When it comes to picking a spot for a family vacation, Southern California has a lot going for it. Along with the ever popular Disneyland and mile after mile of sunny beaches, it’s harder to think of a reason not to go. One of my favorite reasons to take the family to Southern California is to getaway to Santa Catalina Island.
Catalina for Short
Santa Catalina Island, often called simply Catalina, is the kind of place many people have heard of, but never actually visited. Chewing gum maker William Wrigley Jr. bought 99 percent of Catalina in 1919 with the hope of creating a vacation resort and protecting the island.
Located a little more than 20 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, most of Catalina is rugged, open space with only dirt roads and beautiful stretches of coastline. There’s only about 10 miles of paved road on the entire island. 88 percent of the island is protected and managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. What’s left makes up Catalina’s one city, Avalon and the unincorporated town of Two Harbors.
The most budget friendly way to get to Catalina is on board Catalina Express. Boats depart from ports in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point, and take about an hour to reach the island. Helicopter service is available and Catalina has a small airport used by private planes. Even if you don’t have the means to arrive by air, the tiny airport is neat to explore. Everyone in the family will love the “Killer Cookies” from the DC-3 Gifts & Grill restaurant.
The Big & Only City
Avalon is Catalina’s most popular destination. The waterfront resort has the look and charm of a Mediterranean seaside destination. Avalon has a permanent population of about 4-thousand that nearly doubles in the busy summer season. That said, local swear the best time to visit is in December, when the island is quiet and the weather still often warm enough to play in the water.
Space is at a premium here. Cottages are tiny, streets are narrow and cars are limited. Only 800 cars are allowed on the island. So within city limits, folks walk, pedal, and cruise from place to place in golf carts. The city is easily walkable, so visitors need not worry about getting around. That said, golf carts can be rented by the hour and are always a hit with kids.
So Many Choices, So Little Time
One of the most attractive things about Avalon is the many activities it offers for families with kids of all ages. Tweens and teens will love the zip line eco tour. Over the course of about two hours and five zips, guides teach action lovers all sorts of interesting facts about Catalina. The nearby 32-foot rock climbing wall at Descanso Beach is a good choice for younger kids, not quite ready for ziplining. The Undersea Expedition submarine cruise through Lovers Cove Marine Preserve appeals to kids both young and old. Long enough to see plenty of brightly colored, fast moving fish, but short enough that no one has time to get bored.
Take the Family to a Casino
Not to gamble, to be wowed and entertained. Casino means gathering place in Italian and the ornate building gives folks so many reasons to do just that. The ground floor of the Casino is home to the 1000-plus seat Avalon Theater. Every night at 7:30, you can catch a first run movie in the theater. Go early so you have time to take in the Art Deco murals, gold star-studded ceiling and 1929 pipe organ. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, there’s an hour-long organ concert before the movie begins.
The Pavilion Hotel is a nice option for families. Just steps from the beach and about a block from a small playground, it offers a nice breakfast and a daily wine and cheese tasting for Mom and Dad.
There’s constantly something going on in Avalon. An added plus, it’s the type of place I’d feel comfortable letting my teenager have the freedom to do some wandering on her own. The same is true in Catalina’s unincorporated town of Two Harbors.
A Place to Slow Down
Two Harbors is the narrowest part of Catalina, where two harbors come within a half mile of each other. Life moves a little slower here for the 250 or so people who call it home, and for folks who visit. There’s plenty to do, but at the same time plenty of reasons not to do much of anything. There’s one well-stocked grocery store, one bar and one restaurant. Take your kids to see the little red school house for students kindergarten through 5th grade.
I don’t need to tell you where it is, you’ll see it as you make your way to the one bed & breakfast in town, the Banning House Lodge. The Craftsman-style B & B has no televisions and no phones in any of the dozen rooms, but it does have a great view of the two harbors. It also has a great collection of family-friendly board games, a community fridge and an endless supply of make your own hot chocolate perfect for chillier winter evenings. Our room was one of the more spacious rooms we’ve come across in a long time. With a queen bed, two twins and a deck, everyone had room to spread out.
After you have breakfast, make your way to the beach, but don’t be surprised if you get side tracked by a bison or two that have found a way to wander into town. Hollywood brought the bison to the island in the 1920s to be in Zane Grey’s silent western “The Vanishing American.” They never found their way home, and it’s pretty apparent they’re happy they stayed. There are fences that are supposed to keep them out of town, but when someone forgets to close the gate, the bison are on it. Locals say the bison are fond of using the disc golf posts as back scratchers.
When you make it to the beach, you’ll find all sorts of activities and toys waiting for you. Rent paddle boards or kayaks and you can explore nearby kelp beds or just plunk a chair in the sand. Better yet, do both.
Dana’s trip was hosted by the Santa Catalina Island Company, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann.