This Little Island Offers a Slice of the Mediterranean in California

An hour from Long Beach but a world away.

Local Getaways: Why Catalina Island Is the Mediterranean Escape Every Southern Californian Needs

Many of Catalina’s reopened beachfront restaurants are serving diners on the sand.

Courtesy of Love Catalina

Catalina Island is often referred to as a “Mediterranean getaway in California,” and while much of SoCal can claim Med meteorology, there is something to the name. Warm and sunny, with a small town built into the hills around a palm tree–lined seafront that overlooks a sleepy harbor, it evokes any number of spots on the Italian—or French—Riviera.

Claimed by the Spanish empire, then once part of Mexico, then of the United States, before being largely owned by a series of private developers including William Wrigley Jr. (he of the ubiquitous chewing gum), Catalina has a fascinating history.

The 22-mile-long island—just an hour’s ferry ride from Los Angeles—has provided shelter for smugglers, served as a training ground for the Wrigley-owned Chicago Cubs, and long been a respite from mainland life. It’s attracted the Hollywood elite of the ’30s and ’40s and the Insta hordes of the noughties, but it’s an accessible, unpretentious getaway for all. Bison incongruously roam the hinterland far from their natural habitat, another Wrigley introduction that brings the tourists but doesn’t always fit in with island-wide conservation plans. What the island doesn’t have is cars—or not many of them anyway. Most people get around on foot or by golf cart.

It’s sometimes overlooked by those living on its doorstep but very much worth a weekend away from L.A.

The Hotel Atwater is steps from the seafront.

The Hotel Atwater is steps from the seafront.

Courtesy of Catalina Island Company

Where to stay on Catalina Island

Whether you want to sleep under the stars or in a comfy bed, Catalina Island has a variety of accommodation options.

Hotel Atwater

We love Hotel Atwater, a century-old, centrally located slice of Avalon history named after Helen Atwater Wrigley, wife of Philip Knight Wrigley (William’s son). Its centennial renovation in 2020 gave it a light and modern feel with soothing shades of teal and coral and fresh carnations. You’ll find guests in reception playing a range of board games and watching island life come and go through the large windows. You can also keep an eye on the sailboats bobbing in the nearby harbor from the upper-floor guest rooms.

Aurora Hotel & Snug Harbor Inn

A number of the island’s other hotels, including the Aurora Hotel and Snug Harbor Inn, offer packages that include accommodation and round-trip ferry tickets.

Camping at Hermit Gulch Campground

There are a number of campgrounds across the island, located along the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina trail. Hermit Gulch Campground is just a mile from the town of Avalon but affords access to nearby hiking trails, as does another beach camping site at Two Harbors, the other (smaller) town at the west end of the island.

The ferry arrives regularly all day long.

The ferry arrives regularly all day long.

Courtesy of Catalina Express

Things to do on Catalina Island

An ideal weekend on Catalina Island would probably be split 50/50 between land and sea. You won’t want to miss snorkeling or scuba diving among the almost aggressively bright orange garibaldi fish by the casino—the water here is clear and filled with scaly creatures. Much of the harbor’s sea life can be seen from a semi-submersible too, if you prefer to stay dry, while swimming and boating opportunities abound. We’ve had a kayak camping trip on our wish list for some time.

On dry land, the usual vacation activities are on offer: hiking, boutique shopping, a charming mini golf course, an enlightening bus tour of the historic sites with lashings of vacay-comedy—as well as some more high-octane stuff. Think ziplining, Jeep tours to see the wild bison, Hummer rides. The essential Catalina Island experience? Hiring a golf buggy and careening ’round the surrounding hills for photo opps and general soul-lifting views.

All of the above is out of Avalon, but Two Harbors offers an abundance of recreation and dining, too. Boating, kayaking, snorkeling, and fishing are popular here, and you can fuel up after that activity with a burger or salad at Harbor Reef Restaurant.

You can get between Avalon and Two Harbors in 40 minutes (in the summer and early fall) on the Cyclone power boat.

Where to eat on Catalina Island

Catalina’s seafront promenade features a range of comfort food, beer ’n’ pretzel places, a tiki bar, and revered ice cream and gelato at Scoops. Lines build nightly for a slice of take-out pizza at ’50s themed Original Antonio’s, while sister spot Antonio’s serves steaks and seafood with a side of humorous signs and plentiful oceanfront dining.

Descanso Beach Club, meanwhile, presents a rare opportunity in California: the chance to drink alcohol with your feet in the sand. The beachside restaurant and bar serves burgers, nachos, poke bowls, and a range of cocktails, including an intimidating Bloody Mary that comes topped with a mini cheeseburger, pork belly skewers, and onion rings. Rent a cabana and make an afternoon of it.

How do you get to Catalina Island from Los Angeles?

Unless you have your own boat or plane, or are willing to take a 10-hour paddleboard journey there (it’s been known), the Catalina Express is your best bet. The company normally offers up to 30 departures daily from several ports, including Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. Get to the port early if you want to snag outside seats on top of the boat. All three ports offer long-term parking (Long Beach’s structure is especially convenient).

This article originally appeared online in 2021; it was most recently updated on Sept 15, 2023, to include current information.

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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