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Catalina Island, CA A Magical Destination

There isn’t a bad view on Catalina Island.
There isn’t a bad view on Catalina Island.

There’s nothing quite so surprising as when you come around a corner and there’s a bison wallowing in the road, making it quite clear that no matter how large the vehicle is that you’re in, you’re not going to pass until he decides it’s time. What’s even more surprising is that this is only one of the times that you literally catch your breath when visiting Catalina Island, which, despite only being 22 miles away from the Southern California coast, is a world all its own.

There are roughly 150 bison on Catalina Island, which stayed behind after being transported to the site for a movie.
There are roughly 150 bison on Catalina Island, which stayed behind after being transported to the site for a movie.

The bison, for example, isn’t an animal you’d expect to see on an island in the Pacific Ocean, yet there are roughly 100 of these massive hoofed animals wandering through the rugged interior. The animals were shipped over to take part in the movie, The Vanishing American, in 1924, but those that couldn’t be rounded up stayed when filming was over, leaving descendants of their own.

The city of Avalon itself feels like a throwback to a simpler time, featuring small, chic boutiques, lively restaurants and bars, and the Green Pleasure Pier where visitors can book tours or grab a bite to eat. There are very few full-sized cars on the island—and a waiting list of 20+ years just to get one—which makes walking or riding in golf carts the preferred modes of transportation. The main part of the city is quite walkable, but you can also take a ride up into the hills to enjoy both stunning views and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens, which pays tribute to William Wrigley, Jr., who bought the Catalina Island Company in 1919 and invested millions in making it somewhere that vacationers—including numerous movie stars—wanted to go.

Speaking of views, there isn’t a bad one to be had on the island. Pulling into the pier on the Catalina Express ferry, you’re greeted by a stunning scene of green and buff-colored mountains, bright white sailboats, and the strikingly blue waters of the Pacific. Charming homes dot the hillsides of the island, and Avalon’s main street is filled with brightly colored shops, swaying palm trees and an intricately tiled fountain in the center of a roundabout. These locally made tiles can also be found all along the walkway between the town and ocean, making it feel like an outdoor art gallery surrounded by even more beautiful views.

The most striking sight on the waterfront is the Catalina Island Casino, which perches along the shore overlooking the bobbing boats in Avalon Bay. Built on the concept of the Italian word, casa, or house, the casino is not a place to gamble, but serves as a gathering place for community members. While the outside of the 1929 building is stunning—most especially its John Gabriel Beckman hand-painted murals—I greatly recommend taking the Casino VIP Backstage Tour to see the Art Deco designs in the Avalon Theater (the first designed for “talkies”) and the ballroom, which features the world’s largest uninterrupted circular dance floor.

Another wonderful place to learn more about Catalina Island and Avalon is the Catalina Island Museum for Art & History, which is a work of art in itself. Easily identified by the bright yellow Dale Chihuly chandelier hanging under the dome, the museum shares stories of the island’s original Native inhabitants, as well as William Wrigley Jr. and his quest to make the island a welcoming place, including creating a baseball field where his beloved Chicago Cubs would come for spring training.

You don’t have to stay on land to appreciate the wonders of the island, either. The Undersea Sub Expedition is another must-do and takes visitors five feet below the surface to meander through fields of giant kelp and thousands of fish, including opaleyes and bright orange garibaldi. If you’re not a big fan of being submersed, check out IMMERSED: Ocean Wonders, which takes you on a half-hour virtual scuba dive through the world’s oceans while sitting in super comfy seats inside a specially designed dome at Island Tour Plaza.

To explore the interior of the island, take the Bison Expedition Tour with local Halvy Halvorsen, who shares the history of the island and all sorts of interesting facts about the flora and fauna of the area, interspersed with some really bad jokes. This narration takes place while whipping up mountain roads to see the most spectacular vistas; Halvy parked on the edge of the mountains a couple of times to allow us just to delight in the epic scenery.

During the tour, visitors can also get a glimpse of El Rancho Escondido, former home of Philip Wrigley and his family, as well as the aptly named Airport in the Sky, which sits on a 1,602-foot mountaintop. Along the way, you may meet hikers wandering any of the island’s 165 miles of trails, which includes the island-encompassing 38.5 mile Trans-Catalina Trail.

There are numerous places to dine in Catalina, from breakfast at the very popular Pancake Cottage to casual lunches at the Bluewater Grill, Café Metropole or the Catalina Island Coffee & Cookie Co. and elegant and delicious dinners at Steve’s Steakhouse & Seafood or M Restaurant. For cocktails, a must-stop is the Descanso Beach Club for a taste of the official island drink, Original Buffalo Milk, which is not only delicious but addictive.

It’s extremely easy to get to the island on the Catalina Express from numerous ports in California, including Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Treat yourself and buy a ticket to the Commodore Lounge, where you get priority check-in and boarding, a complimentary drink and snacks, and super comfy seats from which to admire the stunning water views.

Since there are up to 30 departures daily year-round, it’s absolutely worth it to do a day trip, or if you have more time, there are numerous accommodations on the island, including hotels in the city center and vacation rentals in prime locations. We had the pleasure of staying at a Hamilton Cove Villa, (courtesy of Catalina Island Vacation Rentals) which basically felt like movie-star lodgings and even came with a golf cart to use. If there hadn’t been so much to do on the island, I’m not sure we would have ever left the villa and its spectacular views of the town and water below.

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