Mediterranean-flavored Santa Catalina Island is a popular getaway for harried Angelenos drawn by fresh air, seemingly endless sunshine, seaside fun and excellent hiking in a unique microclimate. Now that Apple has announced ‘Catalina’ is the name of its newest desktop operating system, here’s what you need to know about this paradise off California’s southern coast.
Originally the home of Tongva Nation, Catalina has gone through stints as a hangout for Spanish explorers, Franciscan friars, sea-otter poachers, smugglers and Union soldiers. In 1919 it was snapped up by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr (1861–1932), who had buildings constructed in the Spanish Mission style and for years sent his Chicago Cubs baseball team here for spring training. Apart from its human population (about 4,100), Catalina's highest-profile residents are a herd of bison, brought here for a 1924 movie shoot.
Today most of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, and 88 percent of the island's 75 square miles is a nature preserve requiring (easily available) permits for access to hiking and cycling.
Even if Catalina sinks under the weight of day-trippers in summer and whenever cruise ships anchor offshore, if you stay overnight you may well feel the ambience go from frantic to, as the song says, 'romance, romance, romance, romance.'
Commercial activity is concentrated in the town of Avalon (population about 3775), which is small enough to be explored in an hour or two, so there’s plenty of time for hiking, swimming and touring.
The only other settlement is Two Harbors (population about 300) on the remote west coast, which has a general store, a dive and kayak center, a snack bar and a lodge.
What to do in Catalina
There are plenty of activities right in Avalon and on the harbor, as well as hiking, mountain biking and ziplining inland with the chance to spot wildlife. If you're going into the backcountry, there's very little shade, so take a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
In Avalon you can hang out on the privately owned Descanso Beach. There’s good snorkeling at Lovers’ Cove and at Casino Point (Avalon Underwater Park), a marine reserve that’s also the best shore dive. Another way to escape the throngs is by kayaking to the quiet coves along Catalina’s rocky coastline. Catalina Island Expeditions rents snorkeling gear, SUP kits and kayaks, and also runs guided kayaking tours and kayak camping trips.
To get into the protected backcountry, hop on the Safari Bus, which goes all the way to Two Harbors. You must book in advance and get a permit (and maps) from the Catalina Island Conservancy if you’re going to be hiking or mountain biking.
Alternatively, you could just hop on an air-conditioned tour bus and let someone else show you around. Both Catalina Adventure Tours and Discovery Tour Plaza operate historical Avalon itineraries and jaunts further out with memorable views of the rugged coast, deep canyons and sandy coves, and possible encounters with eagles and bison.
Snorkelers and certified scuba divers can rent equipment at Descanso Beach to glimpse local shipwrecks and kelp forests. Two Harbors Dive and Recreation Center accesses pristine dive sites off the island’s less developed coast.
Getting to Catalina
A few companies operate ferries to Avalon and Two Harbors. Reservations are recommended at any time and especially during summer. The use of cars on Catalina is restricted, so there are no vehicle ferry services.
Catalina Express Ferries to Avalon from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point in Orange County, and to Two Harbors from San Pedro. It takes one to 1½ hours, with up to three ferries daily. You'll ride free on your birthday…true story.
Catalina Flyer Catamaran to Avalon and Two Harbors from Balboa Harbor in Newport Beach. (one to 1½ hours).