Catalina Island: California’s Magic Isle

Catalina Island, known as the Magic Isle, has served as a dreamy retreat for travelers for decades. Formally named Santa Catalina Island, Catalina is located 26 miles off the coast of Southern California.

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Above: Boats in Avalon’s harbor

Throughout its modern history, the island has served as a getaway for Hollywood stars, a practice spot for the Chicago Cubs, and a secret training site for the US Armed Forces. Above all, though, the island is meant as an escape for everyone. In the words of William Wrigley Jr., the island’s former owner and primary developer, “Catalina is the playground for all, rich or poor, youth or aged. All classes mix with democratic spirit.”

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Above: The beach at Little Harbor Campground near Two Harbors

Today, there are two towns on Catalina Island: Avalon and Two Harbors. Avalon is the larger and more commonly visited of the pair. It’s the only incorporated city on the island with a population of about 3,700 people. Two Harbors is an unincorporated community that’s home to around 300 people.

Both Avalon and Two Harbors are worth visiting for different reasons, so we’ll cover both here. Here’s your travel guide to marvelous Catalina Island, California.

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Above: Walking along Avalon’s pier

Avalon

Avalon is situated around a bay on Catalina’s eastern side. The town fills a small valley and climbs its way onto surrounding hills. Natural-colored beach houses line the narrow streets and above palm trees sway to and fro.

The preferred mode of transportation in town seems to be golf cart, so there are few cars on the road. It’s easy to get nearly everywhere on foot, but if you need to reach somewhere higher uphill, you can rent your own golf cart. The near absence of cars and the lack of need to drive lends itself well to the laid-back vibe of this coastal island town.

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Above: A busy beach day in Avalon

What to Do in Avalon

While Avalon is small and walkable, there’s no shortage of things to do.

First, enjoy the outdoors. Spend some time at the beach; there are several right along the main waterfront in town. The beaches aren’t very large and do fill up during the warm months, so be prepared for that. While at the beach you can take part in a variety of water activities — swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, and so on — or just hang out and relax!

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Above: View from the botanic garden

To get a sense of the town beyond the boardwalk, head up to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. It’s about a mile and a half from the water, so it’s a nice walk that takes you through town. The garden itself has tons of international foliage to see and climbing up the stone Wrigley memorial offers up great views.

Next, learn some local history. Walk over to the Catalina Casino (“casino” as in general old-timey gathering place, not gambling place) and marvel at its style and size. You can take a tour inside or even catch a movie in the theatre (one film plays at 7:30 p.m.).

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Above: The Catalina Casino

Don’t miss out on the Catalina Island Museum. This beautifully designed museum provides a wonderful overview of the unique history of the island. You’ll learn about its early inhabitants, Hollywood and sports stories, role during World War II, and plenty more.

Additionally, there are several tours offered in town. Among them are boat tours, historical tours, food/drink tours, and ghost/alien tours, among others. Plus, there are also tours that take you “inland” where you can spot bison (yes, bison!) and go ziplining.

Finally, you can entertain your inner child at Three Palms Arcade, treat yourself at one of the spas in town, and just stroll the streets and enjoy.

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Above: Walking along Avalon’s waterfront

Where to Eat, Drink, & Stay in Avalon

It’s safe to say you will not have trouble finding delicious food during your time on the island. For breakfast, make your way to Original Jack’s Country Kitchen. Chow down on some breakfast classics to keep you going for a full day of exploring the island. You can’t go wrong with the bacon and eggs with biscuits and gravy or the huevos rancheros. And coffee, plenty of coffee.

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Above: Original Jack’s, breakfast paradise

For lunch, stop by The Sandtrap for tacos. It’s on the way up to the botanical gardens, so it’s a perfect pit stop (with great food and drink specials to boot).

For happy hour, post up at a restaurant along the waterfront and enjoy some cocktails and people watching. Try Luau Larry’s or El Galleon. Grab a snack while you’re at it!

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Above: Luau Larry’s!

For dinner, try Blue Water Avalon or Avalon Grille. These are the two of the nicest restaurants in town, so make sure to make a reservation first — it’s a small town and the eateries fill up quickly! Blue Water Avalon is right on the water and features a variety of seafood. Avalon Grille offers seafood as well as steak, plus some seriously good cocktails.

If you’re looking for a post-dinner drink, stop into The Marlin Club. Here you’ll find beer, a jukebox, goofy signs, a pool table, and all the other signs of a great dive bar.

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Above: View from the roof deck at the Catalina Island Seacrest Inn

As far as accommodations go, most offerings are small inns. We stayed at the Catalina Island Seacrest Inn and really enjoyed it. Our room was modest, but clean, and had everything you’d need. Plus, it’s in a great location and there’s a sweet roof terrace perfect for happy hour or after dinner drinks!

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Above: Relaxing at Little Harbor Campground

Two Harbors

Two Harbors is a village about 20 miles up the island from Avalon. The community is situated on the Two Harbors Isthmus. The main area of town surrounds a cove with a pier at the center. Avalon may be relaxed, but it’s nothing compared to the small beach town vibe of Two Harbors. If you really want to feel away from it all, while only being a couple dozen miles from Los Angeles, head to Two Harbors.

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Above: Views from hiking around Little Harbor Campground  

Where to Eat, Drink, & Stay + What to Do in Two Harbors

Two Harbors has one restaurant/bar, one general store, and one hotel. The restaurant and bar is the Harbor Reef Restaurant, and it offers up some pretty tasty dishes and drinks. The hotel is the Banning House Lodge. (We have yet to stay there, but hope to do so sometime!)

There are also several campsites in town or within hiking distance. If you want to really feel removed from it all, pack up and camp at the Little Harbor Campground. It’s about a five-mile hike from town on the western side of the island. However, if hiking five miles with all your possessions strapped to your back doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, you can pay to take a shuttle or have your bags dropped off for you so you don’t have to carry them; you can have firewood dropped off there as well. The campsite has running water, and that’s about it (but that’s part of the allure!). It’s an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place to spend a couple days.

The main activities in and around Two Harbors are outdoor pursuits. You can go hiking, swimming, or diving. Of course, lounging on the beach is always an option as well!

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Above: Private boats in the harbor at Avalon

Getting to Catalina Island & Other Practicalities

To get to Catalina Island, you can take a boat or fly. Of course, it’s much more common to take a boat. You can catch the Catalina Express from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point. It’s about an hour ride from San Pedro to Avalon. There is also the Catalina Airport on the island, so if for some reason you’ve got access to an aircraft, you’ve got that option as well.

If you’ve only got time for a day trip, there is baggage storage in Avalon, so you can bring all your essentials for the day and store them safely.

**

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Above: Evening along Avalon’s waterfront

Catalina Island truly lives up to its Magic Isle moniker. From the moment you set foot on the island, you feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Southern California. Stroll its coastline, explore its hills, and marvel at its paradisiacal atmosphere. Cheers!

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