From flying fish to laid-back luaus, here are our picks of the best things to do on Santa Catalina Island
Once a getaway for Hollywood elites to escape from paparazzi, Catalina Island has in recent decades become more of a not-so-secret treasure for everyday Angelenos and visitors looking for a simple, relaxing vacation. Cars are few and far-between on the island, and just about everything is either walking distance or a short golf-cart-taxi-ride away; whether you’re shooting for a family vibe, an outdoor-sports experience or a party-heavy hang, Catalina’s got something for everyone in both its port town of Avalon and out into the wild island interior. Here are the best things to do no matter your vibe once you hop off the hour-long boat ride from the mainland.
Flying Fish Voyage
What is it: One of the only opportunities you’ll ever have to watch fish fly. Seriously.
Why go: For nearly a century, Catalina’s flying fish boat has been wowing visitors with a surreal experience that seems culled from a dreamworld. Every night over the summer, the crew lures Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus (otherwise known as flying fish) out of the water for not-quite-actual-flying-but-it-sure-looks-like-it glides up to 100 feet. Bring a jacket—it can get chilly —and keep your eyes out: the fish often end up landing inside the boat.
Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens
What is it: A beautiful ode to the island’s famous founding father.
Why go: William Wrigley, Jr (yes, the gum guy) is responsible for the development of Catalina. So of course the garden and memorial that carries his name is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. It’s a moderate hike from the beach (you can also get up to it by renting a bike, or via golf cart—more on that in a bit). Once there you’ll be immersed in a 37-acre botanical garden focused on plants endemic to California and the Channel Islands. See breathtaking views from the tower overlook built from quarried rocks culled from the island itself.
The Catalina Casino
What is it: Not a gambling hall—rather, it’s a palatial special-events venue complete with a beautiful art-deco movie theater.
Why go: The sort-of-Roman-looking Catalina Casino is the most iconic building on the island, with walls full of stories. Steeped in over 90 years of history, your able to learn more about Catalina Casino on three different walking tours. If a tour’s not your thing, it’s still worth going to a movie there (first-run films show nightly at 7:30pm). The art deco theater is gorgeous, and there’s often pre-show music played through its 1920s-era organ.
What is it: A classic burger-and-drinks shack—with the best fries you’ll ever have.
Why go: First time visitors to Catalina can’t help but notice slews of tourists sporting straw hats. It’s because they’ve all had the Wiki Wack at Luau Larry’s. The fun signature cocktail comes with one of the ubiquitous headpieces. Grease the drink down with their curly fries, which are always perfectly crispy, and seasoned with—well, it’s a secret, but it’s gotta be magic, whatever it is. The burgers aren’t bad, and there are often live-music singalongs at night.
Descanso Beach Club
What is it: The ‘fancy’ beach on the island, with cabanas, booze and more.
Why go: You can set a blanket on Avalon’s main beaches for free if you’d like. But it’s worth taking a walk just past the Casino to Descanso. Here they offer rentable chaise lounges and cabanas. They’re also the only place on the island you can enjoy alcoholic beverages(for all you rose drinkers). There are also rentable paddleboards, snorkel sets and kayaks, and, over the summer, DJs and live bands on weekends.
Golf cart rental
What is it: The best way to see a large percentage of the island—and get a great view.
Why go: Sure, you could spend all your time on Catalina in town in Avalon. But if you want to explore more of the island, the best way is via golf cart. In about two hours you can see beautiful views, check out some of the historical structures and explore hidden spots.
Eco Zip Line
What is it: A high-intensity aerial experience.
Why go: High-octane adventure seekers should seek out two Catalina experiences: the Ocean Runner boat tour, which blasts through the water at high-speeds on a ribcraft boat, and this high-flying tour, which descends over five ziplines, 600 feet above Descanso, from a unique vantage point to learn about the island’s unusual ecosystem if you’re not just in it for the thrills.
What is it: An outdoorsperson’s prime reason to visit.
Why go: Catalina’s inland is covered with hiking trails and camping spots. With over 165 miles of trails to explore, you’ll have options ranging from easy to expert. Obviously, it’s a way to get closer with nature: the island’s host to tons of interesting plants and animals. These include tiny Island foxes and imposing buffalo! With some luck, on an inland hike, you may see a herd peacefully grazing.
Catalina Room Escape
What is it: Avalon’s newest family-friendly activity.
Why go: Just opened in 2018, the island’s only escape room (pirate-themed, naturally). It is a challenging and fun way to spend an hour if you have one to spare. Just keep in mind: duck, and then look up. We didn’t, and needed to ask for a hint. You’re welcome.
What is it: A time-honored nighttime tradition.
Why go: There’s not a ton of nightlife on Catalina, which can become part of the appeal of a visit. Stop by for karaoke at El Galleon, venturing later in the night to the Marlin, before hitting the dance floor at Club Chi-Chi. Then end the evening with a final nightcap at the Locker Room. The next night? Repeat.
What is it: William Wrigley Jr’s old mansion—and your fancy lunch spot.
Why go: Mt. Ada, once William Wrigley Jr.’s mansion, and now the fanciest hotel on the island, is also an ideal dining spot. It’s only open for lunch, with a three-course menu that’s not exactly formal, but does have an air of classiness.