Catalina Island

••• Avalon’s harbor and main street lie along a crescent-shaped cove. Santa Catalina Island Company.

Couples looking for a quick and unpretentious romantic getaway in Southern California can find it on Catalina Island, twenty-two miles and fifty years off the coast.

Unless you are sailing to Catalina Island yourselves, there’s only one destination: Avalon, an intimate beach town with a “no worries” island attitude.

Walking is the main mode of transportation on Catalina Island (except for the occasional golf cart taxi); about 800 cars are allowed on the island, and the waiting list for permits is fifty years.

So you slip into stress-free vacation mode as soon as you arrive.

A bit of shopping, plenty of relaxed dining, and outdoor activities lure couples to Catalina Island. Don your shorts, grab a book and some suntan lotion, and you’re good to go.

How to Get to Catalina Island

The Catalina Express from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point offers a fleet of vessels and many departure times. Whether you sit indoors or out while crossing the channel, there are spectacular views of the open sea, including an occasional dolphin, and a view of the mainland.

You can upgrade to cushier seats and free snacks and a drink. The trip to Avalon takes a little over an hour, and the ferry docks at the foot of town. Couples who prefer thrills and speed can reserve Island Express' helicopter service to Catalina's “Airport in the Sky.”

What to Do on Catalina Island 

Avalon is barely three square miles of restaurants, small hotels, bars and shops.

It’s neither opulent nor ritzy, and not to be confused with Palm Springs or La Jolla.

A couple of tiny beaches line sheltered Avalon Bay, but swimming isn’t featured here. Catalina’s coastline consists of rocky cliffs, with a couple of cozy harbors. There are few paved roads. You’re here to rest and wander and enjoy the sea air.

First, we suggest a stroll over to the iconic Avalon Casino. Built in 1929, it’s a dazzling marvel of artistry and design, and a romantic destination in itself. The one-hour guided tour is worth it: you’ll see the gorgeously restored movie theater, with hand-painted walls and a pipe organ (some screenings include a pre-show organ concert), along with film projectors from back in the day. Upstairs is the largest ballroom dance floor in the world; it's still used for weddings and special events. The building exudes romance and elegance, inside and out. (Note: There’s no gambling at the Casino, and never was.)

For those who find life and death experiences an aphrodisiac, there is a mile-long zipline eco tour that ends just yards from Descanso Cove. Harnessed into a trolley that is attached to steel cables, participants fly across canyons at heights of up to 300 feet, making five stops to catch their breath and learn a little about the local ecology.

We were curious about the interior of the island, so we took a half-day jeep excursion. It’s a dusty, bumpy ride on dirt roads that offer some interesting views of Los Angeles and nearby islands. You might see a roaming buffalo off in the distance — but don’t hold your breath.

We stopped at the Airport in the Sky (about an hour outside Avalon) to eat lunch and enjoy the scenery.

Other activities: kayaking, snorkeling, glass bottom boat and submarine tours, and a sundown cruise to the far end of the island. Options differ depending on the season.

Catalina Island Hotels

  • Pavilion Hotel 
    The renovated, two-story Pavilion Hotel is clean and remarkably quiet considering Avalon’s main street is outside the front door and the Bay is across the street. Rooms on the ground floor offer couples semi-private patios. Ignite a romantic evening snuggling up around the big fire pit in the courtyard, or start earlier with a wine and cheese sampling. A romance package is available.
  • Avalon Hotel 
    A long block from the Pacific Ocean, the Avalon is a romantic Catalina destination. It has only 15 rooms; all are cozy and many have a great view of the town and the bay. Homey decorations, wet bars in some rooms, a beautiful interior patio, and the rooftop party deck make the Avalon Hotel a good spot to settle in for the weekend.

    Catalina Island Restaurants

    • Avalon Grille
      This upscale but inexpensive waterfront eatery has an easy California style and food to match. A full bar, along with standard grill favorites like a half-roasted chicken, salads, burgers, and prime New York strip steak, makes this a delicious place for lunch or dinner. We also became closely attached to the crispy brussels sprouts. The lights are low, the bar is long and you can dine at tall tables.
    • Descanso Beach Club
      Open for lunch, here you can get both a meal and a place to stretch out beside the beach by reserving a chaise or a cabana. Seating is available on a patio with an ocean view or your meal can be delivered directly to your beach towel. 

    Best Time to Visit Catalina Island

    Catalina Island can get crowded in the summer; it’s a destination for tourists, sailing enthusiasts and mainland weekenders seeking the seaside breezes. We visited in January, when the days are true to southern California’s famous climate: sunny, high temps in the sixties. Other winter visitors were few and the town was quiet but still fun. It was just the ticket for a short but relaxing thirty-six hour romantic getaway.