So, I turned 33 this year. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, BUT I did have a great time celebrating the day regardless. Did you know that you can get a free ride to Catalina Island on your birthday? Catalina Express offers a free round trip ride when you bring a friend who pays full price. You have to register on their website in advance, and then use the code they give you when you reserve tickets. Print the tickets as well as the Birthday Pass beforehand and when you check in they will give you a Birthday Button to wear so you can get your discounts in Avalon. You can find a list of all the discounts here. There are all kinds of deals on aquatic rentals, massages, tours, and more exciting adventures.
NOTE: As of 1/1/2018 Catalina Express no longer offers free birthday trips. The Catalina Flyer out of Newport Beach offers Groupon deals $39/weekdays and $44/weekend round trip!
I took my lifelong birthday buddy – my dad – and we enjoyed a truly beautiful day on the island together. Catalina has been a getaway destination for a hundred years, all the way back to the early 1900s when Avalon was built, to the 1950s and 60s for Hollywood elite, and it’s still a destination for all kinds of celebrations. It’s also a fun place to spend the weekend, or to just to have a chance to chill on a different beach. Just 26 miles from LA, but it feels like a world away.
It is important to note that while you are saving the price of the boat trip over, Catalina is not exactly a budget friendly place to visit. There are ways to keep it thrifty, however, like packing lunch or buying food to eat from the Vons in Avalon, or embracing bi-ped travel, or just spending the whole day on the beach.
The first thing you have to do to enjoy a day on Catalina is get to the island. There are several companies that offer passage to Catalina Island and you can usually find Groupon deals for round trip tickets. Catalina Express has ports in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point and travels to both Avalon and Two Harbors. The Catalina Flyer goes out of Newport Beach. The trip from San Pedro to Avalon is a little over an hour. We took the first boat of the day at 8 am, returning at 5:30. It was a full day of adventure, but there is a ton to do on the island – it’s really easy to run out of time.
Catalina Island Museum
My dad and I are both history buffs and enjoy exploring museums so we decided to check out the Catalina Island Museum after breakfast.
The museum focuses on the history of the island, from the indigenous people to those who built Avalon as we know it to those who made it famous.
But it also has a rotating art exhibit which happened to be the art of Chihuly. (Exhibition ended 12/17 but a few of his pieces will be on display permenantly) The only installation I have seen of his is the ceiling in Las Vegas, and I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other before seeing his work here. Instantly a fan! The docent at the ticket counter suggested we start in the movie theater where they played a short film on Chihuly and several ‘newsreels’ on the history of Avalon, on a loop. After that, learn about the history of the city of Avalon and its many inhabitants and visitors. Most of this part of the museum covers modern Avalon, but there is a section that talks about the ancient peoples who lived there with some very nice examples of carved animal totems and tradable items.
The Chihuly exhibit includes more than a dozen of his small “bowl” pieces, beautifully shaped and balanced on shiny black tables. After you finish with the first room be sure to go out on the patio before heading up the stairs. There you’ll find “Reeds” which are long, skinny red tubes sticking out of the plants; they look like something from another planet. Upstairs there is garden of glass, which is truly one of the most amazing things I’ve seen, as well as several other stunning pieces. $17 Adults/Free under 15.
Exploring Avalon by Golf Cart
Catalina restricts the amount of cars allowed on the island to cut down on air pollution. So instead of renting a car, you rent a golf cart. Which means that you get to live out your fantasy of owning a golf cart and driving it all over town like a boss. (I know I’m not the only one who’s wanted to do that) Catalina Island Golf Cart on the corner of Crescent and Metropole is an easy stop – you can rent a 4 passenger golf cart for $90 for 2 hours plus a $45 cash returnable deposit. They will show you how to navigate Avalon on the map, and the entire scenic route takes about an hour – including stopping for pictures. One of our goals during our ‘road trip’ was to find a the subject of a painting my parents have had hanging on their dining room wall for 20 years and we found it! You’ll find beautiful views on both sides of the island and be able to climb up the mountains that surround the city with ease. Alternatively you can rent bicycles (or electric bicycles) at Brown’s Rental.
Tip: one of the points on the map is the Botanical Garden but you won’t have time to explore it within the hour allowed if you also follow the rest of the scenic route. If you do want to check it out, either walk or rent a bike to get out there. If you do choose to drive up there you’ll pass the old Bird Park attraction which is pretty cool but it’s not open to the public so you can judge if it’s worth the trip.
After returning the golf cart we decided to grab a drink at Bluewater Grill – directly across from the Catalina Island Golf Cart. We put our names on the list and grabbed a table in the bar area to get a cold drink. (and charge my phone, the island has very spotty service and sucked my battery dry!) In the fifteen or so minutes it took for us to be sat we decided we were hungry enough to order some fish and chips. We shared the plate, and enjoyed eating it on the beautiful deck hanging over the beach.
Catalina Casino and Descanso Beach
The Casino is probably the most recognizable landmark on Catalina Island. We learned a lot about it in the museum earlier in the day – it’s actually the second version of the casino, built by William Wrigley Jr. in 1923. The Wrigleys (yep, that doublemint gum Wrigley) owned the island for a time and are responsible for building hotels and attractions like the Bird Park I mentioned earlier as well as the Casino. The Casino boasted both a movie theater and the “world’s largest uninterrupted dance floor”. Today the casino is no longer operating as a casino but you can still catch a movie or take a tour of it. The walk over from the restaurant along the harbor is a great way to burn off that fried fish, but also takes you by the Tuna Club house and the Catalina Yacht Club buildings both national historic landmarks and were important parts during Catalina’s heyday. Also be sure to check out the beautiful mosaic Mermaid above the box office.
Descanso Beach Club is on the other side of the Casino and is an all in one location perfect if you want to spend the entire day relaxing. There’s music playing, cabanas to rent, a restaurant beach-side that also delivers to your beach chair, a bar, watercraft rentals and easy access to the Zip Line. I might consider spending my next trip to Catalina here, it’s really like a private paradise. I definitely want to try the zip line at some point, it looks like so much fun!
Sweets on the Beach
Before going back to the mainland we headed to Lloyd’s Confectionery on Crescent to get a some ice cream. We took our rocky road down to a bench along the beach and soaked in the last bits of our day on the island by enjoying the view of the harbor.
I usually look forward to celebrating my birthday every year, and since my dad and I are only two days apart I have always enjoyed spending it with him. This year as that date started looming it kind of knocked me off my feet a little, hadn’t I just had a birthday? How could another year have already passed? To be honest I was dreading it a tiny bit. But I had been casually planning this trip to Catalina since finding out it was free last year, and after mentioning it to my dad he was instantly on board. So as we got closer to the day of I started getting excited. Spending the day with my dad was so much fun, and the weather was beyond perfect so we really lucked out. Catalina may be only “26 miles across the sea” but it feels like a world away.