Exploring California’s Santa Catalina Island
Located 22 miles southwest off the coast of Los Angeles, California, and just an hour boat-ride away, Santa Catalina Island provides an easy escape from the smog, traffic and fast-paced lifestyle of the city. It was first settled by Native Americans some 9,000 years ago. In the ensuing years, it was home to ranchers, smugglers and sea otter poachers before becoming a playground for Hollywood stars in the early 20th century.
In 1924, fourteen bison were brought to the island to include in the silent Western film based on Zane Grey’s novel, The Vanishing American, although the creatures never appeared in the movie. Once filming wrapped, the bison were left behind. Their numbers escalated to more than four hundred at one point, but now a controlled population of one-hundred fifty bison is maintained.
The city of Avalon is the heart of the island, offering activities for all ages, whether it’s exhilarating zip-line adventures, Hummer tours, or great snorkeling and diving. Read on to discover GAYOT’s picks of the Top Things to Do on Catalina Island.
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1. Biofuel Hummer Tour
Reaching New Heights: Explore the rugged terrain of Catalina as you ride in an open-air, biofuel H1 Hummer.
The two-hour tour takes you 1,500 feet above sea level to the highest peak of Avalon where you can witness the natural splendor of the island and ocean laid out before you. The drive is dominated by spectacular views of the canyons and coastline with eucalyptus trees lining the road. The scenery provides the perfect opportunity to take photos of the area and discover nature and wildlife on Catalina Island. The tour is available year-round, seven days a week.
2. Catalina Casino
A Step Back in Time: The iconic Catalina Casino has a rich past dating back to its grand opening in May 1929.
Designers Sumner Spaulding and Walter Weber were inspired by Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival styles, giving the structure a timeless and romantic appearance inside and out. Although dubbed a casino, no gambling takes place within the building. Instead, it draws its name from the Italian term meaning a “gathering place.”
The California landmark has definitely lived up to its name throughout the decades, attracting numerous visitors from around the world. The casino contains a movie theater, ballroom and museum dedicated to the island’s art and history. The movie theater was the first created specifically to show “talkies,” and cinema heavyweights such as Cecil B. DeMille and Cary Grant made use of the building’s green rooms and editing bay. Today, the Catalina Casino offers several tours for those wanting to learn about the building’s unique history.
3. Catalina Express
Catalina Express offers travelers quick and easy access to Avalon through its fleet of high-speed ferries departing daily from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point.
What started as a one-boat operation on July 15, 1981 has since grown into a fleet of eight high-speed vessels that transport travelers to and from the island with some 30 departures every day among its three Southern California ports. Long Beach is a great option with direct freeway access and proximity to the historic Queen Mary, a must-visit for those who haven’t been. The remodeled San Pedro port is conveniently located on the waterfront promenade close to restaurants including the Catalina Bistro & Express Grill as well as the USS Iowa — the West Coast’s only battleship museum. Those in Orange County (or San Diego) can opt for the Dana Point port, which also offers an array of dining, shopping and activities.
Once aboard the Catalina Express ferry (four of which are large catamarans), make your way to the top and outer decks to take in the sights as the mainland fades into the distance and dolphins come closer into view. For the true VIP experience, pay the extra fare ($15 each way) for the Commodore Lounge upgrade and enjoy a complimentary drink (yes, that includes alcohol) and premium indoor seating.
The voyage takes only an hour but if you’re susceptible to seasickness, don’t worry — the ferries are equipped with an advanced ride-control system that makes for a smooth journey and the staff is always there to help with whatever you need.
What’s even more exciting is that Catalina Express offers the Ride Free on Your Birthday special with the purchase of one full-fare adult ticket. Plus, with your special birthday badge, you’ll enjoy more deals and discounts at multiple businesses (from hotels to restaurants to shops) on the island. Just remember, you must travel on your actual birthday to get this deal.
If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind shelling out some extra cash, you can get to Catalina by helicopter or plane and land at Airport in the Sky, located six miles northwest of Avalon. Once there, order a meal at the airport’s restaurant DC-3 Gifts & Grill.
4. Catalina Falconry Experience
A unique opportunity to witness falcons, otherwise known as birds of prey, up close and personal.
Predators that rule the skies, falcons are swift and majestic creatures. Now, you can get a unique opportunity to witness these birds of prey up close with the Catalina Falconry Experience. Watch them in action as they fly gracefully through the air surveying the ground below. Then, learn how to call a falcon or hawk to land on your gloved hand and capture the moment with a photo! You’ll also have the chance to see a beautiful owl and discover the history of these nocturnal animals.
The experience takes place Friday through Monday and is $109 per adult, senior and child (ages five to 11). The cost for a child observer ages five and under is $50.
5. Island Spa Catalina
A Place to Recharge: With so much action going on in Avalon, you’ll want to take an afternoon to unwind.
Unwind at Island Spa Catalina, the only resort spa to grace the isle. Located in the historic El Encanto building, it offers nine treatment rooms providing facials, massages and hot sand therapy — a soothing way to relieve muscle and joint pain and arthritis. In an effort to conserve water, the spa has introduced the Citrus with a Twist exfoliating body treatment — a scrub that blends macadamia oil, lime blossom and fine sugar crystals, followed by a hydrating body mask that dissolves the scrub.
The gentlemen’s and ladies’ lounges house separate sea glass-tiled steam rooms and cedar saunas. There’s also ocean-view yoga and Zumba classes in their Wellness Studio. On your way out, be sure to browse pampering products, clothing and more at the Spa Shoppe, and refuel with a healthy snack or invigorating smoothie at Encanto Café.
6. Ocean Runner
Close Encounters of the Mammal Kind: Hop aboard a rigid inflatable boat to seek out friendly and fun-loving dolphins.
The Ocean Runner is an exciting activity whether you’re going solo, as a couple or with the entire family. This excursion departs from Avalon Harbor three times daily and travels along the coast to several popular dolphin-viewing sites. Guests have the opportunity to observe and learn about these affectionate mammals in their natural habitat during the guided tour.
Your trip out on the water lasts about one hour and the boat accommodates up to 12 guests. Reservations are recommended, as space is limited.
7. Parasailing in Catalina
Feel as light as a feather while flying over Catalina on a parasailing adventure with Island Water Charters.
The service takes you up to 800 feet above sea level, offering breathtaking views as a boat tows you across Avalon Harbor.
After you’ve been secured into a life vest and harness, you are clipped into a parachute by an experienced team member and set free to soar above Catalina’s cobalt blue waters. For a bit of extra fun, you can request to have your feet dipped in the water during your flight. If you’re scared of heights but still want to partake in the experience, you can watch others take to the skies with the “Ride Along” option. Photo packages are also available to document the action.
8. Zip Line Eco Tour
A Tour with Velocity: Why tour Catalina by foot when you can get a bird’s-eye view from 300 feet above ground?
The Zip Line Eco Tour is not for the faint of heart, but it is a great way for thrill-seekers to explore the island. The two-hour adventure begins in the hills of Avalon, where you are launched down five separate zip lines dropping from 600 feet above sea level at speeds nearing 40 mph. At several eco-stations during your descent, a guide will share information about the surrounding area, such as its history and wildlife. Once your excursion has concluded, make your way down to Descanso Beach Club Restaurant to enjoy a meal or refreshing beverage.