There's a Peaceful Beach Town Hiding Just Off the Southern California Coast

There are all sorts of fun things to do on Catalina Island, from adventure sports to spa treatments and scuba diving to iconic cocktails.

Sometimes it’s hard to even imagine it, as lifted pickup trucks roar down the street out front, some dude wails on a drum kit next door, and the AQI alert repeatedly pings on your phone, but there is a peaceful island with a small charming town just out of sight—Catalina Island is 26 short miles across the sea. One of the best weekend getaways from LA is only an hourlong ferry ride from Long Beach on the Catalina Express, an easy jaunt to quiet coves, serene hikes, kitschy shopping, quaint small town vibes, and a lovely mix of history and adventurous things to do, especially in the quieter shoulder season.

The town of Avalon is Catalina Island’s primary tourist destination, and it was established in the 1920s by William Wrigley of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame. At one time the island was the spring training home of the Cubs and a destination for Hollywood royalty, who danced in the lavish ballroom at the iconic Catalina Casino—which was never actually used for gambling, only for entertainment. Much of the old-school charm that made Avalon popular 100 years ago still exists, though updates over the past decade have brought the community into the 21st century—now Catalina is a great place to relax and explore the outdoors in the winter, and a buzzing place to party through the summer.

Travel time:

1 hour from LA via ferry leaving from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point
2 hours from San Diego, with 1 hour drive to Dana Point and 1 hour on the ferry

scuba diving at casino point dive park in avalon on catalina island

If you don’t do anything else: Get out on the ocean and see some wildlife

Catalina is a world-class destination for scuba diving and snorkeling, whether you’re looking for boat dives or just wading in off the pebbles at Lover’s Cove, and there are great options for divers of any ability level. A spectacular array of sea creatures live close to shore, and the excellent conservation work on the island means there are always tons of things to see, from iconic orange garibaldi to sheepshead, octopus, and more. You can rent gear from many local dive shops, and you can even do dry suit diving to help stay warm.

If you don’t want to get in the water yourself, there are always boat tours instead. You can hop on a classic glass-bottom boat for a glimpse of wildlife swimming below your feet or into an undersea submarine-style boat to get an eye-level peek. If you’re there during the summer months, take a trip on the Flying Fish voyage, a nighttime excursion to watch fish fly out of the water on their 30-foot sprints. And if you don’t like tours at all, you can rent a motorboat from Joe’s Rent-a-Boat right on the pier, which can provide a great launching pad to explore some of the more remote beaches on the island.

zipline in avalon on catalina island
Flickr/Bob n Renee

Fill your days

Outdoor activities on Catalina Island

The easy answer for things to do outdoors on Catalina Island is to sit on the beach—set up a blanket on the sand right in the middle of town, or head past the famous Catalina Casino to Descanso Beach Club, where you can book lounge chairs or cabanas for drink service with your toes in the sand every day during the summer and on weekends in the winter. And if you’ve had enough lying around, there are also kayak, paddleboard, and snorkel rentals available to get you moving again.

Take advantage of the gorgeous island topography with a stroll up to and through the Wrigley Botanic Garden, a 38 acre park that features native Catalina Island plants and exotic species of desert flora. If you want more exercise, continue through the nearby campground and up the Hermit Gulch Trail, which takes you another few miles up to Hermit Gulch Lookout. From there you can keep going to even more lookout points with stunning views of both sides of the island, or call it a day and head back down to the Sandtrap for happy hour tacos and drinks.

If you want to get a little further out of Avalon for a unique experience, check out a Bison Tour. American bison were introduced to the island for a movie shoot in the early 20th century and then, in classic Old Hollywood fashion, casually left there to roam and multiply. Catalina Island Conservancy now cares for the herd of about 100, and Bison Tours offer a great opportunity to check out the massive creatures in person, and also to see the mostly-untouched nature in the interior of the island, accessible only on these tours and on major multi-day hikes.

For thrill seekers, Catalina also has a wealth of action and adventure activities. Head up into the trees above Descanso Beach Club for two of the most high-octane experiences on the island: the Zipline Eco-Tour, which pairs action with education on a two-hour adventure high over the coastal canyons, with five long zips at speeds over 30 mph accompanied by interesting interstitial discussions about native flora and fauna; and the Aerial Adventure, a high ropes course with five different paths that challenges you to hop and scramble across dangling logs and little metal rolling pins while you’re hooked into a harness 30 feet up in the trees.

catalina island casino in avalon harbor
Flickr/Justin Ennis

Relaxing things to do on Catalina Island

For a glimpse of Southern California history, take a tour of the famous Catalina Island Casino. The iconic Art Deco venue hosted a stunning number of events over the years, from its heyday in the big band jazz era to modern galas, balls, wedding, and film festivals. You can see inside the historic venue on one of several walking tours, from shorter narrated tours to a longer version that takes you into several limited areas on a 90-minute walk.

If your idea of an oceanside retreat is getting a massage, going for a dip, sitting in a sauna and watching the boats go by out the oceanside windows, well, you’re in luck. The Island Spa has seven treatment rooms, a pool and jacuzzi, a eucalyptus steam room, dry saunas, and more in 15,000-square feet of blissed out wellness. They're not open during the winter, but it's worth bookmarking for a warm weather visit.

buffalo milk cocktail at the naughty fox in avalon on catalina island
Photo by Ben Mesirow for Thrillist

Eat, drink, and sleep

The best restaurants and bars on Catalina Island

The first bar you’ll see as you start your walk through the main boardwalk is Luau Larry’s, a tiny burger and tiki drink joint that’s been there for decades and is the home of one of Catalina’s longest-running traditions: getting your Wiki Wacked. A Wiki Wacker is a sweet, delicious cocktail with rum, brandy, grenadine, and pineapple juice, but the kicker is the hat that comes with it: a massive, straw extravaganza that doubles as a signature souvenir from the island; you’ll see them all over as you walk through Avalon.

You don’t really go to Catalina Island for the food, but there are still plenty of great places to eat and drink in Avalon, especially if you like seafood. Check out NDMK for local fish prepared in a variety of pleasantly straightforward ways, fried, grilled, or raw, served in tacos, sandwiches, or poke bowls with regular specials based on what fish the owners catch. For a fancier choice, settle in at the Avalon Grille, Bluewater Grill, Steve’s Steakhouse, or the Naughty Fox, which all serve very solid and well-executed modern American cooking.

No visit to Catalina Island is complete without a big glass of Buffalo Milk, the island’s signature cocktail. The White Russian flip has been a Catalina staple since the ‘70s, a rich drink of vodka, Kahlua, creme de cacao, banana, half & half, and fresh nutmeg that’s now served at basically every bar in town. It’s an overtly tasty cocktail that’s frankly hard to mess up, but they make particularly good versions at Descanso Beach Club, Luau Larry’s, and at Harbor Reef in the isthmus outpost of Two Harbors, which is where the drink was invented.

Hotel Atwater

Where to stay on Catalina Island

You can’t throw a seashell without hitting a place to stay in Avalon, either a hotel or a home rental. But Hotel Atwater may be the nicest one in town; it’s located right in the heart of Avalon and has been there since the ‘20s, but underwent a massive renovation in 2019. The rooms are outfitted in island-inspired, modern decor; the lobby is massive and classic; and amenities include two splits of sparkling wine upon arrival and discounts at a ton of other attractions on the island. It doesn’t hurt that the beds are extra comfortable and there’s great coffee right outside the front door.

If you’d rather be out of town a little bit, you can stay on top of the hill at the legendary Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel. The property was originally built in the 1920s as a vacation home for novelist Zane Grey, and it was later turned into a hotel and then extensively remodeled in 2019 to make it the stylish escape that it is today. In staying there you’re trading away the convenience of a central location, but getting in return truly spectacular views that stretch across Avalon and out into the ocean, and the serenity that comes with a perch above town.

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Jeff Miller has been visiting Catalina regularly since he was three years old and still tries to go once a year to visit his late mother, who has a permanent spot by the tree closest to the pier right on the beach in Avalon. Say hi if you get a chance. Fruit sandwiches, ya’ll: @jeffmillerla on Insta.

Ben Mesirow is Thrillist's LA Staff Writer, an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA Times, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.