LA Weekends: Catalina Island

Hello and welcome to LA Weekends, a travel series for the adventurous twentysomething. If you have a limited budget and want to make the most of your precious few vacation days, then this series is for you. Let’s explore!

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Catalina Island might be California’s worst-kept secret—

a 75-square-mile island completely within the boundaries of LA county. Everyone’s heard of the place, but no one we knew had ever been there. So with a weekend clear, a lack of frequent flier miles, and a burning desire to get out of Dodge, we thought we’d give it a shot.

Our only impression of the island going in was from the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers, in which the island becomes the setting for the climactic Catalina Wine Mixer, “the biggest helicopter-leasing event in the Western Hemisphere since 1997.” Which is to say, we really had no idea what to expect.

We drove down to San Pedro, just over half an hour from downtown LA, and bought our tickets for the Catalina Express. The ferry departs twice daily on an 80-minute ride to the island, passing colossal shipping vessels and cargo cranes before exiting the harbor and emerging into the vast ocean.[/one_half_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]Soon we arrived at the port of Avalon, the island’s largest settlement. One thing about Catalina struck us immediately: it is ridiculously beautiful. You’re surrounded by colorful houses crowding a small mountain valley, which overlook an iridescent blue harbor, dotted with moored sailboats and fishing boats. There’s no other word for it than picturesque.

As we disembarked, we did what any good Angeleno would do and looked for a car—none were to be found. Though we were initially dismayed, this quickly became a highlight of the trip. The vast majority of motorized vehicles in Catalina are golf carts, but it is easy to traverse the city by foot. You could stay on mainland LA and find similar mountains and see the very same ocean, but one thing you wouldn’t find is a city trafficked almost entirely by pedestrians.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]Our home for the next two days was the Catalina Beach House Hotel, a small setup just off the waterfront, with nice enough rooms and an amazing view of the city and ocean. The hotel set the tone for our weekend. It wasn’t large enough to merit its own concierge, but a phone gave us direct access any time of day. We asked for a place to lock up a bicycle and were offered several, but were reminded that, with one exit point, it’s not really possible to steal a bike from the island.

This relaxed-but-attentive attitude carried to the beach as well. It’s illegal to have alcohol on public beaches in LA county, which is why the beach in Avalon is private. It features a full outdoor bar, a towel service, cabanas and chairs for rent, but it also has a wide-open beach area that we were encouraged to use free of charge. (The towels were also free if you took one when no one was looking.)[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]Walking around the island, you’re hard-pressed not to think about its history, especially when you see The Casino. It’s an enormous building—at the time of construction, the tallest in LA country. Its name uses an antiquated definition of “casino,” meaning a recreational gathering space. There never is or was gambling there, but we’re sure you could charter a boat to international waters if you’re desperate.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]On the main level of the Casino is the world’s first movie theater built for sound. Definitely come by for a movie if you have the chance to check out the interesting architecture and incredible acoustics. The top level is home to the world’s largest circular ballroom, with a balcony offering some great views of the island.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]On the bottom level of the Casino is a small museum dedicated to the history of the island. Much of this is dedicated to the story of William Wrigley Jr., the businessman who built an empire out of chewing gum and a certain field in Chicago. One interesting fact we learned: Marlyn Monroe, back when she was still Norma Jeane, lived on the island with her first husband. She made a living as as a taffy puller at Lloyd’s Confectionery, which is still operating, and still makes some delicious salt-water taffy.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]Catalina is pretty conducive to just hanging out and walking around, great for the weekender on a budget. That said, we have to recommend spending some cash on at least one cool activity while you’re there, because there are plenty of tempting ones. Parasailers taunted us for the length of our stay, as did the island-traversing golf carts, sailboat tours and scuba-divers. But since we were looking to experience the island, we opted for the zip line.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]The Catalina Eco Tours Zip Line is a series of five separate lines strung across mountain canyons, giving you a bird’s-eye view as you travel at speeds exceeding 40 miles an hour. At that velocity the zips don’t last long, but the towers offer a stunning place to wait your turn. The guides were true locals, too, ones who clearly had a love for the island and a knowledge to match—of its people, attractions, and even the wildlife. The vast majority of the island is unpopulated, and offers some hunting, in season.

Our most satisfying expenditure, though, came afterward at Antonio’s Pizzeria, which not only provided some of the best pizza we’ve ever had, but also an unbeatable view from the patio, which juts out into the harbor. And for dessert, it’s hard to beat a double chocolate cookie (or ten) from Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]Something about the island that struck us was that there are no chain stores: no Starbucks, no Subway, no CVS. No strip malls, office parks or prefabricated houses. It was clear the residents of the island care about where they live, about keeping it small, about keeping businesses local, and about living in a walkable city. In short, they care about keeping it very unlike Los Angeles.[/three_fourth_last]

[one_fourth][/one_fourth][three_fourth_last]The effect is palatable. We felt much further away than the hour it took for the ferry to return us to our car, waiting dutifully in San Pedro. What Catalina offers more than beaches and shops is isolation: from cars, from sprawl, from life. If you feel the need to get out of LA for a weekend, there’s no better place in LA to do it.[/three_fourth_last]

95 Berth  San Pedro, CA 90731
(800) 481-3470[/one_fourth]
200 Marilla Avenue, Avalon, CA
(310) 510-1078
[one_fourth]ZIP LINE ECO TOUR
Avalon, CA
(800) 626-1496[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth_last]ANTONIO’S PIZZERIA
114 Sumner Avenue, Avalon, CA
(310) 510-0060[/one_fourth_last]

[three_fourth]This trip was made possible with the assistance of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.[/three_fourth][one_fourth_last][/one_fourth_last]