California may have the best sunsets in the world and vast terrain from desert to snow, but nostalgics like me need to dig to uncover old school California.
However, there are little corners that exist here that invoke that old-fashioned feeling of being swept away to a different time. I spent my 30th birthday on an island in Panama, so when I returned I wanted to celebrate with my family where I knew I’d catch that nostalgic feeling: Catalina Island!
The first thing that hits your eyes after stepping onto the docks from the Catalina Express is the breathtaking scenery. Sailboats sway in the harbor and colorful houses dot the hillsides as people flock in waves from the mainland. Come nightfall, the cruise ships and day patrons float away with the tide and the town resumes its sleepy vibe. Having the bleeding heart that I do for things of old, here’s why this Catalina island getaway stole my nostalgic heart.
The Catalina Express from Long Beach Landing to the port of Avalon is a quick hour. There are also ports in San Pedro and Dana Point with different timetables and an option to stop at Two Harbors which takes 2 hours. Check out the Catalina Express website for scheduling and fares.
On a hazy day it’s hard to see the island from the mainland. But on a clear day, Catalina in her glory is a cool 30 miles away and crystal clear from the boat.
Most people visit Catalina Island for the day. Up until this weekend I’d been one of those people, visiting for a few hours and going home with the sunset. But this time we decided to take our time exploring the island and stayed for two nights at Hotel Atwater in Avalon.
Beaches – There are three beaches in Avalon: Middle Beach, Step Beach and Descanso Beach. Descanso Beach is the furthest from town, but also has the largest stretch of sand and the most crystal clear water. Being a So Cal native I’m accustomed to murky waters, so I was surprised to find waters as clear as the Caribbean. There is one main difference though: it’s freezing. That said, it’s so refreshing to swim in crystal clear water in California and actually be able to see bright orange and colorful fish. Be sure to bring your snorkel gear!
Strolling and shopping – Like any beach town, the main streets of Avalon are dotted with shops, restaurants and candy shops. Be sure to stop into Scoops for delicious homemade ice cream and G E L A T O. But more on that later. My favorite pastime was strolling along the harbor through the quiet neighborhoods, admiring the colorful houses and window shopping along Crescent Avenue.
You’ll find everything from Catalina emblazoned souvenirs to crafty handmade’s. Old signs hang from the buildings alongside banners and flags and windows are affixed with thoughtfully curated arrangements.
Walk along Avalon Bay to Catalina Island Casino, the island’s Art Deco concert hall and beacon of entertainment since 1929 when flapper dresses must’ve glistened under moonlit evenings accompanied by whistling trumpets. Continue walking to Descanso Beach Club and catch some rays. A town as charming as this is easy to spend hours getting lost taking it all in.
Three Palms Avalon Arcade – I may be 30 now but when there is an arcade around I might as well once again be 12 because there’s nothing separating me from those games. So naturally, a nail-biting battle of air hockey transpired. After a few rounds it came down to a showdown between my Dad and I, and let’s just say he is so competitive that he dominated! Thankfully, I’m not a sore loser… *punches the wall*
Rent a golf cart – Avalon is enveloped by steep hills dotted with colorful houses and vistas that stretch out to the mainland. To drink in scenic views with a touch of fun rent a golf cart and climb up the steep streets that lead away from town. Zipping up through the winding hillside you’re greeted with sweeping views of the town below, the harbor and the countryside. On our first family trip to Catalina, we rented golf carts and it was a blast! This time, we opted to go on a jeep tour of the island’s less beaten path — the interior.
From dry desert landscapes to rolling vineyards to rocky coastlines, Catalina’s less visited interior is an exciting rugged landscape to explore. The winding road from Avalon to Two Harbors takes about 4 hours round trip. Along the way you’ll see mostly dusty roads, soaring eagles, and the occasional bison grazing in the distance. While most Californian’s can say they’ve visited Avalon, few and far between have actually stayed long enough to embark beyond Crescent Avenue.
Discovering the interior involves crossing wooden bridges, seeing native and wild species of plants and animals, and basically tickling your Indiana Jones adventure fix; you’ve officially landed in the Old West. When you reach the other side, Two Harbors sits in it’s quiet and slow rhythm, virtually opposite of Avalon during the day.
When you reach Two Harbors there are about two restaurants you can eat at. Because we were short on time we strolled the pier and then hit the corner store and loaded up on snacks for the ride back.
Discovering the islands interior was the major highlight of the trip. There are a few options available including a bus and a jeep which you can arrange through your hotel concierge. We opted for the jeep tour with a local guide for our safari out in the rugged wilderness. I essentially spent the entire time hanging out of the jeep with my long lens snapping pictures of anything that moved.
Most of the city’s crowded dining spots are on the main street, Crescent Avenue. But there are a couple of nuggets tucked away on the side streets. As with many other towns, their central location doesn’t immediately qualify them as good. I’m always a fan of wandering past the main road to unveil what treasures the less beaten path unveils. Here’s a look at a few of my favorites.
Ok ok, this one is on the main street and completely contrary to my preceding claim, but it’s worth it alone for this view:
TELL ME I’M WRONG! *punches wall again*… ok I’ll tone it down.
Most restaurants in Catalina specialize in seafood and Bluewater Avalon is no different. This chain from the mainland opened in Avalon in 2013 and offers up a local fish unique to the waters surrounding Catalina – sand dabs. While I opted for the salmon (which was excellent) the real showstopper here is that view. If you want ambiance, (gentlemen take notes!) head to Bluewater at sunset.
Did I mention they also had a delicious, and spicy, Bloody Mary? They have a delicious and spicy Bloody Mary! Did I mention I love Bloody Mary’s? Ok, ok.. you get the idea.
Here’s the thing: Indisputably, Catalina is expensive. I had a hard time willingly overpaying for substandard meals. Many of the marquee restaurants deliver a lot of hype but little follow through by way of, you know, flavor! Then I ate at the Lobster Trap. This cozy little nugget is off of the main street and brimming with greatness. The Lobster Trap delivered on literally everything I found lacking at other restaurants – flavor, good prices, and excellent service. This cozy restaurant possessed an inviting charm coupled with excellent food! The prices were significantly cheaper than most restaurants in town, the food was homemade with quality, and the flavors were savory.
Had I tried the Lobster Trap first, I would have had no reason to eat anywhere else. The slogan reads “good times, good food,” and they delivered on that amply. But don’t listen to me, if you find yourself in Avalon be sure to stop by for laid back vibes and stellar food.
If I could just live on homemade ice cream, well… I’d live at Scoops. This tiny creamery with a huge line out of the door is here to remind all of us what homemade ice cream really tastes like! Gone are the days of factory made 31-flavored-store-bought-is-this-even-ice-cream “ice cream”. I truly hope that Scoops helps pave the way back to the simplest yet most delicious variation of food: homemade.
Can you tell I liked it? I really, really did! So much so that after first trying it one evening, I returned the next afternoon to get another fix.
Catalina island is so much more than just Avalon. It harbors that sleepy charm that most islands do, but it’s also wild and rugged. Pristine shorelines contrast dry and desolate landscapes. Life slows down, island time takes over and the ocean views drift into your soul and linger. On a day trip you’ll be satisfied, but spend a few days there and you’ll be researching property.
This was truly a special way to celebrate my 30th birthday with my family! Have you ever been to Catalina? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!