If you’ve ever dreamt of a European-style island vacation with your little ones (you know, the kind of vacation where you sit at sunny outdoor cafes, wearing striped tops and big sunglasses looking tr´es chic watching the water) but then have a major reality check when it comes to 1. cost and 2. flight time in the air (14 hours say what?!) then do I have news for you. You can get all of that and more (including no jet lag) by hopping on a one-hour boat ride to the darling island of Catalina. Scroll through to see what this piece of paradise, just 22 miles off the coast of California, has in store for you and your kids (yes, even in the winter) and then get ready to put it at the top of your vacation bucket list.
To get to the island, take the Catalina Express, an hour-long passenger ferry, from one of three ports on the mainland. We left from Long Beach but you can also depart from San Pedro or Dana Point. Once we had our tickets, we wandered outside, people watched, climbed the stairs (burn some of that energy kids) and eventually got in line. Even though we ended up at the back of the queue, we still scored a window seat. Once the bar opened, the kids got some snacks and we got a couple Bloody Mary’s. Our ride was smooth sailing the whole time which gave us the opportunity to walk around the boat a little bit and watch the waves that the boat made as it cut through the water. There is an open deck with loads of seating (much colder than the interior section) but was fun to check out before returning inside. So far so good.
Once we docked in Avalon, we grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. We opted to walk, rather than take a cab, and we were happy we did. It gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront and take in all the cute shops and restaurants along the way. The town feels like an Italian seaside resort complete with gravity-defying homes, built into the mountainside in a half circle behind the harbor. You can literally walk anywhere within the town (and much of it is closed to traffic, including the preferred mode of transportation, golf carts).
Our suite in the Hotel Portofino was exactly what our family of four needed, complete with king bed, a pull-out sleeper-sofa for the kids to share, a huge bathroom with bathtub and separate shower and a balcony where we got to watch the boats in the harbor and the pretty pink sunrises in the mornings.
Right now, the Catalina Island Express and participating hotels, like the Hotel Portofino, are running a "Best of Winter" special through the end of March. You can snag transportation to the island and stays up to 60 percent off compared to the summer season, making it a perfect time to experience the island for yourself (or for when the kids are on spring break!).
The hotel offers complimentary breakfast with croissants, muffins, juice, yogurt, cereal, fruit and coffee and we took full advantage of their outdoor seating every morning, filling our bellies before starting the day’s activities. The staff was super friendly and there was a bonus sun-deck that we got to lounge on in the late afternoon.
111 Crescent Ave.
What to Do
Surprisingly, there is so much to do on this barely inhabited island that we didn’t have time to do it all (#nextvisit). Some highlights included: a fun bus tour of the island that climbed into the hills surrounding the town of Avalon, playing mini-golf in Town Plaza, taking the helm at the pirate ship playground, playing a couple rounds of ice hockey in the arcade, collecting rocks while we walked along the sandy shoreline and taking in a glass bottom boat tour.
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
A highlight of our trip was definitely taking a trip on Catalina Island’s Glass Bottom Boat Voyage. Docked at the pier, conveniently located in the middle of town, the boat has ample seating with soft cushions and open views to the town and the water in addition to the anticipated looking wells that run in the middle of the boat. Everyone gets an unobstructed view of the glass bottom. The knowledgeable guide took us out of the harbor and into Lover’s Cove and I was afraid I’d end up just daydreaming the entire ride (not necessarily a bad thing) but when we got to the location, we saw schools and schools of fish of all sizes that live in the kelp-y forest just offshore. We were shocked by the sheer number of fish that swam under the boat and quite honestly it was near impossible to keep your eyes off the glass bottom as there was always something new to see.
Glass Bottom Boat Voyage
Pier in Avalon
Cost: $20/adult; $17/kid
So Many Fish!
It was hard to take your eyes off the bottom! You never knew what you were going to see!
Avalon Scenic Bus Tour
For a quick tour of the town’s highlights and surrounding area, take the 50-minute bus ride that allows kids of all ages (some tours have age requirements). The bus, much to our disbelief, made it up and down the mountainside, around hairpin turns all while listening to the loveliest tour guide at the helm, who not only knew the island’s history, she also seemed to know every person we passed. Get your camera ready for some breathtaking photo-ops at the top.
Avalon Scenic Bus Tour
Cost: $20/adult; $17/kid
On our next trip (cause we are already planning it), we'll rent a golf cart to drive around to find some of the wild buffalo that roams the island, try the zip-line adventure, hang out at Descanso Beach (it was just a tidge too cold on our last day, otherwise we would have gone) and try one of the hikes that draw day-trippers.
Where to Eat
There are a ton of places to choose from in this small town that are sure to delight even the pickiest eaters. First up? Blue Water Grill.
Blue Water Grill
Voted "Best on Catalina" this family-friendly restaurant with to-die-for views of the harbor features sustainable seafood and a varied menu where everyone will find something they want to eat. While we waited for our food to arrive, we watched the boats come into the harbor and dock, and we saw little fish hanging out, below the deck, just offshore. Remember that moment of tranquil sea-side dining you'd always dreamed about? This is where it happens. The food was fantastic, I highly recommend the Mai-Tai and the kid's meals showed up in clever bento boxes that made their food a delightful treat.
Blue Water Grill
306 Crescent Ave.
For a low-stress, grab-and-go type establishment, you want to find Ben's. Located in the Shops at Atwater (an indoor mall-type space that would be a good reprieve during hot summer days), they had a vast range of options including poke bowls, sandwiches, bagels, croissants, coffee, treats and more. The convenience factor is A+ (as is the food) and we'll definitely stop here for picnic essentials the next time we are in town.
119 Sumner Ave.
- Stop for some ice cream at Lloyd's and watch the crazy salt water taffy maker spin some delicious sweet stuff.
- Antonio's Pizza (located next to Blue Water Grill on the harbor) is a throw-back pizza joint complete with complimentary peanuts that you can shell and chuck on the floor. An easy spot to hang after a long day of sightseeing and running around the town.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- Drinking water, even from restaurants, is really only available through plastic bottles. Thankfully the cost to purchase them isn't super-inflated considering everything has to be brought from the mainland but maybe stash a couple in your bag so you always have one handy.
- Want to get to the island faster than a ferry? Take a helicopter and you'll take off and land in paradise in just 15 minutes.
- We can safely say that Catalina is great any time of year but definitely take advantage of it being less crowded during the winter. Catalina Express is offering a "Best of Winter" packages for the ferry and hotels with savings up to 60 percent-off for mid-week stays. Check the website for more details to take advantage of this special rate that is available through March 2018.
Have you been to Catalina before? Where are some of your favorite places to eat and stay? Let us know in the comments below!