by Jen Lucas, Pack Up + Go Contributor

Santa Catalina Island, located 22 miles south-southwest of Los Angeles, California, has two major ports: Two Harbors and Avalon. Two Harbors is more of a camping aficionado’s dream with little amenities, whereas Avalon is a quaint town reminiscent of a Mediterranean isle with a population of around 4,100. Catalina Island is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Southern California and here are a few reasons why it’s a must-visit spot.

1. Water sports

The water clarity in Catalina Island is impeccable, allowing lovers of all things aquatic to enjoy activities such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, parasailing, fishing, and snorkeling. Catalina is also well known by scuba divers for its incredible ecosystem, including rich kelp beds and orange garibaldi fish. There are several dive shops available on the island all of which offer gear and instruction for all levels, from certified divers to beginners.

2. Descanso Beach Club

The Descanso Beach Club is located just past the casino, and is technically a private beach with public access. The club’s restaurant, located seaside, offers food and drink which can be taken down to the sand if one is so inclined. There is also a section off of the main beach where guests can rent chairs for the day at a reasonable price. The cost is $80 for a full day, which includes two chairs, complimentary water, and towels. Be sure to reserve in advance on the Catalina Island Company’s website. In peak season, Descanso hosts beach parties on Saturdays featuring DJ’s, and live music on Sundays.

3. Zip Line Eco Tour

Conveniently located near the Descanso Beach Club, Catalina Island’s Zip Line Eco Tour features five separate lines starting high in the hills and descending through Descanso Canyon. At each platform, guides provide various Catalina Island factoids about the island’s history and wildlife. As you descend the lines, some as long as 1100 feet, you get the perfect view of mountain and ocean terrain. The tours, which are available year-round, last approximately 2 hours and end a short walk from the Descanso Beach Club, allowing you to grab a well-deserved drink after the adventure.

4. Scenic views

Catalina is a rocky, mountainous island with lush greenery and fantastic coastal views. Another way to view the scenery in a less daring fashion than the zip line is to rent a golf cart from one of the many vendors. This mode of transportation allows for a self-guided tour of the hills overlooking the town of Avalon, which has extraordinary panoramic ocean views. Cars are rare on the island, so the preferred mode of transportation for locals and tourists is via golf cart. There are many roads to explore, and the rental companies provide maps, so it’s tough to get lost, especially since all roads lead down to the main area of Avalon. The rates for each rental company are comparable, and each offers four or six-passenger carts. Drivers must be 25 years of age.  

5. Seafood

Catalina offers a wide variety of fare including casual dining, fine steakhouses, Mexican restaurants, and some of the best seafood options. I am a huge fan of the fish and chips at Avalon Seafood & Fish Market located on the pier. It is a no-frills, take out spot with delicious, homemade tarter sauce. The Lobster Trap is also a casual seafood eatery with fantastic seafood menu selections. For a more upscale option, there is the Bluewater Grill located on the water with spectacular harbor views.

6. Nightlife

For those fortunate enough to be able to spend the night on Catalina rather than returning to mainland California the same day, there are several bars and clubs on the island worth considering. While you might not associate a quiet little town such as Avalon with having a nightlife scene, there are numerous options that prove the locals know how to have fun.  

Luau Larry’s is located on the main cobblestone road in Avalon with harbor views and a casual tiki themed interior. They are famous for the Wiki Wacker cocktail, and those brave enough to drink one are honored with a large straw hat while consuming the fish bowl sized concoction, and a bumper sticker once finished, stating “I had my wiki wacked at Luau Larry’s.”

The Marlin Club, which is the oldest bar in Avalon, boasts nautical décor such as a boat-shaped bar, live music and various bar games including darts, foosball, pinball and video games. They also host live music acts most weekends, as well as a jukebox.

For the dancing king or queen, the Chi Chi Club is a must see. It is the only dance club on the island, and is usually the last stop for tourists and locals alike as it stays open late. The 21 and over nightclub hosts DJ’s, live bands and music for every generation. They also have a VIP lounge available for private parties and groups.

Catalina is a beautiful escape from the heavily populated coastal areas in both Los Angeles and Orange counties, and is easy enough for a day trip, although I’d suggest staying overnight if an option. For me, it’s a repeat destination and one I always recommend!