Taking the Ferry from Newport Beach For A Catalina Island Escape
A key stop for our 4 week west coast trip was to be a trip to Catalina Island. We were taking the ferry to our Catalina Island escape and being the anal planners that we are, we spent some time checking out exactly where the ferry dock was and options for overnight parking. With an early morning departure, we hoped this would save us time and frustration. We considered two departure options – the Catalina Flyer from the Newport Beach Peninsula would be closer to our hotel but Catalina Express from Dana Point would put us further down the coast towards San Diego when our late day ferry returned (it was before the June summer schedule and mid-week there was only one ferry back each day around 5pm). Neither the exact ferry location or overnight parking were well marked (one consistent finding for much if the US) but we ultimately scoped it all out and in the end decided to leave from Newport Beach.
Being compulsively early, we were at the dock at about 7:30 for a 9:00 departure to buy our tickets for our Catalina Island escape and get a place in the already forming line (note – online reservations for Catalina Flyer would not accept non-US addresses, so we needed to get the ticket onsite because the credit card could not validate without a correct Canadian address).
There were a wide range of passengers – workers travelling in crews loaded with tool boxes and sleeping bags, families with full rolling coolers packed for a long day, strollers and motorized wheelchairs, bikes and a broad assortment of large and small luggage – with just a few day travellers boarding with only their morning coffee. Much of this vast array of baggage was in contradiction to the stated baggage restrictions.
While the boat crew made no comments on the baggage itself (so you might consider ignoring baggage limitations posted online – at least before the summer season starts), the boat crew were firm in their insistence that no baggage went to the seats and all seats were to be packed with you and your new best friends.
I tried to use the crossing time to catch up on my writing but soon regretted this and the fact that I had boarded with no Gravol. Closing my iPad, the rest of the trip passed with my eyes glued to the horizon. Not normally being prone to sea sickness, I blamed myself since the sea was pretty calm.
Landing in Avalon for our Catalina Island Escape
It was a very short walk along the main beach road with our bags from the ferry dock to the small European style hotel the Villa Portofino.
Well prepared to handle early check-ins right after ferry arrivals, desk staff quickly had us in the room we had picked on the internet. While it was roomy with a sitting area, fireplace and king bed, it was probably the darkest room in the whole place – ok if you spend all the time away but you need every light on when you return, even during the day. Exploring, we wandered up to the rooftop patio which offered a great view of the harbour, with tables and loungers available for a relaxing break.
Heading back into town, we wandered past shops and restaurants designed to catch the tourist trade, not surprised at how many there were when we noticed that there was a Carnival cruise ship in Harbour. That explained the number of bicycles and golf carts whizzing past.
The walk around to the real sand beach was easy and picturesque – from the pier in town, to harbour houses to the old Casino.
We stopped to see the scuba divers and to look into the crystal clear water for creatures in the waving kelp. The scuba setup behind the old casino was ideal with a short walk into the water and easy tank refills. We were later told that this was considered a top diving site. And me without my 7mm wetsuit! I wasn’t even attempting swimming in the cold June water. David wore his bathing suit under his shorts for 3 days but never got hot enough to brave the water.
The sand beach by Descanso Beach was a little nicer than by the docks, offering a wide variety of water craft.
Far out at sea we saw the private Super Yacht “Attesa”, complete with its own Helicopter.
There were all kinds of water craft to be found – kayaks, sailboats, the large luxury yachts, glass bottom and sub sightseeing boats and a Carnival cruise line boat. For those wanting more adventure, there was a zip line that ended at this beach, with a bus ride to the mountains to begin your ride down to the beach. The beach chair and umbrella rental was reasonably priced if you didn’t want to plop down like a local on a towel.
We stayed close on the first night for a romantic dinner at the hotel’s Villa Portofino Restaurant. It offered a great blend of Italian and seafood. We had the colourful green New Zealand mussels again, continuing to be amazed at how big they are! David’s seafood pasta was massive, making a great lunch for a second day. My grilled scallops with risotto (secret recipe) were sweet and tasty. We finally managed to get to desert this time and the chocolate flat cake was cleaned off the plate. Not a cheap dinner but high quality!
The next morning we found it busy in town again. The cruise boat was in for 2 days when we were there and even mid-week before summer season (starts June 27 this year), the ferry deposited large groups of day visitors several times a day.
This made the town very busy and touristy by day, but when the last boat departed at dinner time, the island was reclaimed by the locals and the overnight visitors. The noise level settled down and the golf cart numbers thinned. It felt very much like Capri in the evening calm.
While it was easy to walk from one side of Avalon to the other along the water, one day we got a day pass for the Catalina Trolley ($2 one way or $7 per day “in season”). This allowed us to explore from Descanso Beach to the ferry docks (close to lovers Cove) along the shore and inland to the botanical gardens. The trolley runs every 30 minutes (or so) and ended up being a great way to hop around town one day.
Stopping for lunch at the Cafe Metropole was such a success, we went back the next day again for lunch and even had the same thing both times. Not messing with success! The chef’s choice salad had a base of mixed greens with cranberries, sugar walnuts and feta, which I topped with real roast turkey for protein. David resorted to his favourite tuna sandwich with a side salad. It was our nod at vegetables for the day!
We kept humming and hahhhing about whether we wanted to just laze about or go on a tour that would give us more of a view of the island than just Avalon. By the time we finally decided, we had a more limited selection of tours but still managed to find something that appealed to us.
As befitting a major tourist destination, that is also a cruise ship port, there were a wide number of land and sea tours available. The land tours took you various distances within the interior of this very desert-like island, with potential views of bison and the airport in the sky. The water tours (glass bottom boats, submarine rides and snorkelling) took you around one bay, all to the same Lovers Cove. The cove had a kelp forest close to shore, apparently full of fish. You could easily walk to the cove and snorkel in from shore, with gear available in many spots in town.
The sunset tour with Catalina Tours was 5hrs, taking you to Two Harbours (the other mini town on the island). The trip is mostly in the lee of the island and we went on a pretty calm day, so the offered rain ponchos covered the little spray we encountered in the open air boat. Enroute you got a great view of the rugged coast and what remains of mining operations. Despite all eyes peeled, we saw no dolphins or sea lions.
A Trip Around Catalina Island to Two Harbours
Two Harbours has a small marina, good boat mooring, a scuba shop, a small general store, one restaurant, one B&B and some camping.
Two Harbours is at the point in the island that is only 0.5 miles wide, so it was an easy walk to Isthmus Cove on the Pacific Ocean side.
We “selected” the Harbour Reef Restaurant in Two Harbours for dinner. Listed as “1 of 1” on TripAdvisor, it really was the only option in Two Harbours unless you were picnicing. The calamari steak for an appetizer was huge and cooked just right. It would remove flat chocolate cake for desert from our options! My fish and chips were also another tribute to American portions – but I ate all the tempura coated fish cooked just right, leaving chips and coleslaw behind. David’s fresh grilled sea bass was equally wonderful and he even got broccoli with that to ensure we got another vegetable this day.
On our boat ride back to Avalon, the big carbon arc lights were used to search for the infamous Catalina Flying fish. We had seen a few on the way out but got lucky on the way back with large numbers of fish skimming above the water. Very cool! The one that landed on the boat presented a great photo op for those of us brave enough to hold the fish and show off the wings.
You can do a tour that just does this flying fish hunt but the trip to Two Harbours was worth it. We walked slowly back to our hotel, enjoying the sound of the waves lapping on the side of the moored boats.
Choosing not to pack any scuba gear for this trip, we still continued to explore scuba options along the way. While you often find scuba gear rental, I like to dive with key pieces of my own gear. In Avalon itself you could fight the snorkelers and tour boats in Lovers Cove or you could go to the other side behind the old casino.
Our boat trip to Two Harbours, however, showed us way more scuba diving potential. The coast was rugged and steep, which would be mirrored below the water offering great walls to explore. There were numerous good dive sites pointed out that would require a boat trip. Two Harbours itself had a full dive shop supporting both shore diving and boat trips. With a ferry from the mainland at San Pedro (with an extra dive bag allowed), this would be a great dive vacation base – if you could camp or accept the one B&B and no radio or tv.
When did a Catalina Island escape, did you make it to Two Harbours? Did you scuba dive while you where there? Is this still a favourite weekend getaway for you?