A view of crystal clear turquoise waters interrupted only by a vintage yacht moored just behind a bendy palm tree swaying in the breeze may have you thinking you’re far away in the Caribbean – or it could easily be a scene on Catalina Island.
Lucky for us, this paradise is only a short drive and a speedy boat ride away from our Southern California cities.
Looking for a birthday getaway, we decided to skip the mainland and long-distance options and head to the Island instead. Catalina Express and many Island destinations offer birthday specials and free boat rides on birthdays which are listed at the Catalina Express website.
The Catalina Express terminal in San Pedro is a beautiful new building with lots of parking, dining options and a nice outdoor seating area. Inside the terminal, the tone is set with gorgeous murals and modern décor that gives a nod to the history and romance of Catalina and a by-gone era of travel by boat.
As the sun broke through the early morning clouds every wave and ripple was reflected while we rode alongside sea lions and birds skimming the Pacific Ocean. After a very comfortable, smooth one-hour ride, we entered Avalon harbor and were immediately greeted by the majestic Casino building, lots of boats and charming houses clinging to the slopes of the island which evoked poetic settings of the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
Once you get off the boat, you’re officially on island time. You can pretty much get to anything you need to by foot and everything is closer than it seems. You’re able to get to most places in Avalon by walking. No car, no worries, no problems. Golf carts and other transportation vehicles are available if you need it, especially if you’re not able to take on the incline on some of the town’s streets.
As we walked to our hotel, a few restaurants and shops were getting ready to greet swimmers and people grabbing a cup of coffee before the “official” opening of the day which seems to be closer to 11 a.m. for most places.
We had a room at the Aurora Hotel & Spa and wanted to drop off our bags so we could start exploring the island and right away they offered us a room and continental breakfast. (We arrived shortly after 9 a.m.) The rooms were modern, clean and the beds were very comfortable. A majority of the rooms have great views of the harbor and there is a charming roof deck for guests to comfortably enjoy the sunshine or take in the island views at night.
So many Southern Californians may think “been there done that” but Catalina Island has a lot to offer – From zip-lining to Jeep Tours or simply hanging out at Descanso Beach to gaze at the water over a nice island cocktail or a bite of lunch. Romero and his staff at the Aurora gave us great suggestions for local dining at the Lobster Trap and we had terrific activities planned thanks to some guidance from the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.
LEARN – The Catalina Island Museum was a nice place to start to learn about the history of the Island. The museum is located behind the gift shop in the Casino building. It’s a self-guided tour with memorabilia and short films documenting the Catalina story which is rich with tales of movie stars, film makers and how chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. built up the Island into a place for celebrities and tourists to come and play.
CHILLAX – Walk over to Descanso Beach Club just around the corner from the Casino building to get a good seat at the outdoor bar and enjoy a refreshing cocktail or a bite of lunch. It’s beachy, tropical and very relaxing. You can even reserve a cabana for sunbathing and waiters are at the ready to serve you offering resort-style food and drink options.
SEA MORE – There are a lot of options for exploring the sea from Catalina Island whether you’re a diver, snorkeler, swimmer, boater or land-lubber. Our itinerary included a semi-submarine tour aboard Catalina Adventure Tours Nautilus. It’s a comfortable ride around the waters off the Island with a fun narrative and you’re guaranteed to see lots of calico bass and opal eye fish swimming by the portholes to pose for pictures (without getting wet). The tour is about 30 mins and you may be lucky enough to see other creatures like the sea turtle make a special appearance.
DINING AL FRESCO – Many dining choices in Avalon offer a meal with a view of the water. Bluewater Grill Avalon is one of the newer restaurants in town and offers outdoor dining right on the sea with covered patios that create a pleasant experience to enjoy a nice poké appetizer or lunch and breathe in the sea air.
WALK N’ SHOP – There are plenty of boutiques and shopping opportunities in Avalon featuring fun and unique items, art pieces, handmade jewelry, candles, soaps and even artisanal candies at Lloyds. Just meander around Crescent Avenue for a couple of hours to discover items that are uniquely Catalina to take home to remember your trip or share with friends.
ROMANCE IN THE AIR – Being on an island is romantic and there are several options for a dinner for two. We enjoyed a great birthday dinner at the Avalon Grille – a perfect way to end the evening followed only by a champagne toast from the rooftop deck compliments of Diane back at the Aurora Hotel.
4-WHEELIN’ – After having a day to explore Avalon, we were excited to see what the rest of the Island was all about. We boarded the Jeep Eco Tour at the Catalina Island Conservancy on Claressa Avenue thanks to a couple of nice locals who golf-carted us to our final location after the maps app on our phones got us lost. The tour was a great way to see how much beauty the island truly has to offer. We spotted plenty of Bison, native fox, visited a bald eagle sanctuary and learned a lot about all of the flora and fauna that remains protected, untouched and beautiful.
Atop the island, we were amazed by the views from the mountain peaks that led down to gorgeous blue-green water that lapped on the shores of completely isolated beaches that once played host to Mutiny on the Bounty and other movies seeking a gorgeous island and beach backdrop.
Getting away from the tourist areas and exploring the rest of the island gives you a greater appreciation for the natural preservation efforts that the conservancy has taken to ensure that most of the land remains untouched to protect the natural habitat that makes the island so unique and beautiful. Our guide was very knowledgeable and even went so far as to chase a fox away from the main road going up the mountain to ensure it would be safe and avoid being injured by passing vehicles.
Our trip back home to the mainland was bittersweet. We had a great 24 hours here to play and it was hard to leave the relaxed and happy island to head back to reality on the mainland, but we knew that we would be back and couldn’t wait to tell our friends who may have thought of Catalina Island as a been-there-done-that place to come back again and check it out.