If you want to lose the stress from life’s 24/7, head straight to Catalina, the beautiful island just off the Long Beach coast. The ferry ride takes about an hour, and in no time you can relish the warmth of the island’s hospitality and transition to “island time.” If you crave outdoor adventure or the tranquility of a quiet beach, you’ll find it all in this ideal destination.
Santa Catalina Island has a rich history full of smugglers and hunters as well as sheepherders and ranchers. (A herd of North American Bison has roamed the hills since December 1924.) The island has been inhabited for 7,000 years, at times by American Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, the English, and of course Americans. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who set out to preserve and sustain its natural beauty, purchased it in 1919.
Avalon is Catalina’s picturesque main town; Two Harbors is the second, smaller one. If you stay in one of the many accommodations on Avalon’s palm-tree-lined main streets (Crescent Avenue and Casino Way), you’re right across from the busy harbor. At the Pavilion Hotel guests enjoy lush gardens and proximity to the beach. The rooms are airy and comfortable, most with their own patio. The open-air lounge and interior courtyard are great for people watching and relaxing with complimentary wine and cheese in the afternoon and a continental breakfast every morning. If you need to connect to the real world, the hotel will loan you an iPad. (800) 322-3434, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
We stayed at the Pavilion, but Avalon has many other options. In addition to the oceanfront hotels, visitors will find bed-and-breakfasts, cottages and campgrounds (you can even camp in one of many ocean coves). Or you can rise above it all, and take in the breathtaking views at 350 feet above town at the former Wrigley mansion, The Inn at Mt. Ada (800) 608-7669, www.innonmtada.com
Catalina has much to offer everyone — whether you’re in Avalon touring the interior of the island or venturing to Two Harbors. With limited time, most of our experiences were in Avalon, but tours and information are accessible all over town, so it’s easy to find lots of things to do.
Cars are restricted on the island, so people usually walk, bike, or use a golf cart. Avalon is very compact, and walking is easy, even up the terraced hillsides. Here you’ll see knockout ocean views, the horse-shaped harbor filled with yachts, and the famous Art Deco Catalina Casino. Tour its grand ballroom and movie theater, still in use today. The casino is also home to the Catalina Island Museum. (310) 510-7428, www.visitcatalinaisland.com; (310) 510-2414, www.catalinamuseum.org.
If golf is your game, there’s a scenic nine-hole course at the Catalina Country Club in an idyllic setting. (310) 510-0530, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
For an exhilarating adventure, take the Zip Line Eco Tour. Get driven into the interior, and zip down five lines from 500 feet to 60 feet above sea level. (800) 626-1496, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
And how convenient: When the zip line ends, you’re at the Descanso Beach Club. Set in scenic Descanso Cove off the harbor, it’s an enticing spot to lounge on the beach, swim, snorkel, kayak, stand-up paddle board, or get a couple’s massage. Massages by the Sea will ease your tension as you listen to the waves lapping against the shore from the privacy of your own cabana on the beach. (310) 510-7410, (310) 510-3331, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
If you haven’t seen any of the marine life yet, hop on one of the boats, and get a tour that’s up close and personal. And if catching fish is what you’re after, join a guided tour or find your own special spot. Or go diving in the kelp forests.
Catalina is made for hiking. Get your mandatory hiking permit and hit the many back roads and trails. The endless views and the rolling hills are captivating. Or walk a mile-and-a-half outside town to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. There you’ll learn about the native plants as you tour the grounds and take in more spectacular views. (310) 510-2897, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
At an island resort like Catalina, shopping is in the center of town. Find gifts, souvenirs, and any beach essential you might need. Galleries are plentiful and full of arts and crafts. And don’t miss the Catalina Island Museum Store with a selection reminiscent of Catalina’s history.
Ice cream cones and candy tempt from an endless number of storefronts. With so many cafes, pubs, bars, and restaurants with great views, here are our choices:
For lunch hit the only bar and restaurant on the beach in Avalon at the Descanso Beach Club. Sit on the outdoor patio or have your meal and drinks delivered to you on the beach; either way, you’ll be in the middle of the action. We had the peel-and-eat shrimp (half a pound steamed in beer and seasoning) and the Catalina ceviche (shrimp, scallops and tilapia marinated in pico de gallo lime sauce). Both were palate pleasers on a warm day. (310) 510-7410, www.visitcatalinaisland.com
The delightful seaside location of the Avalon Bar & Grill adds to the lively atmosphere. Specialty drinks abound, so we started with a pear mojito to help set the island tone. With lots of interesting starters, we chose fried green beans with tarragon aioli and crispy Brussels sprouts with cranberries, almonds and pancetta. For entrées, it was the ahi tuna burger with sesame-ginger slaw and grilled onions and the BBQ beef brisket with smoked cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese. The 2007 Sanford Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir was the perfect accompaniment. For a decadent ending to the meal, go for the deep-fried Oreo ice cream sandwich with chocolate sauce, then take a long walk under the stars and twinkling lights of the harbor. (310) 510-7494, www.avalonbarandgrill.com
Catalina Country Club, the former home of the Chicago Cubs during spring training, is a short walk from the town center. The seafood tower is the way to go — loaded with mussels, clams oysters, shrimp, crab, and more. (310) 510-7404, www.visitcatalinaisland.com