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

By Tim Chester

Feb 12, 2021

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

Courtesy of Love Catalina

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

An hour from Long Beach but a world away.

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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.

How do you get to Catalina Island from Los Angeles?

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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. After closing to visitors last fall due to the pandemic, Catalina Island reopens with service again from February 12—boats will have reduced capacity to facilitate social distancing. 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).

Where to stay on Catalina Island

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.

Book now: from $169/night, expedia.com

A number of the island’s hotels, including the Aurora Hotel and Snug Harbor Inn, are offering 2021 winter packages, with one or two nights of accommodation and round-trip ferry tickets included.

Campgrounds reopen on February 12. 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.

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For something more unusual, Catalina Island Company is allowing guests to book two nights at the island’s art deco casino—a familiar landmark to anyone who’s watched the horizon patiently from the ferry over. It’s never seen any gambling (it gets its name from the Italian casino as “gathering place”) but has hosted plenty of dance nights and weddings in its ballroom. The stay will include a guided tour from a local historian, a three-course meal, and a movie screening in Avalon Theater. Upcoming 2021 dates will be released soon.

The ferry arrives regularly all day long.

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 dense 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, there’s the usual gamut of vacation activities: 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.

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All of the above is out of Avalon, but Two Harbors offers an abundance of recreation and dining, too.

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 Pizzeria & Cabaret 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.

Locals apparently love the newish, larger Vons supermarket (“treating it the way tourists from the mainland might . . . staring at the island’s famous buffaloes,” according to the L.A. Times). It’s a sign of how wonderfully bereft of big-box stores the island is (if that’s a bit less wonderful for the actual residents).

California reopened outdoor dining in early February, and Catalina businesses have made the most of their location, with many serving food to diners on the beach itself. Lovecatalina.com has a list of the places that are open and serving, whether for take-out or sit-down meals. (The site’s What’s Open section has a list of restaurants, hotels, other businesses, and trails that are welcoming travelers.)

>> Next: Local Getaways: Escape From L.A. (to the American Riviera)

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