Catalina Island makes a great day trip from Long Beach, or a trypical southern California style weekend getaway with the kids.
Only 22 miles off the coast of California lies Santa Catalina Island, an interesting destination that's part retro resort town and part unspoiled nature preserve. Families can peruse T-shirt and ice cream shops, as well as kayak through the crystal clear waters that surround the island and paddle into secluded coves and reefs teeming with marine life.
Staying Busy with Catalina Eco-Adventures
With all ages, explore the underwater world aboard the famous Glass Bottom Boat in the clear waters of the Lover's Cove Marine Sanctuary where bright orange garibaldi, huge schools of bait fish, leopard sharks, barracudas and lobsters abound, and even challenge each other to a round of miniature golf at Avalon's Golf Gardens (310/510-1200).
For those who prefer the beach, the water is calm and protected by the harbor, so it’s safe for younger children to swim and play. For others, it’s horseback riding, exploring charming shops and galleries, visiting the museum, or going on a sightseeing tour of the island’s interior.
Nature lovers will appreciate the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy that has tended the flora and fauna, returning it to mint conditions. Some native plants are Toyon holly, Lemonade berry, Catalina currant, Coastal prickly pear cactus and St. Catherine's lace.
It’s a favorite haunt for bald eagles that soar freely above Catalina’s unspoiled reserve and countryside, and buffalo (bison) that roam its rolling hills. Hike the backcountry where you can catch sight of deer, fox, wild pigs, razorback boar and mountain goats. For the less athletic, golf carts are another way to go.
Another attraction for animal enthusiasts occurs every year from May to September, when Catalina Island welcomes the famed flying fish. This spectacular fish soars out of the water at heights of up to 30 feet and glides for distances as long as a fourth of a mile. The flying fish visits the island for a few months a year and best shows itself at night when lured with light.
New Family Attractions Keep Visitors Busy
Here's a glimpse into what's new for the summer of 2011 and beyond. If you try them, please comment on how fun they are and if they're worth the fees.
- Undersea Ocean Expedition – The semi-submersible vessel has a new high-tech look inside and more interactive experiences.
- Night Zip Line Eco Tour – Riders on this new tour will fly under the stars and moon and listen for the barking of sea lions in the bay while admiring the glittering lights of the mainland from Descanso Beach.
- Rock Climbing Tower – This 32-foot tall attraction will have eight climbing sections with automatic belay.
- Eco Hummer Tours – Not an oymoron; two Hummers were converted into biodiesel-powered vehicles to be used for tours of a rugged, rarely visited section of the island.
- Sea Trek – In this guided undersea adventure, visitors wear specially designed diving helmets that enable them to walk along the ocean floor without dive certification or experience.
Catalina Island By Night at the Famous Casino
For an evening excursion the whole family will enjoy, hop aboard the Blanche W, a 64-foot, 98-passenger solid wood vessel built in 1924, specifically to look out for flying fish. The ship's vintage candlepower searchlights entice the fish to fly out of the water, much to the delight of all the passengers. For information and reservations, phone (800/626-1496) in advance of arrival.
Rising from its perch on the edge of the sea, the Casino Building, (310/510-2414) — which has nothing to do with gambling — has become Catalina Island’s most recognizable landmark. This year, the tours will feature a video and more interactive features. Senior family members will especially enjoy the round Art Deco structure with its terracotta decoration that played host to dozens of Big Bands.
A few generations ago, they filled the dance floor of the Casino Ballroom (310/510-7497) with swinging jitterbugs and lindy-hoppers. Inside the white walls, musical festivals now take place and on the ground floor, fabulous Art Deco murals cover the Avalon Theatre (310/510-0179) that shows feature movies.
Trip Planning Details for Catalina Island
Catalina Express (800/464-4228) offers over a few dozen daily departures for a smooth one-hour boat ride from Long Beach’s Downtown Landing to Avalon Harbor. Keep your eyes open for dolphins and whales!
For a 15-minute "flightseeing" helicopter ride with older children, contact Island Express Helicopters (800/2-AVALON).
Once you're there, the town of Avalon is only one square mile, so it's easy to navigate on foot, shuttle bus, bicycle or taxi. The commercial Santa Catalina Island Company (800/626-7489) promotes the island and can arrange a guided "Classic Inland Motor Tour" that follows an 1800's stagecoach route through Middle Ranch and the interior's fox habitat.
If you are lulled by the calm and the charm into staying overnight, there are many resources for finding the small but expensive B&Bs that make up most of the rental pool. The Santa Catalina Island Company is one of the best. Families who own the seafront cottages that dot the hills tend to return to them each season, but you can sometimes find a week-long rental at the last minute.
The Catalina Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau also provides information about the island's attractions and lodging options. A pretty new hotel near the port is the Hotel Villa Portofino (888/510-0555, 310/510-0555) located by the port at 111 Crescent Avenue, Avalon, CA 90704. The public areas with their broad white canvas sun umbrellas recall the Italian coast. Contact them about midweek packages and spa specials.
Photos by Mel Greenberg
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.