On a clear enough day from just about any vantage point with real elevation around Los Angeles, the coastline of Catalina Island is visible out in the Pacific. The wavy outline of the 22-mile-long island hovers just below the horizon, calling to those on the mainland the same way it has for centuries. As part of an archipelago of islands that cluster off the western edge of the United States mainland, Catalina is a unique, inviting place with a deep history that winds back through the Civil War, past the earliest Spanish and Portuguese sailors, to early Tongva people, who are said to have lived on what is technically named Santa Catalina Island more than 8,000 years ago.
It’s also — like many islands with a subtropical climate and more than 260 days of sun per year — an idyllic place to spend a day, sipping on mai tais, downing fish tacos, and taking in the sights from a golf cart. The island is everything all at once; a home for some of California’s oldest history, and a modern weekend getaway for families, boaters, and partiers. Weekend hikers trekking the length of the island or backpacking to remote campsites also make up a sizable portion of the million annual tourists that visit Catalina.
The primary town on the island is Avalon, a small hamlet that faces east toward Long Beach more than 20 miles away. (Kids who live on Catalina year-round are technically part of the Long Beach Unified School District, and take a boat to their “away” games.) Much of the island is held as a conservancy, handed over for protection by the Wrigley family (of Wrigley gum and Wrigley Field fame), the island’s longtime owners. The Wrigley family still controls a large portion of the tourism market here, pulling in dollars and spearheading hospitality projects under the Catalina Island Company name. Two Harbors, a second small town toward the northern end of the island, is mostly a seasonal hospitality stop (with a small general store and snack shop) for campers and boaters, though it can be reached by occasional ferry trips as well.
In Avalon, a town that hovers under 5,000 residents for much of the year, the boisterous oceanfront walk and ferry drop-off area teem with restaurants, bars, hotels, and views. Sure, most of the food is standard tourist fare, but who doesn’t like tiki drinks, mile-high burgers, and fried fish and chips platters?
If anything, it’s the everyday charm of Catalina that keeps tourists coming back year after year. Plenty of Angelenos who have lived here long enough have found themselves at Catalina one way or another, either on a field trip or with families or for a weekend getaway with friends. On Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the shoreline swells with thousands of people, a crowd of floral prints, sandals, striped towels, and beach cruisers. Everyone eats in Avalon, and that means there’s something for just about everyone, from coffee to seafood baskets to fine dining destinations. And while there is no singular, defining Catalina Island cuisine, there are opportunities to eat locally, from the chilly Channel Islands waters. Really, it’s just about knowing where to go.
What to Know
Catalina Express ferries depart daily from the larger Long Beach port terminal and from San Pedro and Dana Point during the summer high season; the island is also serviced out of Newport Beach by the Catalina Flyer. Boats leave from Long Beach as early as 6 a.m. and from Avalon as late as 9:45 p.m. (on weekends), with round-trip tickets running just under $80 per person. Upgrades to the roomier Commodore Lounge are available, and passengers can drink citrusy bloody marys from a dedicated bar. Children and seniors get discounts, and there are extra fees for oversized luggage, bikes, and surfboards. The island can also be reached by private chartered boat, helicopter, or plane. (Con: The airport is a long drive outside of town, on a sometimes-ruddy bit of road. Pro: The restaurant at the airport serves a mean bison burger.)
Avalon itself is mostly walkable, though journeys to the Botanic Garden or up into the hills on foot can be tiresome, particularly in warmer summer months. Many folks opt to rent golf carts from one of several companies because, well, they’re fun, and offer easy opportunities to catch views overlooking Avalon and portions of the island beyond. Just be sure to book in advance or be prepared to wait in line for a time slot.
There is a small museum and art center on the island, as well as a golf course and endless knickknack shops to wander in. The round Catalina Casino, Avalon’s most noticeable landmark, still juts out into the water, playing to occasional balls, galas, and film festivals throughout the year. Consider it a small piece of walkable history to spend an hour at — and no, there is no actual gambling at the casino, and never has been. There really is a Catalina Wine Mixer (though it’s a relatively recent addition to the calendar, having started only in 2017), which takes over a corner of the island early every summer.
Speaking of which, early summer can be among the best times to visit. The island’s weather can and does change rapidly, going from foggy and coastal cool to hot and arid in a matter of hours. The boardwalk beach is sandy but small and can get crowded; those looking for solitude and serenity will need to book cabanas or lounge chairs at Descanso Beach Club. Rougher waters and cooler temps prevail in the fall and winter, the island’s low season. And, of course, this being Southern California, expect the water to be chilly.
If you plan to stay overnight, there are dozens of hotels to choose from, as well as some limited home-rental options. Hotel accommodations range greatly, from the small and spare (owing to the high cost of construction on the island), to the more recently renovated and opulent. The most notable is Mt. Ada, the former Wrigley family mansion that has been kept as a time capsule of sorts and converted into a six-room bed-and-breakfast. It books quickly.
Where to Eat
It’s no secret that, as in many other tourism-reliant communities, the quality and affordability of the food on Catalina Island can be hit or miss. Thankfully the views and sunshine do much to mitigate the mediocrity, and in-the-know travelers can find several gems along Avalon’s main streets. Here are some of the best spots to score food and drink not far from the ferry.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic stop on any food and drink tour of Catalina Island than Luau Larry’s, the decades-old tiki bar and restaurant right on the main drag. The no-reservations spot is small and seemingly always busy as tourists and locals file in for rum drinks and coconut shrimp. The drink of the house is the Wiki Wacker: a rum, brandy, and pineapple-orange juice concoction that comes with a woven hat to be worn while consuming. The restaurant is playful, easygoing, and impossible to miss — plus, it serves pina coladas, mai tais, and zombies, ideal for tiki lovers hitting the town for the weekend. On the food front, expect grilled burgers with thick pineapple rings on top, as well as fried seafood, wings, and pizzas. 509 Crescent Street, Avalon.
The Lobster Trap
For big platters of seafood served in a nautical environment (complete with watery blue tones and fish hanging from the ceiling), get to the Lobster Trap. The restaurant is located off of the front street but is no less busy, having become a kind of local must-try for the island. Steamed artichoke starters are a specialty (but alone they’re not worth the ferry trip), as is the namesake lobster, offered over salads, in sandwiches, and beyond. Southern California spiny lobsters are available in season as well, and a rotation of oysters (some local, some not) can be served raw or as cheesy, spinachy broiled oysters Rockefeller. The rest of the menu moves into pastas, burritos, and seafood plates like seared ahi tuna, while drinks lean colorful and fruity. 128 Catalina Street, Avalon.
The Naughty Fox
It’s rare that a new restaurant arrives on Catalina Island, let alone one as ambitious as the Naughty Fox. Located at the base of the Bellanca Hotel, the Naughty Fox feels more at home in Orange County than an island 22 miles off the California coast. Bright colors and a modern design aesthetic on the small patio marry well with an all-day menu that includes avocado toast, eggs Benedict (available with lobster), poke “nachos” made with fried wonton wrappers, and grilled ginger-scallion wings. There are lamb meatballs, grain bowls, a coconut-crusted fried chicken sandwich, and hummus and naan options as well. On the drinks front, find palomas, margaritas, some tiki nods, and standard beer and wine options (Veuve Cliquot for those celebrating, Bud Light for friends just hanging out). 111 Crescent Avenue, Avalon.
NDMK Fish House
NDMK is one of the island’s sleeper hits. Tucked away up from the main drag and abutting small cottages on a side street, this sushi-focused restaurant plays Dodgers games on a big television and knows how to season and grill up a mean piece of fish. The big, sometimes extra-saucy rolls don’t always seem high-quality, but they are satisfying, as are the ceviche and large fish burrito. For best effect, snag a grilled fish plate, with the option to choose from a variety of seafood, listed by the location it was caught. Craft beer is plentiful here, including local brews from Monrovia-based OverTown Brewing. 109 Claressa Avenue, Avalon.
Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co.
Sometimes simple is best, as is the case with Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. Sure, there’s hotel-grade coffee in the lobby and most restaurants will pour a cup, but for a morning jolt that’s just a cut above, it’s best to swing in here. Better still, the shop is tucked up away from the endless crowds as part of the Metropole Market Place that surrounds the popular Hotel Metropole, allowing diners to score some seclusion with their espresso drinks. Savory morning bread, pastries, and frittatas round out the simple breakfast menu — and of course, there should always be room for a cookie or two. 205 Crescent Avenue, Avalon.
Descanso Beach Club
While Catalina offers a lot for the day-tripping tourist, this is not the place of endless white sand beaches, body-temp water, and all-night raves. Perhaps the closest one can come to living that Instagram beach life is at Descanso Beach Club, around the bend from the casino and well away from the main Avalon attractions. Here, an endless cascade of sub-40 partiers arrive on weekends to dance, drink daiquiris, and down salads, burgers, tacos, and other beachy fare. It’s best to book ocean-view loungers or group cabanas in advance (there are regular restaurant patio seats as well), but beware of their price: Primo cabanas run in the hundreds of dollars. There are weekend DJ sets on the property all summer long, but they only run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Simply put: If you want the most beachy, sandy island experience that Catalina Island has to offer, expect to find it (and pay for it) here. 1 St. Catherine Way, Avalon.
While just about every restaurant in Avalon offers at least a partial view of the ocean, it’s hard to get much closer to the water than the back deck at Bluewater Grill. This is quintessential upscale island dining, the kind of place where boaters and families mix with weekend tourists and locals at the bar, surrounded by aquatic ephemera like fishing poles, wooden carvings of hanging seafood, and the occasional image of a marlin or tuna. The televisions are good for catching the game, but most eyes are on the water, where paddleboarders and swimmers compete for sunlight. Sailboats anchor just feet away, and the views facing the mainland are hard to beat. On the plate, expect the usual Bluewater fare (the group has other locations in Santa Barbara, Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, Temecula, and beyond), mostly composed of simply grilled or fried fish — some seasonal, some local — and the usual array of starters. Begin with a round of oysters and some wine, stay for the cioppino, and don’t be afraid of the ice cream sundae. 306 Crescent Avenue, Avalon.