Paradise in the Pacific Ocean: Things to Do on Catalina Island

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Things to do on Catalina Island
Catalina Island. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

The writer was hosted.

Off the coast of Southern California a little slice of paradise beckons. Unique in innumerable ways, Catalina Island offers a combination of intriguing history, laid-back island life, abundant outdoor activities, an art-deco masterpiece, and bison – yes, real bison. For more than a century, people have ventured 26 miles across the Pacific Ocean to explore this fascinating destination.

Approaching the island from aboard the Catalina Express ferry service, the scene unfolding before me felt more like I was approaching a European waterfront village. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor, the Catalina Casino in all its art-deco magnificence caught my eye. And just beyond it, tucked into a cove, was an expansive collection of hillside white stucco villas with Mediterranean tiled rooftops – which I later learned was Hamilton Cove and my home for the next few days. I was smitten.

There are so many things to do on Catalina Island, a day trip doesn’t do it justice. Take a look and start planning your getaway to Catalina Island. You’ll be glad you did!

Things to do on Catalina Island include seeing Dale Chihuly Glass at the Catalina Island Museum of Art & History.
Dale Chihuly glass at the Catalina Island Museum of Art & History. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Get the Scoop on Santa Catalina Island’s Intriguing History

Sometimes the best way to get to know a place is to delve into its history. Located in the heart of Avalon, the Catalina Island Museum of Art & History houses an extensive collection of art and history exhibitions. Surprises unfold at every turn as the museum’s artifacts unveil the stories of an island that has been inhabited for the past 7,000 years.

After a series of private owners, chewing gum entrepreneur William Wrigley, Jr. bought the island in 1919. He invested millions in his vision to create a playground for all. The museum shares stories of his contributions including the creation of a baseball field where he brought his beloved Chicago Cubs to the island for the first Major League Baseball spring training.

Wrigley’s descendants continue to own the Catalina Island Company. In 1975, Philip Knight Wrigley, his wife Helen, and his sister, Dorothy Wrigley Offield deeded 42,000 acres of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy – a non-profit organization continuing the family’s mission of conservation, education, and recreation. A visit to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden shares more insights into the Wrigley legacy.

Hollywood’s elite also played a significant role in the Catalina Island story, especially in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. More than 500 films, commercials, documentaries, and TV shows were filmed here. The filming of “The Vanishing American,” a western based on Zane Grey’s novel, brought a herd of bison to the island’s interior. Failing to round the animals up after filming, the bison remain and have become an island icon.

Things to do on Catalina Island include visiting the casino (walkway to the casino).
Walkway to the Catalina Casino. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Take a Guided Tour of the Art-Deco Catalina Casino

Not your typical casino, the Catalina Casino has never seen a single slot machine or blackjack table. Instead, it’s a gathering place for movies, stage shows and events – and it has been for nearly 100 years. Commissioned by Willaim Wrigley, Jr., Catalina Casino opened in 1929, marking the 10-year anniversary of Wrigley’s 1919 purchase of the island.

Once serving as the hub of Avalon’s nightlife, the Catalina Casino still plays an important role in the community hosting special events, movies, and performances throughout the year. Sign up for a guided behind-the-scenes tour for an in-depth look at the architecture and entertaining stories about the Hollywood elite who frequented the casino in its golden years.

Things to do on Catalina Island include visiting the theatre inside the Art-Deco Catalina Casino.
Theatre inside the Art-Deco Catalina Casino. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Party in the Sand at Descanso Beach Club

Stroll past the iconic Catalina Casino and you’ll discover another Catalina Island treasure – the Descanso Beach Club – where everyone who orders a drink instantly becomes a club member. Home to Catalina’s only beachside restaurant and bar and one of the last private beaches in California open to the public. It’s also one of the few places you can legally have a cocktail on the beach in the sand – thanks to its “club” status!

Make the most of your visit by renting a cabana and spend the afternoon taking in the ocean views from your chaise lounge. In the summer months, Saturday means live music and a distinctive party vibe. Don’t miss the opportunity to try the official Catalina Island cocktail – The Original Buffalo Milk. This decadently delicious concoction mixes creme de cacao, Kahlua, creme de banana, vodka, half and half, and whipped cream. Cheers!

Things to do on Catalina Island include trying the Original Buffalo Milk, Catalina Island’s Signature Cocktail.
The Original Buffalo Milk, Catalina Island’s signature cocktail. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Find Your Freedom Touring Around in A Golf Cart Rental

Catalina Island will fortunately never become the mass traffic-jammed city of Los Angeles. Instead, it’s a community with few cars and far more golf carts. Residents have to wait almost 20 years to apply for a permit to get a car and even then it can take years longer to reach the top of the list. So, golf carts it is, but that actually adds to the charm of this quirky island!

Four and six-passenger golf cart rentals are available. Pick one up and embark on your on-island tour around Avalon or drive up the hills to the edge of town to soak up the breathtaking views of Avalon and the Pacific Ocean.

Things to do on Catalina Island include watching out for bison on the Bison Expedition.
Bison Score on the Bison Expedition Tour. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Search for Bison in Catalina Island’s Interior

Finding bison on an island in the Pacific Ocean ranks pretty high up on the unusual encounters list. Catalina Island is the place it can happen and your best bet for spotting these massive creatures is with a guided tour. We met up with our guide – Halvy Halverson – in the center of Avalon at the Tour Plaza and knew immediately we were in for a fun ride. We climbed aboard the open-air biofuel Hummer and set off on our Bison Expedition Tour. The ocean views were stunning as we climbed the hills along narrow roads. We would have enjoyed the ride even if we didn’t see any bison. But we got lucky!

Halvy knew exactly where to go for the best chance to spot the bison. We found one of the big boys blocking a section of the road – so we did the only thing possible, stopped and watched him for awhile – at a safe distance, of course. Halvy also shared stories about the island’s history. And, as an avid hiker, he had plenty of tips about the hiking trails for those interested in exploring the interior.  

Things to do on Catalina Island - view of the ocean, branches and hills from a hiking trail.
Views from the Interior Hiking Trails. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

An Island Mecca for Hikers

About those hiking trails, with more than 165 miles of trails, there is a path for every type of hiker. Several loop trails give day hikers access to a variety of locations with the convenience of returning to their starting point.

For those committed to an endurance hike, the Trans-Catalina Trail provides the ultimate challenge. This 38.5-mile hiking trail traverses the entire island. It begins in Avalon, stretches out to Parson’s Landing on the West End then loops back to Two Harbors for the finish. Most hikers use this as a backpacking opportunity and spend a few days hiking the trail and staying in campgrounds along the way.

Note: Hiking permits are required and can be obtained at the Trailhead Visitor Center, Airport in the Sky, and Two Harbors Visitor Information Center free of charge.

Things to do on Catalina Island include a Virtual Scuba Dive with IMMERSE Ocean Wonders.
Virtual Scuba Dive with IMMERSE Ocean Wonders. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Get to Know the Island Marine Life

With kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, glass bottom boat tours, and the Undersea Sub Expedition, there are plenty of ways to get acquainted with the rich marine life surrounding Catalina Island. Departing from the green “Pleasure Pier” – a name that’s hard to beat – we boarded a semi-submersible submarine for our Undersea Sub Expedition. The vessel featured individual seating and portholes and although we only went about five feet underwater, it seemed as if we were on the ocean floor.

First, we cruised through a brilliant display of kelp. Colorful fish began to ride alongside us and transformed into flying fish when the captain started feeding them from above deck. It was a true feeding frenzy and a beautiful sight.

For those of us who haven’t worked up the nerve to scuba dive, IMMERSED Ocean Wonders serves as an introduction to underwater creatures. This one-of-a-kind experience led us on a virtual scuba dive unveiling the underwater world across numerous continents. Roughly 80% of the footage was filmed by the owner of IMMERSED Ocean Wonders and we were transported into this colorful world as we watched the 30-minute show in a small theater with a unique tilt that seemingly makes you part of the show.

Take Your Outdoor Adventures to New Heights on a Zip Line Eco Tour

For those up for an adrenaline-fueled adventure, the Zip Line Eco Tour has you covered. This two-hour tour begins at the ridge top 600 feet above Descanso Beach Club. As you zip down and across the Avalon Canyon on five separate lines, the ocean views are stunning. Approaching speeds of 35 mph, you’ll weave through a grove of towering eucalyptus trees before finally touching the ground again.

For more treetop adrenaline rushes, Catalina Aerial Adventure features five self-guided courses. Each course includes rope ladders, log bridges, balance beams, zip lines, and more. With beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, there’s something for everyone’s skill level.  

Getting to Catalina Island is Part of the Adventure

There are no bridges connecting Catalina to the California mainland. Your transportation options include helicopters, small aircraft that land at the Airport in the Sky, boats, or the most popular choice, the Catalina Express ferry service.

Departing from Long Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro, Catalina Express offers up to 30 departures providing plenty of options for day trips or longer getaways to Catalina Island.

The fleet contains eight high-speed vessels including four catamarans. The largest vessel – the Catalina Jet – has a capacity of 450 passengers. The scenic boat ride lasts just an hour and service is available to Avalon and Two Harbors.

Note: During winter months, passenger ferry service between San Pedro and Two Harbors is not available on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Things to do on Catalina Island include checking out the Hamilton Cove Villas.
Hamilton Cove Villas. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Where to Stay on Catalina Island

In the heart of Avalon, you’ll find a wide selection of hotels to choose from that put you within walking distance to attractions, restaurants, and shops. Popular choices include Hotel Atwater which is located a block from the beach and across from the Tour Plaza. Newly renovated, Hotel Atwater features island-inspired decor.

Centrally located adjacent to Metropole Marketplace, Hotel Metropole offers a variety of room styles including oceanfront VIP suites with fireplaces, jacuzzi baths, and balconies overlooking the beach.

I had the pleasure of staying in a two-bedroom villa at Hamilton Cove. A terrace with chaise lounges was the ideal place to watch the morning sunrise with my tea and the evening sunset with a glass of wine. The kitchen was spacious and well-equipped and a golf cart was included with our stay.

Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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One response

  1. wonderful article on beautiful Catalina Island!

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