Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19, ferries to Catalina are currently operating on a limited schedule and are for essential travel only. Hotels also remain closed.
Looking for a quick getaway (once it’s safe to travel again, of course) that feels about a world away from LA—even if it’s less than 30 miles off the coast? From sandy shores and sea lions to real-life bison, Catalina Island promises adventure, relaxation and more. With a plenty of family activities plus views that rival any Mediterranean destination, Catalina is one of our favorite escapes from LA. Read on for all the details on the best hotels, restaurants, tours and more.
Getting to Catalina
Currently, Catalina Express is operating on a limited schedule only from their Long Beach port. (Normally, they also run ferries from San Pedro or Dana Point.) All non-essential travel is prohibited.
Cost: Adults, $74.50 roundtrip; kids (2-11), $59 roundtrip; children under 2, $6 roundtrip
Need to Know: Everything in Avalon (one of the two towns on the island, the other is called Two Harbors) is totally walkable. Even the hotels and B&Bs, aside from a few, are just a 5-to-10 minute walk from the ferry. If you need to get around on four wheels, there are taxis or you can also easily rent a golf car—under 6 years old or under 60 pounds require a car seat. Most activities are found on either the pier or in the Island Plaza, just behind the pier a block or two.
Things to Do in Catalina
Golf Gardens: No sea-side retreat is complete without a round of mini-golf where classic family competition and bonding is par for the course.
10 Island Plaza
East End Adventure: 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 if you board an open-air biofuel H1 Hummer to see the island, Indiana Jones style. This escorted expedition is rugged and rumbling that reaches its peak at 1500 feet above sea level. Expect stunning views and hairpin turns; breathtaking drops.
About midway through there’s a stop where you can get off and 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 barely-inhabited island. Don't forget to bundle up (higher elevations equal lesser temps) and buckle up—it’s a car seat free experience.
Good to Know: For kids 5 & up, this tour is two hours long. Operates year-round, weather permitting.
Cost: Adults $85; Kids $81
10 Island Plaza
Water Fun in Catalina
Catalina's Undersea Adventure: With this glass-bottom boat adventure, every passenger gets their own porthole (no fighting over window seats here). If you've never been on a boat like this, it's like scuba diving without the form-fitting get-up and claustrophobic breathing thingie.
The tour guide will grace you with their knowledge as the proof swims right past you (like that 70% of the worlds oxygen comes from kelp—who knew?). When you take this kid-friendly approach to view 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).
Cost: Adults $20; Kids $18
Green Pleasure Pier
Dolphin Quest Sea Tour: Known to frolic on the Catalina coast, dolphin sightings can be more than just a fleeting fin in water thanks to this guided tour aboard the colossal 500 hp Rigid Inflatable Boat (high-speed RIB is what those in the know call it). And while you may have seen dolphins on the ferry over, this hour-long ride on a smaller, faster boat gets up close and personal and is a whole 'nother experience.
Good to Know: For kids 5 & up only. Operates year-round, weather permitting. There is no guarantee that you will see dolphins.
Cost: Adults $55; Kids $52
Green Pleasure Pier
Aerial Fun in Catalina
Catalina Zipline Eco Tour: Not your ordinary over-in-a-blink zipline bonanza, prepare to spend two hours taking your tike tandem (there’s an 80lb minimum to go solo) down five separate zip lines with one beast of a stretch at 1,100ft on its own), 300 ft above the canyon floor, at roughly 40mph.
With five stops between flights, your host 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 is the best kind of fun. It is breathtaking in every sense of the word, you’ll probably scream as loud as they do.
Good to Know: Children under 5 are not allowed on this tour.
Cost: Starting at $119
Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
1 St. Catherine Way
Where to Eat in Catalina
Avalon Grille: This relaxed, upscale dining spot features fresh seasonal fare along with a diverse craft beer and wine menu that will make the grown-ups happy but lest you think they are too fancy, 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.
423 Crescent Ave.
Bluewater Grill Avalon: Parents will give this on-the-marina restaurant a gold star for the ahi but the kids’ menu is the real kicker. Delivered in bento boxes with grilled dipping sticks (fish, shrimp, chicken, steak, or salmon) and sides to the tune of edamame, scalloped potatoes, fresh veggies or a garden salad, and presentation is everything. 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.
306 Crescent Ave.
Antonio's Pizzeria: For a more casual lunch or dinner, you can't go wrong with pizza and this local favorite has pizza, garlic bread, and peanuts to snack on while you wait.
230 Crescent Ave.
Scoops Catalina: In the seaside town of Avalon, ice cream rules but for made-from-scratch desserts that reflect the seasons, head to Scoops where they use local fruits, berries and ingredients to create these creamy concoctions.
501 Crescent Ave.
Pancake Cottage: Breakfast on the road can only mean one thing and that's pancakes. The selection here is large and the portions are huge! And don’t pass up on the house-made whipped cream or the fresh fruit toppings.
615 Crescent Ave.
Where to Stay in Catalina
The Avalon Hotel: While Catalina is doable in a day (one very long day), we recommend taking two-to-three days so you can fit in all this fun and do it at a leisurely pace. The Avalon Hotel is centrally located, family-friendly and has a cheerful and helpful staff. While most rooms are on the smaller side and can only accommodate 2 people, there are a few rooms that have Murphy beds and can hold up to 4. They also have a koi pond and firepit—both kid magnets.
124 Whittley Ave.
Catalina Canyon Resort and Spa: This hotel is more inland, bigger and not as picturesque, but is still one of our favorite spots to stay when we bring the kids, because, well, pool. As in, they have one. And while it's a bit more removed, they do have a shuttle to and from town. Plus it's a little easier on the wallet, allows pets and you can walk to a little park nearby. All key points for happy, overnight stays.
888 Country Club Dr.
Insider Tip: Looking for a non-kid romantic Catalina adventure? Stay at the more intimate B&Bs on the online: Inn on Mt Ada or the Snug Harbor Inn.
featured image: Charles Phoenix for CatalinaMuseum.org/catalinaland
–Jolie Loeb & Andie Huber