Just twenty-two miles off the California coast sits the Mediterranean Island of Catalina. Even though it’s a short trip away, Catalina Island creates the feeling that you’re far, far away in paradise. The Island experience provides stunning views and a sanctuary of seclusion. Moreover, Catalina Island has some of the best activities, restaurants, and hotels imaginable. Whether you’re in your teens or eighties, the Island offers something for everyone. It’s the perfect place for friends, families, or couples to effortlessly escape to paradise. To help you plan your unforgettable visit, we’ve put together this Catalina Island travel guide.
When is the Best Time to Go to Catalina Island?
Whether you’re planning a week-long vacation or a Catalina day trip, the weather in Catalina Island is at its best in spring and fall. It’s during this off-season period that the Island is less busy and crowds are easily avoidable. Those who prefer hustling social events and meeting new people should visit during the summer. This is the busiest season, and there are lots of great public gatherings such as concerts, movie nights and beach bingo.
Traveling to Catalina Island
Because the ferry runs year-round, Catalina Island is one of the most convenient destinations in California to take a weekend getaway. Catalina Express offers up to 30 conveniently-timed departures on a daily basis. All year long, you can set sail to Catalina Island from ports in San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point.
Each Catalina Express port offers its own travel luxuries such as cappuccinos, a glass of wine or cocktails. Passengers can choose to upgrade their journey to the Commodore Lounge with more comfortable seating, a complimentary snack, and a provided beverage served by cabin attendants. Groups between six to eight people can upgrade to the Captain’s Lounge, a semi-private room, pre-boarding privileges and luxurious amenities.
Regardless of which port you depart from, sailing aboard the Catalina Express is a memorable experience accompanied by magnificent ocean views.
Friendly tip: Check if your departure offers Commodore or Captain’s Lounge upgrades on the day of your travel.
Getting Around Catalina Island
The Island’s intimate size makes it very easy to navigate. Instead of cars, freeways or traffic lights, golf carts are the primary way people get around. Golf cart rentals run about $40 per hour, and they are an absolute blast to drive around. Avalon also has a trolley that circles the town twice an hour in the summer and during the weekends in the off season. There are single ride and all-day fares available. The Catalina Island Company also provides free shuttle rides to Descanso Beach in the summer. It departs from the Via Casino arch on Casino Way.
Cabs and shuttles frequent all incoming ferries, so it’s very convenient to grab a ride to your hotel. Moreover, there is a central taxi stand on the corner of Crescent Avenue and Metropole Avenue.
To get from Avalon to Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, there is the Garibaldi Bus. It costs $2 per ride and children under five are free. To get from Avalon to the quaint California coastal town of Two Harbors, there is a Safari Bus. A one-way adult ticket costs $57 with three stops between the two destinations. A one-way child (ages 2-11) ticket costs $42. You can also catch the Cyclone, a new fast boat tour to Two Harbors, for an exciting ride along the stunning Catalina coast for $15 each way.
The cheapest alternatives include walking and biking. The main town, Avalon, is only one square mile and most attractions are a short stroll away. To save on bike rental costs, you can bring your own bike. Catalina Express allows you to bring your bike on the ferry with an advanced reservation and $3.50 fee each way. Most of Avalon is bike-accessible, and it will allow you to have care-free transportation around the Island.
Lastly, there are many Catalina Island tours that will take you through the Island’s most memorable places and experiences.
Friendly tip: Visit the City of Avalon, Catalina Island Company and/or the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau websites for accurate schedules in the periods of your travel.
How to Save Money in Catalina Island
There are many Catalina deals that will make your Island visit enjoyable and affordable. For example, Costco has a deal from May until the end of summer that allows you to buy a $100 Catalina Express gift card for only $79.99. This means you can save 20% on a round-trip visit!
If you are a AAA member, visit the AAA website to get access to SAVE $7.50 off Adult, $2.50 off Child on round-trip transportation coupons. These coupons have to be printed from the AAA website.
Another way you can save money in Catalina Island is by bringing your own gear. Whether you have fishing gear, beach chairs, snorkeling equipment, or your own blow-up paddleboard, you can avoid some pricy rental costs by bringing what you own. The same principle applies for food! Eating out can be expensive and those who bring their own food, drink, and snacks enjoy tremendous savings. Be sure to explore what you’re allowed to sail with on the Catalina Express.
Visitors can also save money by planning activities that are centered around Catalina Island’s natural environment. Hiking, swimming, and playing ball are all free activities on the Island. Take advantage the free tennis, volleyball, and horseshoes courts in Two Harbors, and consider camping instead of staying in a hotel. Camping fees range from $15 to $20 per person, and there are many services that will help you haul your gear across the Island so that you don’t have to.
Those who shriek at the idea of camping should be on the lookout for Catalina’s best California vacation packages. Each hotel offers its own unique perks and deals throughout different times of the year.
Friendly tip: Catalina Express deals do change so make sure you stay up to date by following Catalina Express social media and sign-up for our monthly enews.
Must Visit Restaurants
Pancake Cottage in Avalon
If you’re looking for a delicious breakfast on Catalina Island, look no further than Pancake Cottage. All of their servings are massive, especially their omelets. The menu here lacks nothing. They have every breakfast food you can imagine such as chicken fried steak, huevos rancheros and French toast. There is also a full bar! With every meal, Pancake Cottage offers a jar of homemade salsa that is out of this world. Additionally, the restaurant is located right along the waterfront so your food will also always come with a side of stunning views.
Maggie’s Blue Rose Mexican
The food at Maggie’s is flavorful and beautifully prepared. Favorite dishes include Verde chicken enchiladas, potato tacos, and shrimp and veggies. The drinks at Maggie’s are equally awesome. One of their alcoholic mixes is an exotic coconut Daiquiri that is creamy and packed with flavor. There’s also an unbelievably good skinny jalapeno margarita that vacationers adore. Everything Maggie’s serves is excellent and it will disappear fast. Moreover, you can eat inside in the relaxing atmosphere or out on the front patio where you can enjoy Catalina’s weather and people.
Avalon Grille is one of those restaurants that you just can’t stop visiting. The food, ambiance, and service are remarkable. The bartenders there are amazing. Their martinis, margaritas, and alcoholic creations can only properly be described as pure magic. They will make you feel so comfortable, and you will never be rushed. Also, Avalon Grille’s food has been named among the best of Catalina Island. They have extraordinary dishes, like the steak and vegetarian cauliflower entree. Even their octopus is commonly noted as the best anyone has ever had. Avalon Grille’s excellence also means that it is regularly booked so be sure to make your reservation far in advance. This is a must-visit for anyone who loves high-quality food and service.
Friendly tip: Call ahead of time and make a reservation if you are traveling in the summer as most restaurants fill up, and it will decrease your wait time.
Hotel Mac Rae
Among all California beach resorts, Hotel Mac Rae offers one of the most affordable and comfortable Island visits. It’s also right by the beach in the perfect location. All of the shops, restaurants, and Island activities you need are steps away. Moreover, this prime location doesn’t mean that you’re going to have noisy evenings. Once you step into the courtyard of Hotel Mac Rae, you’ll find seclusion, quiet, and relaxation. The rooms are also large, comfy, and clean. Every morning, you’ll find pastries, juice, and coffee in the lobby. This makes it incredibly easy to save money on breakfast and jump immediately into your Island activities.
This has one of those stays that makes you feel like you’re a million miles away, yet so close to home. Staying here is comparable to staying in a California beach house rental. It’s located on the main street in Avalon and provides stunning views of the ocean. When you enter the lobby, you’ll consistently find fresh juice. Each room provides a clean, modern-look with a European flair. The continental breakfast is nicely prepared with varieties of pasties, yogurt, bagels, cereal, juice, and hot drinks. There is a spa downstairs where you can get a luxurious massage. Also, immediately across the street is the golf cart rental service to easily launch into your exploration of Catalina Island.
The Pavilion hotel is a gorgeous property in the center of Avalon. Right outside is the clean ocean water and white sand beach. The rooms themselves are spotless, spacious, and are surrounded by lush green gardens. The atmosphere this staff creates is beyond superb. Each morning, there is a full breakfast that starts early and goes until 10am. Everything served at breakfast is delicious, including the Nutella, applewood bacon, and custom ordered omelets. There is also a barista for made-to-order cappuccinos and lattes. In the afternoon at 4:30pm, there is a complimentary wine and cheese happy hour. The selections vary each day and are excellent quality. It’s the perfect way to wind down before dinner. The staff here is exceptional and the included services go above and beyond all expectations.
Friendly tip: Look at CatalinaPackages.com for Boat & Hotel Packages that we offer. It will make your travel planning easier and will even save you some money.
If you’re looking for the best California hiking, Catalina Island is the place for you. There is an entire network of trails that is surrounded by nonstop views of the Pacific Ocean. 88% of Catalina Island is completely undeveloped and preserved by the Catalina Island Conservancy. As a result, you get to experience the outdoors in it’s natural, untouched beauty. The most popular hike is the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina hike that goes throughout the entire Island. Going from the beginning to end point takes about 3-5 days to complete backpacking. However, visitors can do a more casual hike throughout a smaller portion of the trail. On the Catalina Island trails you’ll experience bison, foxes, green hills and ocean views for miles on end.
Kayaking is a fun and easy way to experience the wonder of Catalina Island. There are several shops in Avalon and Descanso Beach where you can rent kayaks for you and your companions. Additionally, there are guided kayak tours that are accessible to both experienced and first-time kayakers. On the waters you’ll like see sea lions, dolphins, eagles, and a variety of marine life. Paddling along the sea-side cliffs and secluded coves is an unforgettable experience that is sure to be a highlight of your Catalina Island visit.
This is an absolute must for thrill seekers who want a good adventure vacation. It’s conveniently located within a 15-20-minute walk from the central city of Avalon. Although it may be scary to fly 600 ft above sea level, visitors are soon put to ease as they discover how fun it is to zip through the air. Safety is a number one priority and the guides do an excellent job guiding zipliners through the checkpoints. Both kids and adults find the orientation to be calming and understandable. Additionally, there are breaks between checkpoints when the guides share about Catalina Island’s rich history and ecology. Truly, you won’t want to leave because you’re having such a good time.
Plan your dream getaway and experience the recommendations of this Catalina Island travel guide by making a reservation on board Catalina Express!