The seaplane windows sprayed with salt water as the pontoons hit the water. Slowly we slid to the dock and climbed out of the little airplane. This is my oldest memory of Catalina Island and my family has returned several times over the decades. Now, crossing “26 miles across the sea,” as the song goes is a treat with family as well as friends. I love that there’s a little city to explore on foot, bike or golf cart as well as the quieter experience of Two Harbors on the other side of the island.
(This post is updated from 2017.)
How to Get To Catalina Island
Visit Catalina and Stay in Avalon
Where to Eat in Avalon
The village is packed with cafes and hotel restaurants along the bay. We choose two for a weekend winter getaway. The locals enjoy their pizza but for a good time and generous portions choose a drink and dinner at the Lobster Trap. We chose Blue Water Grill for our anniversary dinner. Our seafood entrees competed for top prize with the sunset from our patio table.
The Joys of Two Harbors
This part of the island looms large in my family history. My partner started his seafood business from the beach on the far side of the isthmus. He harvested sea weed for an agar company and strolled into town to the wild bar in the port. Today things are quieter. There are fewer fishermen or tourists, especially in the winter. With trails criss-crossing the hills or low-lying beachfront, there’s something to satisfy anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
The house was built in 1910 for the Banning family and sits perched on a hill between the two harbors. The craftsman style inn has only 12 rooms that are booked most of the year. We were lucky to score a family-style space facing Catalina Harbor. Each morning there was a modest breakfast, a happy hour in the evening, and we walked down to the Harbor Restaurant for dinner. It was a relaxed and simple routine.
There’s not much lodging in Two Harbors. There are now a few Airbnb rentals, a campground is available, and after the summer crowds have left, you might book one of the modest staff cabins. I recommend booking well in advance.
Crossing by car or bus also gives you a chance to see Buffalo and they’re magnificent locals.
Stop by the Airport in the Sky
The small “Airport in the Sky” was full of kitsch and housed in a beautiful Spanish Colonial style hacienda. There’s a nature exhibit and alongside the souvenir shop, a large, casual dining room. Made me wish I had friends with an airplane although I understand there’s a bump on the runway!
I love all things retro from the 20’s and 40’s, I was thrilled to finally tour the old Casino building. It was easy to imagine my mother and her sisters taking the ferry over to dance to the big bands. In those days unescorted women were frowned upon, but if you took the ferry to join the ballroom crowds no one minded. It might have had something to do with Mr. Wrigley banning alcohol on the premises. (He couldn’t keep it off the ferry though!)
When you visit Catalina Island there are so many ways to frame your journey. It’s a bit quieter than pre-pandemic days but the energy is picking up. Check schedules for the return of festivals, dance clubs, restaurants with both casual and fine dining, gardens, camps, and private beaches.
When you visit Catalina
- Schedule your cross-island adventure with Back Country Catalina
- Safari Bus across the Island – Seasonal schedule
- The Banning House Lodge – Book one of 12 rooms
- Catalina Express – Departures from San Pedro and from Long Beach, note there are seasonal schedules and they don’t depart every day.
- If you enjoyed this post here’s another world-class boat ride in Switzerland.
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Catalina Island seems truly spectacular and a great winter destination, Elaine. Are there any good hiking trails?
Yes. If you look you’ll find a picture with a Cross-island hiking trail sign.
Love the art deco touches. I lived in Southern California for 10 years, saw Catalina Island all the time, but never visited. I gotta go!
It can be a wonderful getaway depending on what you’re looking for. I hope you get over there.
I’ve been to Catalina Island several times and was just thinking about it again the other day. Maybe I’ll visit again with my young granddaughter. And the Banning House looks like a lovely spot to overnight. I remember getting around in rented golf carts back when. Are those still an option?
Nice to hear you’re a Catalina fan also. The golf carts are still available in Avalon, not in Two Harbors.
Lovely post. And I didn’t know that you can even spot a fox there. That’s amazing.
Foxes and Buffalo, not bad for an island.
This seems like a fun place in any season. I sure would want to do that Segway tour as well as try that Safari. Seems like a lot of the place can be covered with these two and then of course, there is always that Casino to relax 😉
Yes, there’s a lot to do but the Casino isn’t for gambling and never was. There’s a fun party beach just past it that you might enjoy.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to Catalina Island. But you’ve definitely put it on my list, Elaine. Love the Art Deco, too!
Thanks, Doreen. It’s a lovely place if you get there without big crowds. We waited out a cruise ship crowd and had most of the restaurants and diversions to ourselves.
I have visited Catalina in January before. Nice to have the crowds gone. It was a very different experience than when we went in August! But still wonderful either way.
That’s true, Tami, it’s a great place to visit year round but different.
I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on Catalina Island – because I was here last October! My husband and I spent the day at Avalon, and it was a last minute trip near the end of our time in LA. We weren’t aware of all of the things you mentioned! While it was a pretty place, we were at a loss of what to do! We saw people renting golf carts and driving those everywhere, and we hiked up to the top of the hills for the postcard perfect view of the harbour, ate some pizza and ice cream, and that was it! Seeing your post makes me see that you are able to get out of the main town and explore more – I wish we were better informed 🙂
You’ll just have to return on your next So Cal trip!
Some great reasons to visit for sure! and How charming is the Banning lodge, definitely an experience!
I didn’t even touch on the history of the Banning family. They’re still there on the walls.
This sounds like a perfect laidback vacation. The Banning House looks lovely and the viewpoint awe-inspiring. Catalina Island looks like an amazing place to visit we would be happy to spot some wildlife too.
Thanks for the comment. It’s a gem and so close to the bustling coast.
Never been to Catalana but as you chronicle your experiences it feels as if I’ve been there. And I agree, having yo explore the Island during winter is the best shot. Hopefully when I visit, it would be in a period of festivals. I’d love to align with the locals.
There are many fun events planned throughout the year. I hope you get the chance.
Catalina is so beautiful and inviting. I should have planned to go there rather than Europe for winter. Next year
I wouldn’t compare Catalina to Europe! I hope that you can visit next year perhaps.
I am a great fan of off season travel less crowds and it really gives you time to enjoy a place even the locals seem friendlier
I’m always surprised at how many people enjoy shoulder season travel. It’s easier to connect and visit for certain.
What a great idea! If the weather is still enjoyable, travelling off-season is often rewarding. I love when it’s quieter. I’m sure I’d love Catalina Island. It looks like it has a wonderful mix of my favourite activities: nature walks, wildlife spotting, camping and even some snorkelling! Thanks for sharing this!
You are most welcome, Eloise. I hope you get over to the island one day!
’ve only stayed in Avalon, adding the Two Harbors area to my list. Great shot of the buffalo. I prefer winter visit too, less crowds. 🙂
Fellow traveler! Thanks, I wanted to see more of the Buffalo but that will have to be another time.
I love that Viewpoint! It looks like such a special place on our planet. I need to be there!
Two Harbors is pretty calm and special – if you’re looking for that!
Dang it, any time will be a great time for me to visit Catalina. I lived in San Pedro and Palos Verdes for a few years, and never got there. I will return to SoCal just to visit Catalina one of these days.
I would love to try the Segway tour of Avalon. It’s great to hear of places that are nice and warm, and perfect for water sports during the winter months. I live in Dubai, another great city for enjoying beach weather and water activities during the winter months. The Catalina Harbour viewpoint has some amazing views!
Catalina’s pretty with a very California vibe.
I went to Catalina years ago, not even sure if I went in the winter or the summer. I would love to go back and see more. The segway tour sounds like a great idea.
I’ve been a different age and time of year for visiting Catalina Island. It’s always been fun.
Great recommendations for things to do around Catalina Island! Cool how you can do everything around there — from hiking to scuba diving to even riding segways! Love the buffalo sighting, too. Amazing creatures!
Thanks, Jolina. There are lots of fun diversions around the island for certain.
I agree that sometimes, winter is the best time to visit very touristy places. The chill vibe makes up for the chilly weather. I’m glad though that your photos had great blue skies instead of the usual gloom in winter. It’s also awesome that Segways are available for hiking… but I would’ve also been anxious about doing that on steep slopes. Glad you had fun!
We had such fun seeing the city and hills by Segway. Glad you liked the pictures too.
It never occurred to me to go to Catalina in winter. For me this island is all about the water and warm weather, but it’s true that in summer you have to put up with the crowds. It’s been really long since we’ve been there last. Your post and beautiful picture really made me want to go back.
I know what you mean about it being a summer fun kind of place but there’s still so much to enjoy during the rest of the year. Glad you liked the pictures too.
Your photo of the bays is incredible — so striking I love it. How neat that your family was able to get together for a holiday here again. I have a place like this back home in New Zealand where my family would go every year and it’s my favourite place in the world. It’s going on five years since I’ve been back there but I’m hoping next year might be the one!
Dear Wilbs, Sounds like you’ve got a special place to return to as well. I love local spots and would love to see yours in New Zealand one year.
I have been to Catalina only once. That is ironic because I can see it from my office. We had a great time when we visited and have wanted to go back. But, we need to plan it. I have not been to the interior but I am interested in seeing the bison and foxes.
Very cool that you can see the island from your office! You need to get over there. The cross-island ride is another whole experience.