It was supposed to be a Mediterranean Cruise. It was my husband’s 50th birthday, our 25th anniversary, and our son’s graduation, so we planned to celebrate in style. However, the universe decided that Greece and Italy were not going to be part of our 2021 festivities. Sigh.
So, we had to think outside the box. Where could we go with our 14-year-old (who didn’t yet qualify for the vaccine- effectively nixing our international travel plans) that still had the international vibe we wanted? We found it on Catalina Island!
Catalina Island is a breathtakingly gorgeous spot roughly 30 miles off the California coast. Accessible by ferry (or helicopter for any Step Brothers fans out there!) it’s a magnificent stretch of pebbly beaches, rugged mountains, and stunning blue water drenched in California sunshine.
A Little Bit of Island History
Catalina Island has a history dating back nearly 8,000 years when the First Islanders known as the Tongva lived here. During more recent centuries, it toggled back and forth between Spain, Mexico, the United States, and a slew of pirates, smugglers, and missionaries.
Fast forward to 1891 when James Lick, the richest man in California, sold the island lock-stock-and barrel to the Banning Brothers for $128,740. The brothers started the Santa Catalina Island Company (still in existence today) and began to develop Catalina as a resort destination.
The brothers built rough roads, hotels, and hunting lodges to draw the wealthy. They created access to the island’s beaches and established attractions like wild, downhill mountain stagecoach rides. They also built the “Pleasure Pier,” which still welcomes visitors to the city of Avalon.
The Cubs Connection
After a 1915 fire wiped out much of the Banning’s hard work, they decided to cut their losses and sold the island to entrepreneur and master marketer William Wrigley, Jr. As in, Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. Oh – and also the owner of the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs.
Wrigley moved the Cubs’ spring training to Catalina in 1921 and for the next 30 years, visitors and press converged on the island to cover the team’s gum-chewing players in action, establishing Catalina Island as a posh paradise and Wrigley’s chewing gum as a mega-million-dollar company.
Remnants of the Wrigley-Cubs connection can be found throughout the island- including the iconic Catalina Casino (fun fact: it never hosted any gambling), Wrigley Mansion, and Catalina Island Conservancy.
Hollywood in These Hills
As the years passed, Catalina became a popular destination for Hollywood’s elite. Countless movies were filmed here, especially in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. The island even has Hollywood to thank for its Buffalo herd.
In 1921, a Zane Grey feature was filmed here that required Buffalo. The story goes that the animals were so seasick upon arrival that they broke through the gates and ran wildly into the hills where they couldn’t be corralled again!
Today Catalina has a herd of roughly 150 bison that roam freely through the island’s interior. You can take a really cool Humvee tour for a close-up look at these magnificent animals. We actually watched one stroll through a playground on the hiking trail!
Other Hollywood hits filmed in part here include Jaws, Apollo 13, Pearl Harbor, and (of course), Step Brothers.
Natalie Wood also famously perished in 1981 under mysterious circumstances in Catalina’s blue waters. Her death was ruled a probably drowning, but how she ended up in the water has never been determined.
Out on the Town(s)
Catalina has two main towns with approximately 4,000 full-time residents. Two Harbors is a rustic little village with sweeping beaches on the island’s west end. It’s a low-key destination for those looking to indulge in a little relaxation or outdoor adventure.
Avalon is on the southeastern side of the island and is a gorgeous collection of unique shops, colorful hillside bungalows, fine dining, and tons of recreational activities. It’s EXACTLY what we were hoping for when we tried to replicate the hillside homes of the Mediterranean. Beautiful!
One Golf Course. Many Golf Carts
Built in 1892, the Catalina Golf Course is the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi. It’s a lovely spot of green tucked into the canyon with stunning views of Avalon Bay.
Ironically, you will find more golf carts in town than on the course. Catalina limits the number of full-sized vehicles on the island, so most residents and guests zip around in a golf cart! Carts carry 4-6 passengers but can only be driven by someone 25 or older with a valid driver’s license and insurance.
It’s rather comical to watch the ‘golf cart police’ pull over derelict drivers, usually with a shout from their own carts!
Fun Things to Do on Catalina Island
The best thing about our trip to Catalina Island was the sheer volume of fun things to do! There was never a shortage of activity. We
danced at an outdoor party at Descanso Beach Club (be sure to put your towel out early and save a space!)
took to the trees for ziplining and an adventure course
kayaked the beautiful clear waters
went off-road on a Humvee tour of the island
hiked the conservancy trail (ok- just a small part?)
parasailed above stunning Avalon Bay
ate enormous pancakes at Original Jack’s
drank the world’s best Bloody Marys served pretty much everywhere
and laughed our way through this warm and welcoming island off the Pacific coast!
Getting To and From Catalina Island
As I mentioned at the beginning, you can get to Catalina by air or sea. If you don’t happen to have $350 per person lying around for a private helicopter ride, plan on arriving the way most tourists do – on the Catalina Express.
The Cat Express departs from ports in San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point continuously each day. Typically, you can reserve a spot between 6:30 am and 5:00 pm (depending on the time of year.) The average price of a round-trip ticket is around $75 from each departure point.
We jumped on the early morning ferry from Long Beach for a brisk, beautiful 75-minute ride to the island. If you choose to sit outdoors and enjoy the views, I strongly recommend a warm sweatshirt or even a blanket since the winds can be strong.
During our journey, we saw Los Angeles in the distance, cruised right past the Queen Mary, and followed a school of dolphins into the open waters. It was pure bliss (well, for everyone but me since I forgot to take my Dramamine.)
Just about 10 minutes from docking, the city of Avalon became visible from the deck. Wowzers! Pristine, deep blue water underscored the brightly colored buildings nestled into the hillside. The smells of breakfast cooking greeted us as we disembarked and hopped a golf cart to our hotel. A delivery service dropped off our luggage shortly after. It was the perfect introduction to this charming little island and our adventures here.
The Secrets of Catalina Island
Catalina Island has its share of secrets and stories to uncover. I think the biggest secret of all is how much this tiny island paradise mimicked the international travel experience we were hoping for right off the California coast.
We celebrated our family’s milestone moments with incredible adventures, exquisite panoramas, fabulous food, and tons of fun. What more could we have asked for?!
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