Overlooked and Underrated: Catalina Island

071030_aaron_logan_flick_catalina_island_casinoF.JPGIt’s perfect for a day trip or an extension of your Southern California vacation…

Where: Catalina Island

Why: Pretty beaches, clear coastal waters, and lots of mountains and canyons are the main attractions of this lovely island 22 miles from the LA coastline.

Must-Do Activity: Visit Descanso Beach. In high season, you can enjoy a private beach away from the crowds for a mere $2. Order food and drinks right from your beach towel. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports (310/510-1226) can set you up with a kayak and snorkel for a little water adventure.

Also worth checking out is the Casino (pictured) on the northwest point of Avalon Bay. This circular white structure is one of the finest examples of art deco architecture anywhere. A beautiful art deco movie palace screens the latest releases on the ground floor, and above you’ll find one of the world’s largest circular ballrooms, where big bands once played for outrageous high-society soirées. Today, it hosts grand New Year’s Eve balls. For a closer look, take the virtual online tour. Be sure to stop by the Catalina Island Museum for a sense of the island’s glamorous past.

Getting Around: Cars are banned on Catalina, so the quickest way to get around is via a golf cart, which makes for kinder, friendlier traffic compared with the big city. Grab a tour map and scope out sights like the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. Rates run about $40 an hour and drivers must have a valid driver’s license. Try Catalina Auto and Bike Rentals (301 Crescent Ave., 310/ 510-0111) or Island Rentals (125 Pebbly Beach Rd., 310/ 510-1456).071030_eric_chan_flick_catalina_island_kayakF.JPG

Where to Stay: Catalina is an easy day trip, which saves the expense of booking a hotel. But if you want to stay a few nights, there are a number of hotels, villas and beach-style cottages to bunk in. Try the Avalon Hotel, a charming boutique hotel mere steps from the water. Rates during high season range from $295 to $495; off season $195-$395. For an extended stay with a large party, renting a local’s furnished summer home is a good option. Be sure to make plans well ahead of time (savvy vacationers book top spots a year in advance for the summer season). For more details, contact Catalina Island Vacation Rentals at 310/510-2276.

Where to Eat: Dine in elegance at the Catalina Country Club restaurant, once run by Chewing Gum magnet William Wrigley, who bought Catalina Island in 1919 and built the clubhouse for the Chicago Cubs (also owned by Wrigley).You’ll have a good excuse to dress up and splurge on a fancy dinner in the spacious dining room whose arched windows frame lovely views of the mountains and ocean. Dinners range from $16-$25 and feature meat, pasta and seafood dishes; lunches range from $8-$15 and typically include a selection of burgers, sandwiches, and salads.

When to Go: Unless you like crowds, try going off-season, from fall to spring. California’s year-round temperate climate makes the island resort a comfortable visit even during the winter months. However, keep in mind many of the sports rental shops, as well as Descanso Beach, close from October to April. But the coastal area on the West side stays busy with kayaks and snorkeling, and temperatures there average 65 degrees most days — even in the middle of winter.

How to Get There: Take a one-hour boat ride from Catalina Express right off Long Beach’s Queen Mary dock for $59 round trip. Be sure to watch for dolphins on the journey as they often swim alongside the ferries. For a quicker route, try a helicopter from Island Express Helicopter Shuttle, which will get you there in 15 minutes for $82 each way.

Kastle Waserman

Photo credits: (1) ©: Aaron Logan; (2) © Eric Chan

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