garden to Sky Trail starts at Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden and leads to 4.5 kilometres (2.8 miles) of great views across the island.
  • The Trans Catalina Trail crosses the entire island for about 62 kilometers (38.5 miles).

However, all hiking tours on the grounds of the Catalina Island Conservancy require a free permit. You can apply for it here .

A semi-desert landscape runs through the island.

Culture and History in the Museum of Catalina

The Museum of Catalina was opened by K. Wrigley in 1953 on the first floor of Catalina Casino. Since 2016, however, it is located in the center of Avalon, in the Ada Blanche Wrigley Carpenter Building. The museum is dedicated to the culture and history of Santa Catalina Island. A short film first gives an introduction, followed by information about the Wrigley family and other important personalities connected with the island. There is also information about film productions on the island, the role in World War II and about the million dollar Mermaid Ester Williams. Unfortunately, the history of the island's Native Americans is a little too brief.

Museum Catalina Island
Museum Catalina Island

Address: 217 Metropole Avenue
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm
Admission: 17 US dollars for adults

More rewarding Activities

Catalina Island has many more sights and excursions to offer, which we unfortunately could not visit during our stay due to lack of time. Here are a few tips for further activities on Catalina Island Feel free to write me a comment with your experiences or further ideas.

  • A kayak tour along Catalina's coast
  • A visit to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden
  • Visit to the Nature Center in Avalon Canyon
  • Adventure in the air: zipline or parasailing
  • Recreation in the Spa of Avalon
  • or just lie on the beach and swim

More helpful Tips for Catalina Island

At the end of my travel report about Catalina Island I have put together a few helpful tips for you: how to get there, on the way there, the best time to travel, accommodation, camping, eating and shopping.

The Journey to Catalina Island - the Choice is yours!

Most visitors arrive by ferry to Catalina Island. This is convenient and comfortable and you have a good chance to see dolphins or even whales during the crossing. In the winter months grey whales migrate along the California coast and in the summer you may be lucky enough to see blue whales. However, the ferries are pure passenger ferries. Because on Catalina only locals are allowed to have cars!

Our return trip from Avalon to Dana Point was a feast for the eyes.

The ferries of Catalina Express are the only ones that run all year round. It is possible to depart from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro. The journey takes between 1 and 1.5 hours. A round-trip ticket costs about US$75 per person. From San Pedro, there is also the port Two Harbors on Catalina.

From Newport Harbor the Catalina Flyer also operates. The trip takes 75 minutes and costs 70 US dollars for a return ticket.

Arrival in Avalon

My tip against seasickness: Aren't you completely wave-proof? Then I can recommend you chewable dragees for travel sickness. They work immediately. It also helps if you concentrate on the horizon and stay rather below and in the middle of the boat.

For the sake of completeness I want to mention that you can also book a helicopter flight to Catalina via IEX. The flight takes only 15 minutes from Long Beach, but with 270 US dollars for a return ticket it is not cheap.

Getting from A to B on Catalina - How to get from the Ferry Pier in Avalon to your Accommodation

The ferry pier Cabrillo Mole in Avalon is located just outside the city gates. So in most cases you will be able to walk to your accommodation. If you have more luggage or if your accommodation is a little further away, you have the following options:

  • Order a taxi by calling the central phone number (310) 510-0025.
  • The Garibaldi Shuttle offers a fixed route from the ferry pier to the Nature Center and Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. The fare is US$2.
The golf cart is the traditional means of transport in Avalon, especially for tourists.

To discover the island on your own, you can also rent one of the cute golf carts. It is the usual means of transport for guests on Catalina. However, these may only be used within Avalon. For a golf cart with four seats, you will have to pay 100 US dollars for two hours. Furthermore, electric bicycles are offered. The support of a small motor makes sense in the mountainous terrain. At Catalina Bikes you can get an electric bike with route suggestions for your island tour for 25 US dollars.

Lazy Dog!

The best Time to visit Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island is a worthwhile destination all year round. While in the summer time, the great bathing weather attracts many guests, in the winter time, the calmness is more attractive. The island is then clearly emptier and the accommodations cheaper. But in the months December, January and February there is also the most rain. These are also the coldest months with temperatures between 9°C and 17°C. The warmest months are August and September with temperatures up to 25°C.

The water temperatures are highest at the beginning of September with 23°C and lowest with 14°C at the beginning of March. Diving is possible all year round, but in the winter with 7-mm neoprene plus ice vest. Visibility should be at its best between October and December.

View of Avalon

Accommodation in Catalina Island

The whole island is oriented towards tourism. Therefore the available accommodations are accordingly numerous. But first you have to decide for one of the two places on Catalina: Avalon or Two Harbors. Because only here, accommodation in hotels, hostels or holiday flats is available.

We have been on Catalina Island just before Christmas. For our stay we had a room in the Hermosa Hotel right in the centre of Avalon. To save some money, we made sure that our accommodation offers a cooking facility. I would strongly recommend it. Because the food is not really cheap in Avalon. For a simple small meal with drink, a twenty dollar bill per person is quickly lost.

Our accommodation at the Hermosa Hotel

Camping on Catalina

On Santa Catalina Island there are five campsites. However, camping in the wilderness areas is only allowed with a permit at predetermined locations.

  • Hermit Gulch Campground in Avalon
  • Blackjack Campground in the interior of the island
  • Little Harbor Campground near Little Harbor
  • Two Harbors Campground near Two Harbors
  • Parsons Landing Campground in the West End

Food in Avalon - Restaurant Recommendations

Here in Avalon there are many restaurants with delicious food and cosy atmosphere and great views. I especially liked these two restaurants:

Lobster Trap

The Restaurant Lobster Trap specializes in dishes with fresh fish and seafood. For vegetarians there are pasta dishes and a veggie burger. The atmosphere inside is cosy and rustic. However, there is no possibility to sit outside.

Address: 128 Catalina Street
Opening hours: 11 until late in the evening

Toyon Grill

From the Toyon Grill you have a great block to the Avalon Harbour, the Casino and the Green Pier. Here you can enjoy fresh, regional products. But only for breakfast and lunch, because at 16 o'clock the restaurant closes. My tip: try the vegetarian "Impossible Burger" for 13 US dollars. “Impossible Burger” for 13 US dollars.

Address: 708 Crescent Ave
Opening hours: 9 to 16 o'clock, on weekends 8 to 16 o'clock

You'd rather cook your own food? You will find a well-stocked supermarket of the Vons chain not far from the beach promenade at 240 Sumner Ave. But it is not really cheap here: for a fresh bread we paid 6 US dollars.

Tips for Shopping on Santa Catalina Island

If you want to buy a souvenir of Santa Catalina Island, you have a wide range of choices on the beach promenade. But I specially liked the souvenir shops in the museum and at the airport of Catalina, the Airport in the Sky.

The Airport in the Sky terminal with small souvenir shop
The "Metropole Market Place" offers many shopping opportunities

Book Recommendation for California

You want to know where the journey goes? Then I can recommend these books* about California.

You can order these books at Amazon with a click on the pictures. If you buy a product via one of these affiliate links, I get a small commission and you help me to keep filling Fernweh-Motive with interesting articles. The product will not be more expensive for you.

You know Catalina Island? How did you like it? Do you have further tips or maybe a question about my report about Catalina Island? If so, I would be happy about your comments!

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