Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Catalina has recently (6/19) reopened for leisure travel: read more about the island’s safety protocol here.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
A former getaway for 1920s and ’30s silver screen stars such a Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, and Charlie Chaplin, the island of Santa Catalina, just 22 miles west of Los Angeles, still serves plenty of old Hollywood glamour and shine. Its natural beauty is so becoming that it made the jump from movie star getaways to movie star–Catalina has served as the location for over 500 movies, TV shows, and commercials. So get glam, baby, because you’re vacationing like the stars–just a hop, skip, and a jump from L.A. and you’re on the swankiest island this side of the Pacific.
It’s about a half-hour drive south from Los Angeles to the Long Beach port, and its easiest to just park there in the overnight parking lot ($19/day) for a car-free weekend getaway. Think of the 55-minute Catalina Express ferry ride from Long Beach to Avalon as an opportunity to get pumped up for vacation–order a few drinks, admire the sparkling ocean, and let the island’s outline grow like your anticipation.
The town of Avalon is only one square mile, so no car is needed and walking is the preferred mode of transport. There are options to explore via rented bicycle or golf cart, or hop on the Cyclone Power Boat (which links Avalon to the only other town, Two Harbors, a resort village with a population of 300), which resumes service in July.
Depending on what season you’re weekending in, departure times from port vary, but plan to arrive anywhere from mid-to-late morning, and start by filling your tank. Gear up for a full day of island fun at The Lobster Trap, a casual restaurant serving fresh and then deeply fried seafood. The usual assortment of lunch and dinner classics crowd the menu as well, but do as the Romans do! Grab a brew (just one, you’ve driving later) and some cocktail sauce and get crazy with les fruits de mer (or the “fried seafood combo” as it’s called, with a side of french fries and coleslaw).
Rarely is there anything more fun than zipping around in a golf cart, and on Catalina, where cars are no longer allowed, the sights are best seen via your personal club car. Catalina Golf Cart Rentals will give you two hours to find the best vista (or try a Segway if you prefer flying solo). Don’t miss the Tremont Overlook for the best views of the island and bay.
For dinner on your first night, try California at its most modern, highlighted spectacularly at Avalon Grille. You know the drill: local, seasonal, and with lots of delicious wine flowing. The highlight is the seafood–you’re on an island, for god’s sake, and that andouille sausage and lobster pasta is a fan favorite–but don’t sleep on the truffle fries and Brussels sprouts. Make sure to hit the gorgeous central bar for a digestif and enjoy the ocean views.
With a full belly and maybe a slight buzz, you’re going to need to take it to the next level, and there’s no place better to do that than El Galleon for after-dinner drinks. Don’t worry, there’s nothing stuffy about 53-year-old dive bar El Galleon–in fact, you might find yourself tossing back brewskis and signing up for karaoke with the locals. Still got energy after all that? Keep bar hopping down Crescent Avenue.
A diner is only as good as its revolving case of pies, and Original Jack’s Country Kitchen features all the favorites. For breakfast, this old-timey spot offers American and Mexican classics as well as staples like pancakes and omelets, but why not mix it up with one of eight varieties of Eggs Benedict, particularly the versions with seafood twists. Load up on coffee, you’ve got a big day ahead of you.
Your first order of business: Find out why, exactly, there is a herd of bison on Catalina Island. You’ll come to understand the strange history of the island on this open-air Hummer tour by East End Adventure Island Tours. It snakes up 1,500 feet above sea level for an incredible view of Avalon, the bay, and the interior wilds of Catalina. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to stop and snap photos. And be on the lookout for bald eagles and Catalina Island foxes!
Insider Tip Bring an extra layer! The island breeze gets real breezy when you’re zipping along in an open-top vehicle.
Time for a margarita (and lunch)! Hit up Maggie’s Blue Rose Mexican to get your mid-day pick-me-up. Though it certainly looks like every other Mexican restaurant you’ve ever been to, the offerings are pretty interesting for an island joint, like street tacos made with lobster and mole-braised duck enchiladas. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Relleno-Style Goat Cheese Jalapeño Poppers. Genius!
Once you’re good and full, pull on a bathing suit and wander over to the water. Catalina has an incredible coast and is famous for its harbor, but actual beach lounging is hard to come by. If you want to enjoy the best of it (and you do), head to Descanso Beach Club–it’s a private beach that the public has full access to. You can upgrade your experience via chaise lounge or private cabana, but who needs anything more from the beachside restaurant and bar than the alcoholic beverage you’re legally allowed on the beach (a legit rarity in California)?
Not every seafood restaurant can boast its own swordfish harpoon boat as a means to deliver you fresh fish. It’s best to sit on the waterfront patio to watch the sun go down (don’t worry, it’s heated) for dinner at Bluewater Grill. This dinner spot is nautical-casual, but the views (and the cocktails) will have you feeling special. Don’t miss out on fresh oysters, mussels, and clams, and obviously, the swordfish, but also check out the gumbo and redfish when it’s in season.
Tonight, grab your date and get glammed up because you are witnessing Silver Screen magnificence. The crown jewel of Catalina is its casino, which isn’t a casino at all by today’s standards. Catalina Casino is part movie theater, part ballroom, part museum, and all worth checking out. Most nights, 7:30 is when the movie starts, and it kicks off with an organ player pre-show. This cinema is more than just a commercial space, but an extension of Hollywood history, as the first movie theater to be designed for films with sound. Join with 1,100 of your friends to marvel in how good it still looks and sounds, and enjoy the show.
Indulge your inner Californian and dive into some avocado toast for breakfast at Cafe Metropole. With a variety of arrangements from a simple smash to an eggs-and-bacon option, you simply have to embrace the brunch slice that Millennials made famous. And while you’re method acting, try a raw juice instead of coffee. (Of course there’s also coffee.)
Up for a snorkel but don’t want to get wet? Not to worry. Undersea Expeditions has exactly what you need–a semi-submersible boat (what will they think up next?) with glass walls for optimal underwater viewing of the expansive Pacific. Get a load of the wonderful wildlife including sea lions, calico bass, and the Garibaldi fish so dazzling in orange. Bring a jacket for your top deck time.
Put on your pearls and make your way up the mountain, you’ve simply got to see the view from this house! Mt. Ada once served as the summer home to one William Wrigley Jr. (of the chewing gum) and is named for his wife. The Georgian Colonial Mansion is now a sublime bed and breakfast–only six rooms!–but visitors to the island not staying here should at least pop in for lunch on the terrace. The fixed price menu includes a three-course meal replete with beer, wine, or champagne. Wander the former mansion and relax in the billiards-room-turned-den outfitted with a bar and fireplace, and living room with marvelous views of the bay. This is the life!
You’ll want to catch the early evening ferry back to Long Beach (check the seasonal schedule), but before you go, indulge yourself in a quick massage at the Island Spa Catalina for a little pampering. Get a facial or a foot massage and sit in the eucalyptus steam room for a while. Relax on the observation deck and marvel at the town you’ve just conquered. You’ll be ready to go home looking movie-star-detox rested.
WHERE TO STAY
There are two towns in Catalina, Avalon and Two Harbors–Avalon is better for staying and Two Harbors is nicer for a day trip (ride the Cyclone Boat, Wildlands Express, or charter a boat or taxi). Staying in Avalon offers a bevy of beautiful digs: the Pavilion Hotel, where you can lounge around the courtyard’s open fire each night, and Hotel Vista Del Mar, which offers little luxuries like deep-soak tubs and ocean view balconies in some rooms. Going all out? Stay in one of those six rooms at Mt. Ada and live the industrial tycoon fantasy. Bringing the kids? Book a vacation rental with Catalina Island Vacation Rentals.
WHEN TO GO
Catalina comes alive with tourists in the summer (July-October are prime for beach time) but is open year-round. You’ll find yourself hanging with the locals in the winter, which is never a bad thing, but bring a coat—Southern California or not, this island gets nippy!