A Catalina Island Escape For A Mid-Week Break
A key stop on our 4 week west coast trip was a Catalina Island escape. While you can visit as a day trip, we planned to stay several days to enjoy the island.
Planning A Ferry Trip To Catalina Island
We planned to take the ferry to Catalina Island. Being the anal planners that we were, we spent some time doing research. We checked out ferry alternatives, exactly where the ferry dock was and options for overnight parking. With an early morning departure planned, we hoped this would save us time and frustration.
Two departure options were considered. The Catalina Flyer left from the Newport Beach Peninsula. This was closer to our hotel. But the Catalina Express from Dana Point put us further down the coast towards San Diego. This would help when our late day ferry returned back to the mainland. 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. But we ultimately scoped it all out and in the end decided to leave from Newport Beach.
Taking The Ferry From Newport Beach For A Catalina Island Escape
Being compulsively early, we were at the dock at about 7:30 for a 9:00 departure. We bought our tickets for our Catalina Island escape and got a place in the already forming line. Unfortunately, the online reservations for Catalina Flyer would not accept non-US addresses. So we needed to get the ticket onsite.
There were a wide range of passengers. Workers travelled in crews loaded with tool boxes and sleeping bags. Families had full rolling coolers packed for a long day. There were strollers and motorized wheelchairs, bikes and a broad assortment of large and small luggage. Just a few day travellers boarded with only their morning coffee. Much of this vast array of baggage was in contradiction to the stated baggage restrictions.
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. But the boat crew were firm in their insistence that no baggage went to the seats. 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 I 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
We landed at the dock on the far side of Avalon. From there we had a great view out over the harbour.
It was a very short walk along the main beach road with our bags to the small European style hotel the Villa Portofino.
The hotel was 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. We needed every light on when we returned, even during the day.
Exploring, we wandered up to the rooftop patio which offered a great view of the harbour. Tables and loungers were available for a relaxing break.
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 and continued to be amazed at how big they were!
David’s seafood pasta was massive, making a great lunch for a second day. My grilled scallops with risotto were sweet and tasty. The chocolate flat cake was cleaned off the plate. Not a cheap dinner but high quality!
Walk Around Avalon
After we got settled at the hotel, we headed back into town. Shops and restaurants were designed to catch the tourist trade. We were 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 that whizzed past.
The walk around to the real sand beach was easy and picturesque. We passed the pier in town, the yacht club and old Casino. Boats of all shapes and sizes were anchored in the bay.
Checking Out The Beaches
We stopped to see the scuba divers and looked into the crystal clear water for creatures in the waving kelp. The scuba setup behind the old casino was ideal. There was 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 didn’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. A wide variety of water craft were available.
Far out at sea we saw the private Super Yacht “Attesa”. It was complete with its own helicopter.
Lots To Do On Catalina Island
There were all kinds of water craft to be found for rent – kayaks, sailboats and the large luxury yachts. Tours were available on glass bottom boats, in submarine sightseeing boats and even on a pirate ship. The beach chair and umbrella rental was reasonably priced if we didn’t want to plop down like a local on a towel.
If we wanted more adventure, there was a zip line that ended at the beach A bus ride went up the mountains to begin the ride down to the beach. Several different companies offered jeep tours. 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.
Lovers Cove had a kelp forest close to shore, apparently full of fish. This was a popular boat tour spot for the cruise ships. But we easily walked to the cove. There was snorkel gear for rent in many parts of town. And it was easy to get in from shore.
Cruise Ship Passengers Filled The Town
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, 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. It cost just $2 one way or $7 per day “in season”. This allowed us to explore from Descanso Beach to the ferry docks along the shore. And it also went inland to the botanical gardens. The trolley ran every 30 minutes 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 twice and even had the same thing both times. The chef’s choice salad had a base of mixed greens with cranberries, sugar walnuts and feta. I then topped it 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!
Choosing A Tour On Catalina Island
We were not sure whether we wanted to just laze about or go on a tour to see more of the island than just Avalon. By the time we finally decided, we had a more limited selection of tours. But we still managed to find something that appealed to us.
The sunset tour with Catalina Tours was 5hrs. It took us to Two Harbours (the other mini town on the island). The trip was 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 we got a great view of the rugged coast and what remained of mining operations. Despite all eyes peeled, we saw no dolphins or sea lions.
A Trip Around Catalina Island to Two Harbours
Two Harbours had 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. My fish and chips were also another tribute to American portions. But I ate all the tempura coated fish cooked just right and left chips and coleslaw behind. David’s fresh grilled sea bass was equally wonderful and he even got broccoli to ensure we got another vegetable this day. But it meant we passed on the flat chocolate cake for desert!
Flying Fish On The Way Back
On our boat ride back to Avalon, the big carbon arc lights were used to search for the infamous Catalina Flying fish. We saw 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.
There were tours that just did this flying fish hunt. But the trip to Two Harbours was worth it. We walked slowly back to our hotel and enjoyed the sound of the waves lapping on the side of the moored boats.
Scuba Diving On Catalina Island
We chose not to pack any scuba gear for this trip. But we still continued to explore scuba options along the way. While we often found scuba gear rental, I liked to dive with key pieces of my own gear. In Avalon itself we could fight the snorkelers and tour boats in Lovers Cove or we 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. This 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 that supported both shore diving and boat trips. There was a ferry from the mainland at San Pedro that allowed an extra dive bag. This would be a great dive vacation base – if we could camp or accept the one B&B with no radio or tv.
A Great Catalina Island Escape
We enjoyed our last day at Villa Portofino. We just lazed on the upstairs patio before we caught the ferry back to Newport Beach for our next stop in San Diego.
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?
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The Catalina Islands look lovely! The submarine sightseeing ride sounds like so much fun and who wouldn’t love a pirate ship ride! The beaches look wonderful, but I think I would have to add on a land tour, probably a jeep tour. It would be nice to get the different perspective of the island. I really have to try out snorkeling again to. I have done it a couple times in the past, but definitely could use some more practice! The Catalina Islands look like a great place for a relaxing (or adventurous) getaway.
Melissa, We were surprised on our first visit to Catalina Island. So much to do around the island. A little something for everyone. But if I went again I might check with cruise ship schedules. The days when the cruise ships were in town made everything harder to do. Linda