Santa Catalina Island—or Catalina to those in the know—is one of California's best-unkept secrets. It's a hidden gem in plain sight. Day-trippers, cruise lines, vacationers, and A-listers alike have flocked to this small-town island paradise for decades to take in all that it has to offer.
White sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and water sports abound for those interested in relaxing and having family-friendly fun. Fresh seafood, wine, and island-brewed beer and coffee entice foodies. And history buffs will find no shortage of entertainment on Catalina, where old Hollywood has left a deep imprint.
Getting there is easy. Visitors can catch a one-hour ferry ride from Long Beach, Dana Point, San Pedro, or Newport Beach to Avalon, the charming heart of Catalina. Once there, golf carts and bikes are the way to go—cars are few and far between—but Avalon and much of the island is also very walkable. A shuttle boat also operates around the island.
Gail Fornasiere from the Catalina Island Museum shared all sorts of insights about the island on the California Now Podcast—and we've captured some of the highlights below.
Though it has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years, it wasn't until the 20th century that Catalina actually developed a reputation as a vacation destination. It came into the hands of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. by 1919, who erected the Catalina Casino (home to the world's largest circular ballroom!) and the first-ever theater specifically designed for showing movies. He also brought the Chicago Cubs there for spring training, where they practiced in the pre-season for the next 30 years.
It was also at that time that the seeds of Hollywood history were planted on the island. In the ensuing 30 years, Hollywood A-Listers would rave about it, and filmmakers would use it as a backdrop for hundreds of films. Perhaps the most iconic bit of Hollywood history comes from a famous former resident of the island—a young, newly married Marilyn Monroe, who lived there for a time during the 1940s with her then-military husband, who was stationed on Catalina.
The Catalina Island Museum in Avalon has curated all this history and more, making it a must-see stop on any trip to the island.
It is an island in sunny Southern California, after all. But what makes Catalina's beaches truly special is the unique white sand and crystal-clear waters, reminiscent of a South Pacific paradise.
Beach-goers can choose from a variety of public and private beaches across the island, including the iconic Descanso Beach Club, South Beach, Middle Beach, and the beaches of Two Harbors, a more isolated area on the island's west side where you can relax under a palapa. Water activities abound everywhere too, offering visitors the option to do more than just relax on the beach.
Catalina Island Conservancy
Catalina is also home to Southern California's largest private land trust, established in the early 1970s by the son of William Wrigley, Jr., and his family. They wanted to preserve Catalina's natural beauty and set aside more than 88 percent of the island's land as forever wild. That includes miles of unspoiled beaches, secluded coves, and the habitats of several unique plant, animal, and insect species.
It's open to the public for hiking, camping and exploring. Outdoor enthusiasts can start their adventures at the Conservancy's Trailhead in Avalon, where they can find information where to go, what to do, and how to make the most of their journey.
Green Pleasure Pier
This 407-foot pier jutting from the shores of Avalon dates back to the late 1800s, when Catalina was still in its early days as a tourist resort. Today, visitors can find an assortment of restaurants (fresh seafood!) with great views, and access to tours, water sports and activities. It's also the home base of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau.
True to its name, the buildings of the pier are indeed green, a deliberate choice made in its early days to give it a rustic look.
Across the island from the relative hustle and bustle of Avalon, you'll find a quieter Catalina. Two Harbors is a tiny village with a single restaurant, a bar, and a general store. There are some places to stay—like the historic Banning House Lodge and cozy Catalina cabins—but many visitors seek out Two Harbors specifically for camping.
It's a dream for outdoor lovers, who can engage in everything from hiking and mountain biking to snorkeling, diving, and boating. But it's also an idyllic place for beaching out, with shady palapas dotting the shore and a cool island breeze that pervades. Those eager to experience Two Harbors can take the ferry from San Pedro directly there, or they can take the Cyclone power boat from Avalon.