Catalina is just a ferry ride from Long Beach and other points on the coast of Southern California, but it feels a world away.
AVALON, Calif. — Catalina Island is just a ferry ride from Long Beach and other points on the coast of Southern California, but it feels like it’s a world away. Go for a swim, try a buffalo-milk cocktail and maybe even take a tour to catch a glimpse of real buffalo in the island’s scrubby hills. Rent a golf cart to tool around in and visit the botanical garden. Whether you’re there for a day, an overnight or longer, there’s plenty to do. Or just lie on the beach, enjoy the scenery and do nothing at all.
Formally called Santa Catalina, the island was developed in the early 20th century as a resort by William Wrigley Jr., who made his fortune in Wrigley chewing gum and owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He even brought the players to Catalina for spring training for a number of years.
The island was also used by Hollywood as a filming location. The buffalo that roam the island today are descended from animals brought to the island for a movie and left to run wild.
One of the island’s biggest landmarks, the Catalina Casino, a round, white art-deco building, was built in 1929 and hosted performers from the Big Band era, drawing thousands of guests to dance the night away in its ballroom. Today it’s the site of a movie theater.
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The Catalina Island Conservancy now owns 88 percent of the island, including more than 62 miles of undeveloped coastline.
Things to do
Get off the ferry, and everything you need for a fun day is right in front of you in the compact retail district: the beach, the water, shops, restaurants, bars. There’s great seafood at spots like the Bluewater Grill and the Descanso Beach Club, but there are also plenty of other dining options, from pizza to Mexican. Buffalo milk is a sweet local specialty, with milk, vodka, Kahlua, creme de cacao and banana cream liqueur blended and served over ice.
There’s a 14-year waiting list to own a car on Catalina, and the number of vehicles allowed there is strictly limited. But you can rent a golf cart at one of several businesses (one is cash only, $80 for three hours) and head up into the hills. You’ll get terrific views of boats in the harbor and the Pacific. An easy-to-follow route will take you up to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden, known for its cactus collection. (Wrigley himself was once interred at the memorial, a beautiful stone monument, but he’s now buried in Pasadena.)
Catalina also offers numerous trails and is popular with overnight campers who can be seen lining up for ferries from the mainland with gear, food and water. For day-trippers, a popular short hike is the Garden to Sky Hike, 2.4 miles round-trip from the Wrigley Memorial. That trail also connects to a longer route, the Garden to Sky Loop Trail.
Other activities include zip lining, Segway and bike rentals, a golf course, and bus and Jeep tours of the island’s rugged hills and scrubby interior, where you might see a buffalo or two. Water activities include kayaking, snorkeling and glass-bottomed boat tours.
Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get a free glass of water with your restaurant meals. The island, like much of Southern California, is suffering from drought conditions, but you can always buy a bottle.
More information:catalinachamber.com. Ferries depart from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach and Dana Point. Crossing time is about 75 minutes (Catalina Express adult fare from $72 round-trip: catalinaexpress.com). Helicopter service, charter boats and aircraft are also available.