An hour’s sail away lies a little unassuming island filled with sandy shores, sea lions, dolphins and bison (oh my!), rugged rides over cliffs and coastlines, sight-seeing beneath the sea, and an extreme zip-line that will replay in their memory long after their final ferry home. Catalina is a kid friendly weekend vacay that perfectly mixes family activities with a vista that evokes a Mediterranean getaway.
photo credit: Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce
Ferry Tales Can Come True
Bundle those seafarers up! Once those winds pick up (and they will) it’s a SoCal winter any which month you sail. Race the waves over 22 miles in just about an hour, when you take the Catalina Express to the island (depart from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point). Getting here is half the fun, and their eyes light up as you step on board. Got a spring or summer birthday? Plan your trip for that weekend, because everyone rides free on their birthday. If you really want to get there in style (and in minutes) you can take a helicopter over on the Island Express. Flights take 15 minutes and leave from Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Pedro and cost from $125-$195 each way. (But kids under 2 are free.)
Things To Do
Ice Cream Here, Mini Golf There
Swinging is believing. In the seaside town of Avalon, ice cream at Big Olaf’s and a round of mini-golf at Golf Gardens (with endemic vegetation lessons conveniently plotted at all 18 holes) will set the tone for your vacation. And while the ice cream is your standard Dreyer’s, the hunger inducing sea air and the smell of their fresh baked chocolate chip waffle cones makes this rank on your list of favorite ice cream experiences.
Dare To Dolphin
They’re known to frolic on the Catalina coast, so grab the kids and go find Flipper and friends on a Dolphin Quest Sea Tour. On a colossal Rigid Inflatable Boat (high speed RIB is what those in the know call it), you’ll take off like a shot out of the Avalon Harbor on a guided tour. Yes, you saw dolphins on the ferry over, but this hour long ride on a smaller, faster boat that gets up close and personal is a whole ‘nother experience. One that’s for kids 5 & up only.
Under the Sea…Under the Sea…
“Daddy there must be billions of fish! ” Catalina’s Undersea Adventure is what you want the Finding Nemo ride at Disneyland to be. Every passenger gets his or her own porthole, no fighting over window seats here. It’s like scuba diving without the form fitting get-up and claustrophobic breathing thingie. Plus they’ve got this Catalina Fish Finder so while the kids are matching pictures to what they see outside their window, they just might learn a thing or two. And all the while, a tour guide is graces you with with their knowledge as the proof swims right past us (like that 70% of the worlds oxygen comes from kelp—who knew?). When you take this kid friendly approach to making friends with life beneath the surface, prepare for multiple jaw drops. Yours, theirs, and possibly a Garibaldi or two (they’re the ones that look like someone colored them in orange highlighter).
Kiss That 405 Traffic Goodbye
The island golf cart culture is ever so easy to embrace. Pretty much the only time you’ll set foot in any kind of motor vehicle is to take an East End Adventure aboard an open-air biofuel H1 Hummer to see the island Indiana Jones style. This expedition is all rugged and rumbling around, five miles upward, deep canyons below, coastline surrounding. Stunning views and hairpin turns; astonishing vistas and breathtaking drops, and midway through there’s a little hike to the top of the world (or so it feels). This gives them a lesser known glimpse of the island outside of Avalon, and a firsthand look at the bison that wander the isle. Don’t forget to bundle up (those elevations equal lesser temps) and buckle up (it’s a carseat free experience).
It’s A Bird; It’s A Plane
Wait, actually, is that your kid? Save the best for last, and end your day at the top. You went beneath the sea, strolled the streets and went up to catch canyon views and coastline vistas. Now it’s time to soar over the island. The Catalina Zipline Eco Tour is not your ordinary over-in-a-blink zip line bonanza. Prepare to spend two hours taking your tike tandem (there’s an 80lb minimum to go solo) down five separate zip lines (one beast of a stretch is 1,100ft on its own), 300 ft above the canyon floor, at roughly 40mph. With five stops between flights, your host (ask for Chris or Justin—they’re hilarious and super goofy with kids) will verse you and the wee ones on the wildlife and ecology you’ll be passing through. A little education with a hefty helping of exhilaration. It is breathtaking in every sense of the word, you’ll scream as loud as they will, and chances are, they won’t let you forget it.
Where to Eat
Everything Tastes Better By The Sea
But lunch at the Avalon Grille probably would’ve tasted good in a garage. Some sashimi just speaks for itself, and white peach almond quinoa pave the road towards eating well while vacationing (it can be done). Fortunately they are just as fluent in kid cuisine, as the burgers come just as kids like them and the mac and cheese is a huge hit with little pasta lovers. For adventurous kids that want something unique yet familiar, have them try the Buffalo Burger (or at least have them try a bit of yours, and maybe don’t mention that the buffalo is a cousin the the bison you see wandering the island).
While Dinner at Bluewater Avalon
Our top pick for dinner with kids is another grill (minus the “e” this time), the always excellent Bluewater Grill. While parents give a gold star for the ahi, the kids’ menu is the real kicker. Here they think beyond the white flour and cheese combo known to dominate most kiddie fare, and venture into bento boxes of grilled dipping sticks (fish, shrimp, chicken, steak, or salmon) and sides to the tune of edamame, scalloped potatoes, fresh veggies or a garden salad. Fries and grilled cheese are there if they want it, but after such an adventurous day, they just might be inspired to venture beyond their comfort zone. Especially when the ultimate motivator is awaiting them at the end of the meal: Cup of Dirt with Worms. That’s vanilla ice cream, Oreo cookie crumbles and gummy worms.
If you’re looking for a more casual lunch or dinner, you can’t go wring with pizza, and Antonio’s Pizzeria has pizza, garlic bread, and peanuts to snack on while you wait; just throw the shells on the floor like a local.
Next morning for breakfast you’ve got to hit the Pancake Cottage. The selection is large and the portions are huge! Don’t pass up on the house-made whipped cream or the fresh fruit toppings; kid favorites are the blueberry pancakes or the funnel cakes with strawberries.
Where To Stay
Rest Your Weary Head
While Catalina is doable in a day (one very long day), we recommend taking two or three so you can fit in all this fun, and do it at a leisurely pace. In your pre-kid, romantic Catalina adventures, you probably stayed at the Inn on Mt Ada or the Snug Harbor Inn. But both are more intimate B&Bs than family hotels. So instead, we recommend you check out The Avalon Hotel, which is centrally located, family friendly and has a cheerful and helpful staff. While most rooms are smaller and only hold 2 people, there are a few rooms that have Murphy beds and accommodate up to 4. They also have a koi pond and firepit—kid magnets, both. And while it’s inland, bigger and not as picturesque, one of our favorite spots to stay when we bring the kids is the Catalina Canyon Resort and Spa. Because, well, pool. As in, they have one. It’s more removed, but they have a shuttle to and from town. It’s a little easier on the wallet, allows pets and you can walk to a little park. All key points for happy kid-overnights.
Do you have any tips for traveling to Catalina with the kids? We’d love to hear them!
—written and photographed by Jolie Loeb