The ultimate guide to Catalina Island
"Catalina Island is super boring", said no one ever who's actually been there. Take it from someone who's spent at least part of every summer there since he was 2-years-old: if you like super-high-speed boat rides, zip line adventures, food frenzies, and all-night bar crawls, you'll like Catalina.
And to prove it, I took my camera and girlfriend to photo-document all of the awesomeness you can find 22 miles off the LA coastline.
There are a few options boat-wise, but Catalina Express is the best one: they operate pretty much all day, leaving from two locations in Long Beach (as well as San Pedro and Dana Point) to Avalon (really the only place to hang on the Island unless you're camping). There're bars on the boats so you can be properly lubricated with Bloodys and beers before you arrive. There's also an optional upgrade to the "Captains Lounge", but -- pro tip, it's not worth it. They'll drop you off an easy quarter-mile walk from the main drag.
If you're all fancy-like, there's also the option of taking a helicopter from Island Express Helicopters, which's totally rad and only takes 15 minutes, but is obviously a teeny-tiny bit more expensive, and drops you off far enough from town that you're going to have to take a cab into Avalon... which adds another $20 or so to the trip.
Once you're there, you're on foot the whole time. That is, unless you want to rent 1) a bike, or 2) a golf cart, which are both available at a zillion rental stalls that charge by the hour, and capable of taking you up to scenic views and cool, off-the-wall places (see: hidden pet cemetery) that're an easy ride, but a tough hike. Neither, though, are necessary to get around. Oh, and if you're staying overnight, there're a number of hotel options (our pick: the Pavilion Hotel, which was recently remodeled and is right on the beach), as well as rentable houses.
Where you're going to hang
Since it's an island, the beach is everywhere. If you're thrifty (or just lazy), you can get off the boat, walk that quarter-mile into town, not even make it to a side street, and set a blanket on the beach and call it a day. But if you're a bit more party-hearty (admit it, you are), you'll take a walk past the casino (IMPORTANT NOTE: there's no gambling in this casino at all. No, it doesn't make sense.), which looks like this...
... and end up on Descanso Beach, which looks like THIS....
... Yeah. That's better. Descanso Beach Club has been there forever, but in the past few years, they've turned it into a wanna-be Vegas cabana-land, adding rentable c-banas, lounge chairs, and upgrading the full bar.
What you're going to eat & drink
Speaking of the full bar, make sure to stop in there for the Buffalo Milk, the island's signature cocktail -- which, let's be honest, is just an alcoholic milkshake. And that's totally okay. Descanso's also got rentable kayaks, snorkel gear, and paddle boards, because nothing goes with alcoholic milkshakes quite like extreme physical exertion.
That burger? Another must-get. It's from Luau Larry's, a totally classic island dive on the Main Boardwalk that's mostly known for...
... The Wiki Wacker, a party punch that comes with your choice of either a bumper sticker...
... or this absurd hat. So, hat.
But you're on the water, and maybe you're with a lady, so you're probably gonna want some fancy, seafood-type stuff. And for that, you'll go to recently opened Bluewater Avalon, home to amazingness like these crab legs...
... and this yuzu-topped scallop. Oh damn, it's good.
And if that doesn't do it for you, 1) there might be something wrong with you, or 2) you can go across the street to Avalon Grille, which has hamachi sashimi atop an avocado paste...
... and this basically perfect roasted salmon.
And no matter what, you're ending up at Big Olaf's of Catalina for ice cream. Because look at that. (They used to make their own, but now it's Dreyer's. Who cares. It's delicious. And doused in syrup.)
Oh, also! You should totally go to happy hour in the afternoon at The Sandtrap by the golf course for dollar tacos and $5 margs (just ask somebody, and they'll tell you how to get there). Oh, also: there's a golf course.
Happy hour or not, though, you gotta set aside some time for a beer at the Casino Dock Cafe, aka the fry shack right by the casino. Because, well, this.
What you should do while you're there (during the day)
Okay, so even if you're not into "tourist stuff", there's some pretty badass "tourist stuff" on Catalina, like a hummer tour into "the interior" -- the totally protected, totally wild part of the island that this dude named Bear (seriously!) will take you to. During the trip, you'll ride on tiny, cliff-hugging dirt roads and definitely see...
... totally sweet views like this...
... and totally sweet bison, like this guy (fun fact: bison were originally brought to the island decades ago for a movie, and then they procreated, and now no one can get rid of them. True story.).
There's also the Dolphin Quest boat trip, which sounds lame, but is TOTALLY NOT LAME. You get on a speedboat with SADDLES INSTEAD OF SEATS BECAUSE YOU NEED TO HOLD ON FOR DEAR LIFE, and go into the ocean in search of dolphins/gigantic waves to catch air on. Mostly gigantic air. It's basically an hour-long roller coaster ride. But like, a fun one.
If speed boats aren't your, um, speed, there's a great, old-school mini-golf course, with none of those unimpressive modern accouterments, but instead... this loop-de-loop. Hit it right, and you'll get a hole in one. Hit it wrong? Uh, nope.
What you should do while you're there (during the night)
So here's one of the best things about Avalon: at night, there are really only four bars (plus Luau Larry's, but your Wiki, by this point, will be fully Wacked), and everybody crawls between 'em. That means that basically anyone you've seen during the day is doing their own version of the World's End Crawl, so if you were making eyes with someone on Descanso Beach Club during the day, you're definitely running into them at night. Here's the lowdown on all four:
Usually the first stop of any night, the sorta pirate-themed El Galleon's right in the center of the boardwalk...
This locals-inhabited spot features occasional cover bands...
...with the greatest sign EVER over the bar.
This sports bar's claim to fame?
J L's Locker Room
No matter what, your night is ending at the Chi Chi Club, the only "club" on the island...
Chi Chi Club
... and the best wall art that money could buy. In 1975.
But the real end of your night'll be back at Pete's Plaza Cafe, where everyone who's done the bar crawl all night will wait in line at the island's only fry shack that's open after last-call for life-saving (told you!) comestibles...
Both of which'll guarantee you'll feel good when you wake up in the morning to this view, again.