Perfect Getaway: Santa Catalina Island is a Quick Trip Away From it All

Take a quick boat ride to forget your troubles.
Catalina’s Casino is an art deco classic. Photo credit: Courtesy of Catalina Island Company

Yearning to get away from it all? There’s no need to book an expensive trip to a far-flung destination. Instead, you could find yourself amid paradise in less time than it often takes to get through airport security. Santa Catalina Island is picturesque, sun-soaked, and about “26 miles across the sea.” Its only town, Avalon, is in the middle of a renaissance as it transitions from sleepy hamlet to haute destination with amenity-rich hotels and upscale restaurants amidst the time-honored shell shops and ice cream stands.

In the early 1900s, William Wrigley Jr. of chewing-gum fame would take his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, to the island for spring training. His hilltop estate, named Mt. Ada after his wife, is now an intimate retreat featuring six ocean-view rooms, which vary in size and amenities ($480 a night and up). Stays include breakfast, lunch, and an evening reception, plus all-day noshing from the complimentary butler’s pantry (wine and beer included) and a golf cart to putt around in.

The Pavilion Hotel, 14 steps from the beach, is a midcentury boutique inn that has stepped into the modern era after a much-needed renovation. Rooms open onto a central courtyard, where complimentary afternoon wine and cheese are served, and breakfast is included ($235 and up in fall). The 1920s-era Hotel Atwater also has a new lease on life with a multimillion dollar renovation that will be revealed this month. Hamilton Cove, an enclave of terraced condominiums tucked on a snug harbor overlooking the ocean, offers one- to three-bedroom rentals with outdoor terraces and a golf cart to zip back and forth to Avalon ($398 and up).

Zip lines on Catalina provide amazing views. Photo credit: Courtesy of Catalina Island Company

Five zip lines traversing the landscape and dropping from 600 feet above sea level offer Thrillseekers aerial views of Catalina at speeds of up to 45 mph while covering nearly three-quarters of a mile ($134). There are opportunities to pause at several eco-stations, where guides will share interesting history and anecdotes about the island.

Hollywood left its mark on the island when a crew took over 14 American bison for a 1924 silent film. Once the movie wrapped, the crew left the animals behind. Steve’s Steakhouse and Seafood pays homage to the bison by offering buffalo cheeseburgers ($19 at dinner) and Buffalo Milk, a blended concoction of creme de banana, dark creme de cacao, vodka, Kahlúa, and milk.

To mark the 125th anniversary of the Catalina Island Co., two historic tours are being offered ($38 and up). The Catalina Country Club, originally the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, is home to a curated collection of sports memorabilia. Other stops include the field where the team’s spring training took place from 1921 to 1951, as well as the 1925 Catalina Chimes Tower, which clangs every 15 minutes.

Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust, offers ecotours that explore the island’s interior. Off-roading is part of the excitement, but the real thrill is getting a look at roaming bison and fox as well as a visit to Eagle’s Nest Lodge, a former stagecoach stop and hunting lodge. Tours last two to three hours ($80-$120).

The Catalina Casino was built in 1929. Ninety years later, this 11-story beacon is still a hub for the island’s social life. There are walking tours that offer unique perspectives into the history of this art deco masterpiece. The Avalon Theatre shows first-run movies at 6:30 nightly ($10 and up). Arrive an hour early any Friday or Saturday evening and be treated to a performance on the original 1929 Page Pipe Organ.

Descanso Beach offers loungers and cabanas. Photo credit: Courtesy of Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce

Just beyond the iconic casino is Descanso Beach, with its fleet of umbrella-laden loungers ($85 and up) and cabanas ($175 and up) neatly placed before the ocean embracing a European flair. There’s an outdoor bar, seaside restaurant, and a kiosk to book activities. Weekends offer an impromptu beach party.

“Take the Cyclone (power boat) and head down to Two Harbors at The Isthmus. Once you arrive, have lunch on the beach at Harbor Sands and enjoy a Painkiller. It’s the perfect cocktail to have in your hand when your toes are in the sand.”
—Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing and public relations, Catalina Island Museum

Sept. 6 and 7: The Catalina Wine Mixer had a starring role in the Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy film “Step Brothers.” This annual event takes place at Descanso Beach and features live music, dancing, food, cocktails, and great wine ($59 and up).

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