On a clear day you may look out and see Catalina Island’s iconic silhouette on the horizon, but when is the last time you visited? I recently took a quick two-day expedition over to the island myself and came back refreshed. Here’s my ultimate guide to a quick Catalina stay.
-How to Get There-
The first step in any vacation is figuring out transportation and while Catalina Island is just under 30 miles from Downtown Long Beach, you’d be hard pressed to drive there. There are more than a few ways to get to across the channel from helicopter to jet ski, but the most popular and convenient is of course the Catalina Express. Booking the tickets was easy, the website is user friendly and I discovered you can change your departure time for only $5 (which is incredibly helpful if you’re running late or decide to stay for one more happy hour). The boat itself is comfortable and there is even phone service for most of the 70-minute ride. You can sit outside, up on a deck or inside where there are tables if you need them. Unfortunately, with Covid-19 there are no snacks or drinks served on the boat at the moment, but hopefully that will change soon.
-What to Do-
When I arrived on the island I was blown away by how tropical it looked. The bay reminded me more of ones I’d seen in Hawaii than anywhere on the Southern California coast. I had to stop myself from running straight into the perfectly clear water, which the captain had just informed us was a warm 73 degrees that day. Luckily the first thing on my itinerary was a Glass Bottom Boat Tour leaving from the nearby pier. I wasn’t sure what kind of wildlife was in the area and living in Long Beach for nearly a decade was clearly no help. The ride ended up being extremely beautiful with underwater gardens, tons of fish, and both hilarious and informative information from the captain/tour guide. The boat was at capacity, but there really isn’t a bad seat in the house thanks to the long row of viewing windows accessible to each seat. We saw schools of all sorts of fish right below the boat including a ton of the beautiful Garibaldi, which are protected in California’s waters. It was exciting to hear the guide had even seen a few sharks, boasting that one time a 14-foot Great White shark approached the vessel.
While the glass bottom boat is a sure winner, my favorite excursion of the trip was the Bison Eco Tour. The Catalina Island Conservancy puts on Eco Tours, so you can be sure your money is not only going back into local pockets, but any tour you take isn’t doing damage to the natural beauty of the land. The tour was scenic, but of course the star of the show was the bison. The heard was originally brought to the island by a film crew in the 1920’s and has since grown from the original twenty-four animals to around three hundred and fifty. The guide was deeply knowledgeable of the land and the animals themselves. He kept a steady stream of facts and jokes flowing through the whole 3-hour tour. Even if we hadn’t seen any of the Bison, which they said does happen rarely, the views and history of the island were well worth the price tag. Do remember to bring a jacket, so you don’t end up like me shivering on the way back down!
There are even more tours you can book through VisitCatalina.com, ranging from laid back to down right adventurous.
If you are looking for more of a beach vacation, let me point you in the direction of the Descano Beach Club. Between the incredible views and beach front bar, you could kill more than a few hours lounging at a table or on a towel. I had a fantastic meal, and a few great cocktails sitting out on their deck. The Tuna Poke is a must try, the beach club’s chef is from Hawaii and certainly knows what he is doing with the most popular fish on the island. It comes with Fresh Ahi Tuna Poke Tossed in a Traditional Hawaiian Marinade with Seaweed Salad, Maui Onion, Green Onion, Furikake, Dynamite Sauce and Crispy Wontons. I have a hard time turning down poke, but almost did so for the Loaded Burger, an Angus Beef Patty on an Amish Bun stacked with Crispy Pork Belly Bites, a Fried Egg, American Cheese, Artisan Pickle, Lettuce, Tomato, and 1000 Island Dressing. All of it paired perfectly with a tropical cocktail and for dessert you need to pick up the famous Buffalo Milk. If you are looking to make a day of your beach lounging you can even rent cabana’s, lounge chairs, and kayaks for a little excitement.
-Where to Stay-
There are more than a few options on where to stay on the island, almost all of which are walking distance to dining, tours, and most importantly the beach. I stayed at the Hotel Atwater. They made arrival beyond easy. Since I was arriving well before my check in, the hotel provided a bellman holding a sign at the Catalina Express so I didn’t have to worry about my baggage. The hotel itself was gorgeous. Recently remodeled, everything felt classic and authentic while providing all of the modern amenities you could want. The website informed me that “Named in honor of Helen Atwater Wrigley, wife Philip Knight Wrigley, Hotel Atwater originally opened in 1920, ushering in a new era for Catalina Island as a popular getaway for everyone from Hollywood’s elite to hardworking mainlanders looking to escape their hectic lives.” And you can feel that energy in the rooms. It really feels like an escape with huge beds, white linens, and fluffy pillows. My room had an ocean view, which added another layer to the experience. Waking up in the decadent bed to the beautiful Catalina weather was almost enough to make me book another night. The Hotel Atwater has a delightful little café in the lobby with coffee, pastries and small bites in case you get peckish or need your coffee before anything else (that’s me). I couldn’t recommend the hotel enough, from the design to the staff, the experience was nothing short of luxurious.
Everything on the island was quaint and laid back, exactly what I had been looking for in a quick trip like this one. More than enough great restaurants and bars to keep you occupied and even more exciting experiences if you’re looking to learn something or raise your adrenaline levels. So, next time you’re looking for a quick getaway, don’t forget about the little oasis just 30 miles west of downtown Long Beach.
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