Lifestyle

The ultimate guide to Catalina Island

Published On 07/11/2014 Published On 07/11/2014

"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.

Jeff Miller

Getting there

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.

Island Express Helicopters


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.
 

Getting around 

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.

Jeff Miller

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...

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... and end up on Descanso Beach, which looks like THIS....

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... 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.

Jeff Miller

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.

Jeff Miller

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...

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... The Wiki Wacker, a party punch that comes with your choice of either a bumper sticker...

Claudia Gonzalez

... or this absurd hat. So, hat.

Jeff Miller

Also worth tracking down? The Italian joint Antonio's Pizzeria & Cabaret.

Jeff Miller

It's a checkered tablecloth-equipped spot where you can crunch peanuts on the floor and dive into a bowl of specialty, day-old spaghetti. Yep. Day-old. It's amazing.

Jeff Miller

If you're there for breakfast, chances are you'll end up at Original Jack's Country Kitchen, where you pretty much have to order Hawaiian French toast...

Jeff Miller

... since it's topped with macadamia nuts, and served with Portuguese sausage and coconut syrup. Mmmm.

Jeff Miller

There are a ton of casual fry-shack spots, like Eric's On The Pier...

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... Pic Nic Fry, where you're almost guaranteed to hear someone say they want "casa" on their nachos instead of queso...

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And Pete's Plaza Cafe, which you should find during the day, since it's going to save your life at night (more on that later).

Jeff Miller

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...

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... and this yuzu-topped scallop. Oh damn, it's good.

Jeff Miller

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...

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... and this basically perfect roasted salmon.

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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.)

Jeff Miller

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.

Jeff Miller

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.

Jeff Miller

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...

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... totally sweet views like this...

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... 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.).

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If you're more adrenalized, they've got a sweet zip line that starts at Descanso Beach Club...

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... sends you over a massive ravine...

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... and lands you on another deck, safely. FIVE TIMES.

Dolphin Quest

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.

Jeff Miller

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.

Claudia Gonzalez

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:

Jeff Miller

Stop #1:
El Galleon Usually the first stop of any night, the sorta pirate-themed El Galleon's right in the center of the boardwalk... 

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... has karaoke nightly...

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... and serves straight-up gargantuan beers.

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Stop #2: 
The Marlin This locals-inhabited spot features occasional cover bands...

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... is guarded over by a statue of Jack Daniel's... 

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... plus has a pool table and a boat-shaped bar...

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...with the greatest sign EVER over the bar.

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Stop #3:
J L's Locker Room This sports bar's claim to fame?

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That'd be OJ's ACTUAL AUTOGRAPH made out to the bar owner.

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And yeah, more pool (and darts!) in the back.

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Stop #4:
Chi Chi Club No matter what, your night is ending at the Chi Chi Club, the only "club" on the island...

... albeit one that lets in cows...

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... has a raging dance floor...

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... and the best wall art that money could buy. In 1975.

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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...

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... like this burger...

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... and these carne asada fries.

Jeff Miller

Both of which'll guarantee you'll feel good when you wake up in the morning to this view, again.

Jeff Miller is Thrillist LA's senior city editor and loves to have his Wiki, uh, Wacked. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Luau Larry's 509 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

This Catalina Island institution since they've been offering terrific drinks and a menu loaded with tasty favorites like their burgers, seafood, and island specialties.

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2. The Sandtrap 501 Avalon Canyon Rd, Avalon, CA 90704

Do you like $1 tacos, $5 margs, and overall awesome Mexican food and drinks? Well if you're on Catalina Island and get a craving, this is THE SPOT.

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3. Descanso Beach St Catherine Way, Avalon, CA 90704

This beautiful beach is an ideal spot to lounge for the day, with rentable cabanas, lounge chairs, and a bar.

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4. Original Jack's Country Kitchen 118 Catalina Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

This Catalina Island breakfast spot serves a number of dishes, but you'll want to try the Hawaiian French toast, which is topped with macadamia nuts, and served with Portuguese sausage and coconut syrup.

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5. Antonio's Pizzeria & the Catalina Cabaret 230 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

This is a quality Avalon spot for various Italian dishes, peanuts on the floor, and a bowl of their famous day-old spaghetti (which is actually delicious).

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6. Avalon Grille 423 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

This Catalina Island hotspot is one of the best places to stop in for a hearty meal after a long day at the beach. The burger is renowned, and so are the 'tails.

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7. Chi Chi Club 111 Sumner Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

Catalina's only nightclub, this is where you'll be breaking it down 'til 3am, only to get some of the Island's best post-last-call eats directly after.

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8. Big Olaf's 220 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

This Catalina ice cream hotspot is one for the vacation books. With varying and unique flavors, it's the perfect way to end a hot day at the beach.

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9. Bluewater Avalon 306 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

Home to amazing crab legs, yuzu-topped scallops, and more fancy seafood deliciousness, this is a great spot to bring a date.

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10. Marlin Club 108 Catalina Ave., Avalon, CA 90704

With local cover bands, a statue of Jack Daniels, and pool table this place is a local favorite. Plus, there's a boat-shaped bar.

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11. Pete's Plaza Cafe 128 Summer Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

Pete's Plaza Cafe is great for a morning pick-me-up in the form of a hearty breakfast burrito and some coffee, but you can also stop there on your way home for the night and soak up some of your indiscretions with a burger or carne asada fries.

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12. Pic Nic Fry 104 Claressa Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

Pic Nic Fry is a casual fry shack on Catalina Island with an extensive menu full of snacks like chili cheese fries, nachos, and even slightly more satisfying fare like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.

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13. J L's Locker Room 124 Sumner Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

One of the four main bars on the island, J L's Locker Room is a divey sports bar with TVs so you can catch the game, or pool, darts, and arcades if you'd like to play your own game instead.

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14. Eric's on the Pier 2 Green Pleasure Pier, Avalon, CA 90704

Eric's hooks you up with made-to-order burgers, fish tacos, funnel cakes, breakfast burritos, and more -- all available for you to enjoy on their outdoor dining area, right on the pier.

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15. Casino Dock Cafe , Avalon, CA 90704

The Dock Cafe is the fry-shack looking building that's right next to the casino. If you're up here, you gotta make sure you stop by for a beer because the view is amazing.

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16. El Galleon 411 Crescent Ave., Avalon, CA 90704

It's sorta-pirate themed, but it also has karaoke every night and serves huge beers, so that makes up for the decor.

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