Travel Guide: Visiting St. Catalina Island - how to get there & what to do

Beginning of last year, our family of five relocated to Southern California from Germany for a temporary West Coast adventure. When we arrived in Newport Beach, one of the first questions people would ask us was whether we had already visited St. Catalina Island. They would point out onto the open sea, where an impressive Island was lying in the distance, and gleefully exclaim:" There! Cataleeena! Haven't you been yet? You must go!"

While we had heard of St. Catalina Island before (one of the eight Channel Island, southwest of LA), we had believed it to be solely a tourist attraction. We were surprised by how many SoCal locals were singing the Island's praises, undoubtedly regarding Catalina as an inherent part of the Southern California experience - one which we were urged not to miss!

We knew about Catalina's two main cities, Avalon in the east end and Two Harbors in the West; we had heard about Avalons's alluring and bustling Descanso Beach as well as Two Harbors' more relaxed, resort-style side. And we had been told about the great hiking paths up Mt. Orizaba, the highest peak on the Island and a popular setting for marriage proposals, or so they say!

Our children, especially, relished hearing about Catalina's Fun Fact number # 1: that a herd of American Bison (imported to the Island in 1925 for a movie but then never taken back to the mainland) had been growing and roaming Catalina (now under the supervision of the Island's Conservancy) for almost one hundred years!

With a backpack full of recommendations (and yes, a few expectations), we made our way to St. Catalina Island - and we were not disappointed.


There are several ways to get to St. Catalina Island - by helicopter, plane, on a private boat, or via a high - speed ferry, the latter being the transportation of choice for most people. Two companies offer a boat ride to Catalina Island: The Catalina Express and The Catalina Flyer.

1. Catalina Express

The Catalina Express is a high-speed ferry that departs daily from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point and arrives in either Avalon or Two Harbors. For schedules and fares, click here.

Tip: The Catalina Express offers Group Discounts for larger parties as well as a Costco Discount.

2. The Catalina Flyer

The Catalina Flyer is the largest passenger- carrying catamaran on the West Coast of the United States and departs daily at 9:00 am from the Balboa Pavillion in Newport Beach, arriving at Avalon. For schedules and fares, click here.

We opted for The Catalina Flyer (since we wanted to leave from Newport Beach) and hoped that, since we were going in November, we may have a chance to spot some gray whales who pass Catalina Island on their annual migration between November and March!

View from The Catalina Flyer towards Newport Beach


- depending on the time of year you go, make sure you have extra clothing to keep you warm, especially when you are outside on the boat

- comfortable shoes (you will be doing a lot of walking on St. Catalina!)

- snacks

- medicine for seasickness

- camera


The boat ride is only approximately 90 minutes long, and we recommend finding a suitable seat outside on the boat - if the weather allows - for two reasons. First and foremost, you do not want to miss the chance of possibly spotting a fellow traveler out in the ocean: we ended up seeing both common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins (who accompanied us for quite some time!) and, as we approached St. Catalina Island, Philip, Flori, and Nicolas even spotted a gray whale! Secondly, well, there's seasickness.


Since our little Flori is prone to seasickness, we did the following to make the trip as easy as possible for her:

Most importantly, we made sure we had a seat on the lower deck, outside at the stern in the middle of the boat where Flo could breathe in the fresh air and keep the horizon in sight the entire time; this helped calm her mind and body. We had also brought some homeopathic remedies (like MotionEaze, which always works well with our children) and made sure that Flori wore her acupressure wristband (which she loves to show off anyway).


Once we arrived in Avalon by ferry, we started walking down Pebble Beach Road - past the Veteran Memorial Park - and onto Crescent Avenue where we stopped at Green Pleasure Pier, a brightly - turquoise painted pier where fisherman used to hang their fish to dry.

Today, Green Pleasure Pier is bustling with visitors and locals who offer tours, water activities, dive opportunities as well as some delicious food. Since our children were eager to explore Catalina's sea-life, we opted for a glass-bottom boat tour where we could see and feed a plethora of fish - what a sight! And the children were even allowed to steer the boat!

After the tour, we continued to Middle Beach where the children played in the white sand while we looked out onto the fishing boats in front of us and then further to the East towards the many colorful houses that hug the steep terraces, reminding us of Cinque Terre's rugged Italian Riviera coastline.

After lunch at Bluewater Avalon, we continued our way down Casino Way towards the Casino (which is a cultural center, a movie theater, a ballroom as well as a museum all in one).

We especially loved discovering the unique architectural elements and landmarks - oh, those vibrant colors! - that preserve and beautifully capture Catalina's long and rich history: initially settled by the Tongva 7000 BCE, Catalina Island was first claimed by the Europeans for the Spanish Empire in 1542 and rediscovered in 1602, then transferred to Mexico in 1846 and eventually, in 1853, to the US.

(Here, Catalina's Fun Fact # 2 might be interesting: in the 1920s, it was chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., who started to develop Catalina by building the first hotel for visitors etc).

From the Casino we went on to St. Catherine's Way (whom St. Catalina Island is named after) towards the Descanso Beach Club. Here, we would have loved to stay, spend the night and explore the rest of the Island the next day, but it was time to make our way back to the ferry (you are required to be there at least 30 minutes before departure).

St. Catalina Island has much to offer, among favorites, are the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour, an Undersea Expedition in a submarine, Lover's Coves and the Golf Gardens.

If you do want to see it all, we recommend you stay for more than one day, rent golf carts (which is the preferred mode of transportation on the Island), and explore, explore, explore.

We plan to come back to St. Catalina Island, for there are still so many things we want to see, like the Trans Catalina Trail, the Chimes Tower, and the Botanical Gardens. And - please! - let's not forget the Bison!

(The Santa Catalina Island Company offers a two - hour Bison Exhibition through the herd's favorite grazing grounds through Middle Ranch and up to Cape Canyon from where to see Black Jack Mountain. And we are not going to miss that).

Oh, and if you were wondering whether there is a St. Catalina's Fun Fact # 3, there is! Marylin Monroe used to live on Catalina Island... for six months and back when people still called her Norma Jeane... Now you know! And you should go!

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