Catalina is a 75 square mile island off the coast off southern California. This makes it about the size of New Providence island in the Bahamas, home of capital city Nassau. While Nassau is a crowded busy place, Catalina is the opposite. There is only one town of note on Catalina, Avalon with a population of under 4,000. In this post we thought we would describe exploring the town of Avalon on Catalina Island.
The first thing to note about Catalina is it is not necessarily cheap. Our family has lived in the San Diego area for a combined 80+ years but have made only 4 trips to Catalina. This is a way of saying that, right off the bat, we do not suggest a trip to Catalina for first time visitors to California. However, for long-time California residents, Catalina and Avalon in particular is a must see. There is a great deal of wilderness to explore but that can get quiet expensive and for this trip we are sticking to the small town of Avalon.
Transportation to Catalina
Getting to Avalon is half the fun. Almost everyone without a private boat or plane will take the Catalina Express boat. These fleet of boats depart from 3 locations: Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro. Dana Point is the closest to San Diego but we used Long Beach because they had more scheduled departures. Note if you want to go to the island’s second largest metropolis, Two Harbors (population 300), on the other end of Catalina you need to depart from San Pedro. All other boats go to Avalon. All three ports have parking areas for $14/day at Dana Point, $17 at Long Beach and $18 at San Pedro.
Round trip tickets run about $75 for anyone 12 and over and $58 for ages 2 to 11. There is a special promotion where you can go for free on your birthday with at least one other paid guest. But you must depart on your actual birthday and come back within 30 days. There is also the option to pay $15 to upgrade to special seating. This seating gets you early boarding, a free drink, a cookie and special seating in an indoor area of the boat with extra comfortable seats. Considering that the regular seats are pretty nice, the drinks run only about $6 and sitting outside on the deck is better than being stuck inside we just pay the general fare.
Speaking of drinks, when you go to get refreshments from ship concession you will find your first indication that Catalina is a step back in time. Like much of the island, the ship’s bar is cash only. Furthermore, there are no Wells Fargo ATMs on the island. So bring cash and lots of it if you want to do some of the more expensive cash only option, like renting a golf cart. As long as you have cash, the Catalina Express has a great selection of drinks and craft beer for your 90 minute trip.
There is one other option we should mention, the Catalina Flyer boat which leaves from Newport Beach. It costs about the same but you can find frequent discounts online. The major downside is they only offer one trip to the island at 9 am, and one trip back at 4:30. For us that has been a no go.
Getting Around Avalon
The boat drops you right in the center of Avalon Harbor. Assuming you are spending the night you will probably head straight to your lodging. Avalon has quite a few hotels and also plenty of houses for rent. Almost are within walking distance of the harbor. The other option is take a golf cart, the main form of transportation. We were staying at the El Terado Terrace which was about a 10 minute walk and probably one of the furthermost hotels. There was a somewhat steep uphill climb, as Avalon is built on a hillside. Next time we will forego the duffel bag and bring a suitcase with rollers. The further out hotels, the Holiday Inn and the super chic Mt. Ada have their own transportation, but really walking is the way to go in Avalon.
The main form of transportation on Catalina is golf carts. According to the chamber of commerce there is a 20 year wait list for owning a car on the island. Golf carts are the way to go but the going rate for renting one is $45 an hour for a 4-person cart. In other words, more than you would pay for a full day rental of an actual car on the mainland. There also is a bus that will take you around Avalon and up to one of the main attractions, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden.
Speaking of Wrigley, Avalon was developed by Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley who bought the whole island in 1919. From 1921 to 1951 the Chicago Cubs held spring training on the island. While there is still plenty of Cubs and Wrigley memorabilia on the island, the Wrigley’s gave up control in 1975. The island is now operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy. If you want to explore inside Catalina this is where you go for hiking permits and jeep trips.
Things to Do Around Avalon
In Avalon you will find all kinds of activities you can sign up for. Most of these are available from the information kiosks on the main pier in the center of the harbor.
- Glass Bottom Boats: View fish from the see through boat bottom. Cost is $16 age 12 and over, $14 kids 2-11 for 40 minute tour.
- Zip-Line Tour: This is supposed to be a pretty good one for North America. Costs are $100-130 depending on season.
- Undersea Submarine Tour: This submarine is semi-submersible so it doesn’t go underwater. Instead you are seated 5 feet below the surface and get to view the fish ala Disneyland’s Finding Nemo ride. Cost is $35 age 12 and over, $39 kids 2-11.
- Parasailing: Cost is $65 for 600 foot, $75 for 800 feet.
- Aerial Adventure: Climb an obstacle course in the trees. Cost is $49 age 12 and over, $39 kids 7-11.
- Rock Climbing: Standard rock wall. Cost is $10 for 3 climbs.
- Bus Tour: A 3 and a half hour tour across the island in a 50s style. Cost is $90 age 12 and over, $87 kids 2-11, A shorter tour is available for $49.
- Jeep Tours: There is a 2 hour tour for $71,50 and a 3 hour tour for$110.50. Must be over 6 years old.
- Hummer Tours: There are several tours in 12-person hummers. Costs range from $82 -$124 and kids must be 5 or older.
- Ghost Tours: One hour night walking tour of Avalon. Cost is $20 adults, $15 children.
- Catalina Casino Tour: The casino is Avalon’s most famous landmark. It is a round 12-story building built in 1929. There is no gambling but instead it is a movie theater and ballroom where many famous celebrities hung out. Now you can see first-run movies for a regular movie ticket price. Tour cost is $27 age 12 and over, $25 kids 2-11.
- Snorkeling: 2 hour guided tour is $55. A mask, snorkel and fin can be rented for $20/day. A wetsuit is another $20 a day. All that is included in the tour
- Miniature Golf: Considered one of the best mini-golf course around. Cost is $12 age 12 and over, $10 kids 2-11.
- Electric Bike Tour: This is a 2 hour tour, 10 mile tour for ages 16 plus. Cost is $99.
- Rentals: Jet Ski ($140/hour), Kayak ($15/hr to $55/day), Paddle Boards ($20/hr to $55/day), Bikes ($50/day for Electric Bike, $20-40 for a regular bike) and Golf Carts ($45/hour)
This list could go on as there are plenty of fishing and boating tours, hikes and even a bowling alley and escape room. It should be noted that many of the activities are seasonal, especially water based ones. Summer and weekends are very busy times in Avalon. Personally we like to go mid-week at a quieter time of year. Since many of these activities we can do in San Diego, our favorite activity in Avalon is walking around, looking in some shops and enjoying food and drinks at some of the many dining places. This is a very scenic place and it is fun to just soak it in. One thing we enjoyed that is hard to find in San Diego is the crystal clear water where you could see fish swimming right from the pier.
Eating and Drinking In Avalon
Avalon is definitely not lacking for eating and drinking places. Almost all are local places, you won’t your normal chain restaurants on Catalina. While this is great we would note that many places are touristy and expensive. However, there are some gems. Furthermore, almost all eating places are within walking distance, right on the harbor.
Being an island, seafood of couirse is a prime option. We heard good things about two restaurants, The Lobster Trap and the Bluewater Grill. We went to the Bluewater, mainly because it is right on the water and is clearly one of Avalon’s fancier restaurants. However, we realized it actually was a small chain with about 10 locations, including some near our home in San Diego. We were also not getting good vibes from the staff so after a drink and appetizer we headed on.
Our next stop was a real find, the small Catalina Island Brew House. The brew refers to both beer and coffee, so this is a good place to come anytime during the day. We were there during happy hour so we got beer! They had quite a few beers and during happy hour, which starts at noon, they offer $8 beer flights or discounts on pints. The best thing is they give you a basket of free pretzel bites to go with your drink. This place is also a bakery and they offer a small menu of flatbread pizzas and sandwiches. Outside of the awesome pretzel bites, we did not try any food because our plan was to head next door for a steak dinner.
On the boat over, we rode with a British couple and the husband worked in the meat industry, sourcing meat. He told us Steve’s Steakhouse really knew how to do meat right so we took his advice and picked that as our dinner spot. While it is known as Steve’s Steakhouse they seem to be rebranding into Steve’s Steakhouse and Seafood. This makes it the best of both worlds. The restaurant is located in the second story overlooking the harbor.
Steve’s is big and it was fairly crowded on what we thought was a slow night in Avalon. That of course is a good sign. This is a nice restaurant and expensive, but fair for a steakhouse. Dinners come with bread, baked potato or vegetables so you get a lot of food. They claim all their meat is Midwestern beef that is aged for 28 days. The 12 oz rib-eye steak was $33.50. Considering our butcher charges $33 a pound for Prime rib-eye steaks that seems like a pretty good deal. Of course, being on Catalina we had to try the Buffalo Cheeseburger for $17. Catalina has a whole herd of buffalo that have been around since they were brought over to film a western in 1924. Not sure if this was locally sourced.
There are plenty of bars in Avalon (well at least for a town that small) but after dinner we were too full and tired for any nightlife. Good nighttime watering holes include Luau Larry’s, the Marlin Club and the Chi Chi Club. WE heard that the Mexican food at Pete’s Plaza Cafe was the place to go for a late night snack. Note if you want to do your own cooking there is are two small Vons grocery stores in the heart of Avalon (one much smaller than the other). Prices are high and selection is limited, but it is better than nothing.
Breakfast is big on Catalina. The aforementioned Catalina Island Brew House seemed like a good choice but we heard Original Jack’s Country Kitchen was the place to go. THis place was very good and the breakfast menu was indeed huge. What I appreciated was it was more than just eggs and panacakes. Our family has some egg allergy issues and that can make breakfast difficult. Fish tacos for breakfast anyone? Of course, they also had tons of egg, pancake and waffle options, including LA favorite chicken and waffles.
WE noticed Jack’s had lots of pictures of celebrities with connections to Catalina. We sat next to a picture of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Natalie Wood tragically drowned under suspicious circumstances while staying on a boat off the coast off Catalina in 1981. Marilyn Monroe actually lived in Avalon for a short time during her first marriage at the age of 16. The house she lived in is at 310 Metropole Avenue.
A final note on beverages in Avalon. If you ask for water you will get a plastic bottle of water and they will charge you $0.50. The island has been under a severe water drought and water rationing is occurring everywhere. They are working on solutions but it is a major problem.
Staying in Avalon
There are plenty of places to stay in Catalina and most of them are reasonably price but not very fancy. Like much of Avalon, the lodging seems more like Europe than California. Our tips for getting a good price may help some, but generally in a place like Avalon we want to specifically pick our location. We picked the El Terado Terrace because it was somewhat up the hill overlooking the harbor and was a very reasonable price. Like most places in Avalon it is older and not the least bit fancy. For us it was perfect for this type of trip.
If you want to get fancy there is the Avalon Hotel, the Snug Harbor Inn and quite a few bed and breakfast places. The best place is the Mt Ada which was the island home of William Wrigley. Its 6 rooms go for about $500+ a night. It is on a hill high above Avalon and has spectacular views. One thing to note, most hotels in Avalon do not have a swimming pool. There is a Holiday Inn that does have, but it is about a mile outside the heart of Avalon.
If you have a group or are staying for a longer period you may want to consider renting a vacation home. Catalina Vacations has over 150 properties available for rent. Hamilton Cove is a community right next to Avalon which has a variety of different homes and condos for rent. These rentals give access to a pool, spa, tennis and fitness center. You even get a golf cart! Of course, this would be more like lodging on the mainland. To us some of the charm of Avalon is the small older houses that hang on the side of steep hills.
For those looking to live in Catalina for the long term, the first thing I can say is it is not cheap. A general rule of thumb is $600,000 will get you about 1,000 square feet. IF we ever had any desire to live in Catalina our trip definitely killed that. It also would be an expensive place to take a family vacation. Overall we think Avalon and Catalina is best for a 2 to 3 night getaway. Next time we are planning to go wild on Catalina by doing a 3-day hiking/camping trip across the island.