Santa Catalina Island, the Isle of Romance

By Chanin Victor

Special to the Culver City Observer

If you've never been, it's one of California's gems, an unkept secret among A-listers, vacationers, and those who live for adventure and the outdoors. It's reminiscent of the Italian Riviera, with colorful dots of houses and buildings terraced along its rocky coast. Its loveliness and relaxed nature exude charm. In a word-enchanting! When planning the perfect weekend adventure to Catalina Island, here's everything you need to know. Here is a one-day itinerary and a multi-day itinerary to experience all the magic of this beautiful island off the coast of Southern California.

Santa Catalina Island, 22-miles across the Pacific Ocean (or 26-miles as the 1958 Four Preps song goes), is often referred to as the "isle of romance". With palm trees, white-sand beaches, and clear blue water, it's the perfect getaway for those looking to relax and unwind. Colloquially referred to as just 'Catalina', the island has two main towns: the one-square-mile, quaint, historic town of Avalon and the quieter Two Harbors located near the isthmus, best accessed by boat. The latter is more of a camping area, but there are houses, a restaurant, and a general store. Both have their unique appeal. Approximately four thousand people live on the island, the majority in Avalon. Visitors number over one million each year, with the peak season being March through November. Time spent in Catalina is an unforgettable experience at any time of year.

The Best Way To Get To Catalina and Exactly How To Do It: The Catalina Express

Multiple-Day Trip Ideas

Catalina offers a scenic respite from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. It's relaxing and yet there are so many things to do there. It's a picturesque isle with palm trees and rocky shores, where visitors can experience a noticeable lack of chaos and the sense of urgency found on the mainland. It's also an island of adventure, where visitors can dive, snorkel, and explore while surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.

An exact itinerary would depend on personal interests, amount of people in your party and time. However, here is a list of some of my favorites, must-see and do.

The Casino

You're the only boat in the world, and then suddenly, you see Catalina as a speck of green surrounded by an ocean of blue in the distance. As you slowly move closer, the mountains start to define themselves. Then, there it is; the most recognizable landmark on the island comes into focus, and you begin to make out the iconic building known as the Casino. In Italian, "casino" means "little house.", but the word has also come to mean a social club-where people could dance or listen to music.

Standing at twelve stories tall, the Casino is by no means a little house. William Wrigley Jr. had it built in 1929 with the dream of making it a social gathering place for the islanders. Hand-painted murals created by John Gabriel Beckman grace the entryway, and original walnut panels line the halls. The lower half was one of the first movie theaters for "talkies". The 50-foot domed ceiling has groundbreaking acoustics that everyone can hear perfectly in the 1,184 seats.

The Casino has two tour options for visitors, Discover the Casino and Behind the Scenes Casino. Everyone who visits should take one of these tours to hear the history of Catalina. My daughter loved my stories of how we spent Saturday nights watching semi-new movies in the theatre and how her grandparents would ring in the New Year dancing away in the ballroom above. She was curious and asked if we could tour it. We chose the shorter tour, as I have already spent countless hours inside this masterpiece. It was surreal to be inside the Casino again after all these years, and it brought back so many memories.

Fun Fact: The Casino has some paranormal activity, which I have heard about but thankfully never confirmed firsthand.

Descanso Beach and Canyon

Curious about marine life? Dive into all the ocean activities you can while you visit. Just beyond the casino, a beautiful cove and private beach known as Descanso Beach Club is the perfect spot for a relaxing day of sunbathing and swimming. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports offers daily activities and rents masks, snorkels, wetsuits and equipment. Catalina is truly an island of adventure, where visitors can dive, snorkel, kayak, paddleboard and explore the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Rent kayaks for a guided excursion to Frog Rock on a chilly morning, about a 30-minute paddle away. It's an excellent opportunity to see local Bald Eagles, Sea Lions, Risso Dolphins, Black Sea Bass, Harbor Seals, Osprey, Grey Whales and Garibaldis, the California state fish. A short paddle, lunch and ocean swim are all worth the little bit of saltwater in your hair..

Fun Fact: Catalina is the warmest spot to snorkel off California's coast. I've snorkeled in Catalina before using a wetsuit, and I was still cold, but I did see a baby shark. It is the ocean.

Tucked away in Descanso Canyon behind Descanso Beach Club, you'll find TripAdvisor's top-rated Zip Line Eco Tour, the challenging Catalina Aerial Adventure, and the 32-foot tall Catalina Climbing Wall, as well as the seasonal Catalina Falconry Experience.

Pro Tip: If you're scared of heights, plan some alternative activities just in case.

A dive on the island is well worth the experience and is a favorite destination of divers worldwide. The water offers some of the best clarity, and many consider it one of the world's healthiest marine environments. The reefs provide excellent viewing opportunities, including healthy Kelp beds and playful sea lions.

Excursions To The Interior

There are several tours you can take that will allow you to explore the heart of Catalina's rugged interior, following the stagecoach route from the 1800s. Climb aboard an open-air biofuel Hummer and venture through Middle Ranch, then onto the beautiful windward side of the island to view Catalina's rugged, unspoiled Pacific shoreline. The island of Catalina is home to many species of wildlife. Not only will you have stunning photo opportunities of the landscape, you just might come across bald eagles, mule deer, or even Catalina's largest terrestrial predator; not kidding. That's right, found only on Catalina and nowhere else in the world is the Catalina Island Fox. An adult will weigh 4 - 6 lbs, and they are probably the cutest things you've ever seen.

Catalina Experiences You'll Remember For A Lifetime

Remember Catalina Island when you're planning a trip for the family, friends, or just the two of you. It's one of the unique Southern California experiences you can have with many things to do. You'll be talking about your visit for years to come.

The best way to plan is to start with the Catalina Express.

You'll find boat and hotel packages to book together, which means all you have to do is start packing.

All Photos by Chanin Victor unless otherwise noted.

The Catalina Island trip was hosted by Catalina Express, but all opinions belong to the writer.


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