Craving a taste of island life without having to fly anywhere? Catalina Island off the coast of California can be a great approachable and affordable getaway option. Being an island though, there are some quirks in regards to getting there and getting around! We were there for 4 nights and enjoyed our excursion but learned lots of lessons in the process as well. Hopefully the tips below can help you make the most of your time!
How to Get There?
It’s an island… so no driving. There are really two ways to get there: one for the wealthy and one for us regular folks.
I honestly have very little to say about this option, as it was indeed NOT our reality. But it is an option. Explore if you wish.
Purchase tickets online to take the Catalina Express Ferry from several different coastal ports. On a normal day when the weather is nice, the ferry is fairly smooth and takes just about 1.5 hours from Long Beach to Avalon. Be prepared though, if the weather is rough, the ferry ride will be equally so. While we had a delightful experience, we also heard horror stories of large waves and brown paper bags. Yikes.
Where to stay?
In the town of Avalon, there are options of places to stay that vary from 5 star hotels to tiny AirBnb bungalows. We chose to stay just a bit up the hill outside of the main strip on Crescent Avenue in order to save some money. We scored an incredible deal on a studio AirBnb, not too big, but not a big deal when we were planning on being outside and enjoying the beautiful weather. However, lesson learned, weather does not always cooperate with your plans. For the first time in 15 years, it rained for the entirety of Thanksgiving weekend.
HOTEL VS. RENTAL
After reflecting on our housing choice, I have a few thoughts on staying in a nicer hotel vs. a budget option and why I might choose differently next time.
COST OF BREAKFAST
Our rental, being a budget option, did not include any kind of food options and had only a small refrigerator and coffee maker. Going out for breakfast and coffee for the three of us adds up, especially in a tourist location like Catlina where there is an inevitable markup. If a hotel includes these items, make sure to take that into consideration when calculating cost.
HASSLE OF EATING OUT WITH A TINY MONSTER
Again, due to the fact that we had minimal cooking options, we ended up eating out for almost every meal. Even when we were able to find pretty affordable options, sometimes the hassle of eating out with a 17-month old made the experience less than favorable. Paying a little more for a hotel or larger rental unit with a kitchenette would remedy the situation, as there is a Safeway in the center of town for all your necessities.
While this would not have been an issue if the weather had behaved, we were made acutely aware of just how small our space was when required to stay there for hours at a time. If you splurge for a larger unit or choose to stay at a nicer hotel that has a lobby and hallways where your little one can roam, then you might not be forced to go to the Arcade on Thanksgiving because it’s the only think in town! Ha!
All this to say, consider all of the factors when choosing a place to stay. Sometimes a more expensive base price for lodging may actually be more affordable when you consider food cost and maintaining your sanity.
Where to Eat?
The restaurants below were those we frequented most due to their kid friendly nature and value. We are NOT foodies. This is NOT a comprehensive list of the most exquisite dining experiences on the island.
CATALINA ISLAND BREWHOUSE - Coffee and quiche, Beer and Pizza, Great Happy Hour, outdoor patio
CATALINA COFFEE AND COOKIE CO. - Coffee and pastries, outdoor patio
EL GALLEON - Nice without being fancy, outdoor patio
LUAU LARRY’S - Great happy hour cocktails and fish tacos
ORIGINAL JACK’S COUNTRY KITCHEN - Traditional diner, not cheap but large portions
How to get around?
This is one of the trickiest details of life on Catalina. Due to it being an island where you arrive by boat, you can’t bring a vehicle. In fact, very few regular cars exist on the island and most people get around by golf cart. Unless your lodging includes access to golf cart rental, this option can get expensive quickly with prices upwards of $50 per hour. So realistically, your options are as follows:
Plan on it. Even if you utilize another mode of transportation, make sure that your expectations are accurate and you will be wandering by foot a good deal.
Bike rentals shops like Brown’s Bikes are plentiful and affordable. Most also have an option for you to add a front facing toddler seat to your bike for minimal cost.
Though fairly primitive in its operation, there is a shuttle that circles the hot spots on the island named after the bright orange fish found off the coast. It’s only $2 per person per ride, so make sure you have exact change on hand.
What to do?
SHUTTLE TO THE AIRPORT/ HIKE AIRPORT LOOP
One of the more popular tours on the island is a Jeep tour of the interior where you are likely to see the random herds of Bison leftover from a random movie filmed in 1924. However, most of these tours, due to the nature of the vehicle and on the amount of off-roading, require kiddos to be at least 4 years old. This obviously makes this a null option for families with tiny people, so our alternative was to take the Conservancy Shuttle called the Wildlands Express up to the Airport. This is a cheaper option too, at only $34 per person round trip, and still gets you into the interior a bit with the chance of spotting wildlife. Once at the airport, you can take the 2.8 mile Airport Loop Trail for additional exploration.
BOTANICAL GARDENS/ WRIGLEY MEMORIAL/ GARDEN IN THE SKY TRAIL
Take the Garibaldi shuttle from the middle of town up to the Wrigley Memorial. With the $8 dollar entrance fee, you can explore the gardens, visit the monument, and gain access to the Garden to Sky Loop (approx 4 miles).
SEMI-SUBMARINE or GLASS BOTTOM BOAT TOUR
These tours are admittedly super touristy, but they are a nice easy way to get your kids out on the water and see some of the local fish. Save yourself some time and money by buying tickets ahead of time either on the tour company website (like Catalina Adventure Tours) or look for groupons!
You are on an island, so enjoy the beach! While there is a strip of sand off Crescent Ave to lounge on, you should take the time to walk/ bike/ ride over to Descanso Beach to experience the true island vibes. While you are there, you can explore the more adventure-y options like zip-lining, ropes courses, kayaking and paddle boarding!