The Ultimate Guide To Catalina Island

Where to find bison, $1 tacos, and stand-up paddleboarding

Admit it: You’ve been meaning to go to Catalina for years now, but somehow never actually get there. We understand. But, with some minimal planning (i.e. a ferry ticket and a hotel reservation), it’s the ideal place to escape reality for a weekend—which, really, feels pretty essential these days. See some whales, eat a taco, and remember that life can be beautiful and perfect sometimes, too. Here’s your guide to the ultimate Catalina island getaway.

How to Get There and Get Around:

Take a ferry. The Catalina Express is your only ticket on this island, so stock up on the Dramamine if you get seasick. Boats depart from port in Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point—and yes, there is a full bar. Bonus! Passengers ride free on their birthday, but be sure to register online to take advantage of the promotion and read up on the fine print.

Once you’re on the island, rent a golf cart. Cars are restricted, and trips to the steep hills can take the wind out of most amateur cyclists. There are a couple rental spots to choose from, but most tourists favor Island Rentals—the only company that accepts drivers aged 21 and up. Carts go for $20 an hour, but pay in cash to get a third hour for free.

What to Do:

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Wander through the Wrigley Memorial Botanical Garden, a sprawling, 38-acre tribute to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. The garden focuses on plants native to the island, some of which are quite rare, and has been linked to the Catalina Island Conservancy for twenty years. It also doubles as the trailhead for the popular Garden to Sky Hike, a 2.5 mile trek with views of both sides of the island. Hiking permits are mandatory, and can be obtained here.

When you’re leaving Wrigley Garden, check out the neighboring Will Richards Studio, a quirky and colorful art studio with over 40 years of history. The space primarily consists of found objects, stone sculptures, woodcarvings, and tile murals. Call 858-922-5283 to make an appointment before you visit.

Catch a movie at the Avalon Theatre, a historic art deco building with nightly showings of first-run flicks. On weekends, a performance from the original theatre pipe organ begins an hour before the show. Tickets must be bought at the box office, but the audience comfortably sits over 1,000 people, so there’s no fear of selling out.

Take a Jeep Eco Tour to encounter wild bison (the abandoned remnants of a 1924 movie shoot) and access over 160 acres of paved and unpaved road. Each tour is led by an expert naturist, who provides information on everything from the Tongva people to the island’s native plant nursery.

Go on a guided kayak excursion, snorkel, and try out a stand-up paddle board at Descanso Beach Ocean Sports, which is open year round at 9 a.m. Winter visitors who brave the colder water temperature have a good shot at seeing dolphin and whale pods in the midst of migration. A double kayak comfortably sits two adults and a small child, and costs $58 for four hours of exploration.

What to Eat:

Grab $1 tacos and $2 draft beers at The Sand Trap’s excellent happy hour, or stop by in the morning for huevos rancheros, menudo, and french toast on the patio.

A new owner is bringing avocado toast, smoothies, salad, and sandwiches to the island at Cafe Metropole. Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options are available, as well as an impressive selection of beer and wine.

Lloyd’s of Avalon Confectionary serves up vintage style taffy, caramel apples, and ice cream from a vast selection of sweets. The island institution is easily located—just look for the giant ice cream statue. Bonus: get a free cone on your birthday with a Catalina Express birthday ticket.  

Where to Drink:

Snag a beer flight from Catalina Island Brew House while you snack on a basket of complimentary soft pretzels and enjoy the ocean view. The selection focuses on Southern California, with offerings from popular San Diego and L.A. breweries in addition to a few of their own beers.

You’re not contractually obligated to go to a tiki bar when you’re visiting an island, but you should be. Go to Luau Larry’s for the infamous Wiki Wacker (which promises you’ll leave “with your Wiki Wacked”), a semi-lethal mix of rum, brandy, pineapple juice, and orange juice.

Where to Stay:

Day trips are doable, but there are plenty of locations for an overnight stay. For those looking to escape the hotel circuit, Airbnb has a decent presence.  

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The Pavilion Hotel offers fire pits and a complimentary wine and cheese hour—and a price tag to match—making it a great upscale option.

Try the smaller Buena Vista Hotel for lower rates, which frequently caters to visiting SCUBA divers. In the off season (November 1–Memorial Day), two person rooms go for $70 a night. Knock $10 off the bill by bringing your own towels.