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Island Time in Catalina

Camp, sail, or zip line on this small, historic island celebrating its 100th birthday this summer

By Ann Wycoff

Island Time in Catalina



This month in Catalina



July 4:
USC Trojan Marching Band and fireworks, Avalon Casino Ballroom


July 27:
Ukulele concert, Wrigley Plaza Stage


While the trip over on the Catalina Express can be an adventure in itself, with ocean rollers and potential dolphin and whale sightings, the island of Catalina is one giant playground for yachties, anglers, day trippers, and families alike. Check out Santa Catalina Island Company’s vast array of land and sea excursions to explore hidden parts of the 22-mile island. If being surrounded by 500 dolphins performing aerial acrobatics sounds entertaining, then Dolphin Quest is a great choice. A sleek Ribcraft cruises to a stunning isolated beach, home to sea lions and their pups, then punches the gas out to sea to find playful dolphin pods. A tamer sea jaunt favored by small fry is the Disney-esque, semi-submersible Sea Wolf, with underwater windows framing orange garibaldis, bat rays, and spotted scorpion fish. For an exploration of the island’s interior, catch a ride in Santa Catalina Island Company’s open-air bio-diesel hummer that charges up dirt roads. The real thrill appears with arresting views to both the east and west, revealing untouched beaches, mountain ridges, and aerial shots of picturesque Avalon Harbor. Bison, bald eagles, and the elusive island fox make an occasional appearance too. For an adrenalin jolt, Catalina’s five-section  Zip Line Eco Tour propels you over Descanso Canyon with more dramatic vistas. New this summer, Catalina Heli Expeditions takes off with customized heli-hiking, heli-mountain biking expeditions, or heli-picnic tours to isolated island landscapes. When you’re ready to lounge, head to Descanso Beach and retire onto padded chaises or in a swanky cabana with food, cocktail, and spa service. The new oceanfront Presidential Cabanas come with mini-fridges, flat screens, iPads, and pampering touches like cold oshibori towels, robes, bottle service, and hand-delivered seasonal California cuisine. On site, you can rent kayaks, snorkel gear, and stand-up paddle boards.


Fluffy flapjacks and frothy tropical drinks characterize the bustling Pancake Cottage (615 Cresent Avenue), a popular breakfast joint in Avalon. Jack’s Country Kitchen (118 Catalina Avenue), an old-fashioned diner that nods to Hawaii, serves up Kona coffee, fresh pies, and a King Hawaiian sweet bread French toast with macadamia nuts and coconut syrup. The chic  CC Gallagher (523 Crescent Avenue) is a sushi bar, wine store, café, and sophisticated gift shop, all in one. Locals gravitate to The Lobster Trap (128 Catalina Avenue) for its blackened swordfish tacos, laid-back vibe, live music, and stiff drinks. Chef Paul Hancock, who often forages for local herbs like wild fennel, presents a creative ingredient-driven menu at the upscale Avalon Grille (423 Crescent Avenue). Cutting-edge dishes like sweetbreads with arugula and a chocolate Grenache-port wine reduction represent his talent. If you’re eating between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., request movie passes to the Casino for a free show that night. An outpost of Newport Beach’s Bluewater Grill opens this summer, called Bluewater Avalon (306 Crescent Avenue), set in the historic steamship waterfront terminal. For the ultimate dive bar experience, belly up to the boat-shaped bar and join the salty dogs and local pirates for drinks at The Marlin Club (108 Catalina Avenue) with its requisite pool table, foosball, darts, and loud rock ’n’ roll.


While many visitors tuck into their v-berths at bedtime, Catalina also hosts myriad lodging choices. The island’s compelling history unfolds at The Inn on Mt. Ada (398 Wrigley Road), the former Wrigley Mansion that the chewing gum magnate built for his beloved wife, high on the hill. Set in a 1921 Georgian Colonial house, the six-room inn with wraparound porches offers sweeping views of the yacht-speckled harbor. At the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel (199 Chimes Tower Road), check into the literary lion’s hillside digs. The charming Hopi pueblo style, sunlit patios, cozy living room with original 1920s furniture, and astounding ocean views outshine the somewhat dated rooms. (Love sleeping there? If you have an extra $6.5 million, it can be yours.) The Pavilion Hotel (513 Crescent Avenue) offers a quaint boutique hotel experience. Sip wine at the canopied outdoor lounge in the harbor breeze or recline under the palm trees in its garden oasis. It’s the perfect place to chill out after all that adventure.

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