Santa Catalina may be only an hour from the Southern California mainland, but it feels a world away. During the pandemic, it may as well have been a universe away. Leisure travel was banned and the island’s lifeblood — its visitors — disappeared.
Like the rest of the state, Catalina’s 4,000 locals hunkered down and tried to stay healthy. But they did something else too: They looked to the future. The goal was to restore tourism — and they are succeeding. There are so many new, updated or recently developed things to see and do that even frequent visitors will find a gold mine of opportunities.
Local businesses worked wonders during the pandemic, said Jim Luttjohann, president of the Catalina Tourism Authority. “Ordinarily, when the visitor volume turns down, you replace carpet at your hotel or paint the outside of your store,” he said. But because the pandemic lasted so long, local owners “redoubled their efforts repairing and upgrading,” with millions of dollars invested in upgrades in hotels, restaurants, hiking trails and activities.
Consequently, the island has a fresh, welcoming look. “It’s undergone a renaissance,” he said, “while remaining true to the island’s history and culture.”
We looked around and found 21 things to see and do in Catalina in 2021.
First things first
1. The island offers visitors a clean, inviting look the moment they arrive. New landscaping, picnic tables, kids slides, swings, playsets and a jazzy sports park have created a friendlier first impression as passengers debark from ferries and head out Pebbly Beach Road for the center of Avalon.
Happy trails to all
2. Next up as you enter town is the sleek Trailhead visitor center (708 Crescent Ave.), easily the most impressive addition to the town in five years. The $14.5-million facility replaced the tottering Catherine Hotel, which dated to the 1890s.
Trailhead, the 9,000-square-foot flagship facility for the Catalina Island Conservancy, is a gateway to the island’s wildlands and a great place to begin a visit. You can learn about Catalina’s 42,000-plus acres of open space and 62 miles of rugged shoreline. Visitors also will find hiking and biking permits, trail maps and info about camping, native flora and fauna, ecology and history. Want to take a four-wheel-drive tour of the backcountry? You can set that up here too.
The LEED-certified building is a hit with visitors. ”We’re probably seeing the same number of people in a month here that we were seeing in a year in the past,” said Tim Kielpinski, chief operating officer.
Above it all
3. While at Trailhead, climb the stairs to the new Toyon Grill (708 Crescent Ave.), which has outstanding views of Avalon and the harbor from its second-floor patio and rooftop dining area. The restaurant, a sister facility of Avalon’s Bluewater Grill, has entrees from $10. If you’re not hungry, have a coffee or glass of wine or just a take a few panoramic snaps. Your Instagram followers will love it.
Moving right along
4. Many businesses have been upgraded. One of the first you’ll see is next to Trailhead, Catalina Island Golf Cart (625 Crescent Ave.), where new construction has added shade, an enlarged and redesigned interior and a clean look. Go inside and you’ll find simplified cart rental procedures and a colorful map to help you get your bearings as you putt around Avalon.
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5. When the pandemic forced restaurants to serve customers outside, the Catalina City Council approved dining on the beach a few steps from the water’s edge. It turned into an Avalon first that everyone loved. String lights now festoon Crescent Beach, candles decorate the tables and musicians sometimes stroll. During the spring, beach dining was available in the afternoon too. But in summer, it is limited to evening hours so that there’s plenty of room for day-trippers to throw down a towel. Six restaurants offer beach dining: Steve’s Steakhouse and Seafood, Maggie’s Blue Rose, NDMK Fish House, Catalina Cantina, Luau Larry’s and El Galleon.
Room at the inns
The island’s hoteliers have staged a major reboot — enlarging, repairing and refurbishing five of Catalina’s oldest hotels. Included are impressive renovations and top-to-bottom rebuilds of two historic inns: the Hotel Atwater and Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel.
6. Expect to find two chilled splits of sparkling wine waiting in your room after you check in to the Hotel Atwater (125 Sumner Ave.). The 95-room inn opened in 1920, the first hotel built on the island by William Wrigley Jr. after he purchased Catalina Island Co. more than a century ago. He named it after his son’s wife, Helen Atwater Wrigley, who loved her Champagne — and drank a split of it daily. The in-room splits are a tribute to bubbly Helen. The hotel was closed for nearly a year and a half while being renovated. Now it’s among the most attractive lodgings on the island, with a stately lobby, nicely decorated rooms, historic artwork and an elevator, one of few on the island. Summer rates start at $359 per night.
7. You’ll find another elevator at Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel (199 Chimes Tower Road), but that’s not its claim to fame. Set on a hill overlooking the bay, the stylish Zane Grey has sweeping views, attractive furnishings and an upscale vibe. Like the Atwater, it was totally revamped. Two buildings were added, and most of its 17 rooms now are plush suites. A historic landmark, the hotel was established in 1926 and served as a getaway for author Zane Grey (1872-1939), best known for his adventure novels and stories associated with the West. The hotel has a pool and a three-bedroom penthouse suite. Summer rates start at $329 per night.
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8. A new name among the hotels is the Bellanca, formerly the Portofino. This 40-room, oceanfront hotel (111 Crescent Ave.) underwent a $4-million renovation that included a new restaurant, the Naughty Fox. Hotel upgrades include improving the rooftop lounge, lobby, room furnishings and bathrooms. Summer rates from $299 per night.
9. Other Catalina hotels also refurbished guest and public rooms during the pandemic. Among these are the Hermosa Hotel (131 Metropole Ave.), built in 1895, which updated its flooring, furniture, paint and windows and added a balcony and a beer and wine bar. The hotel, popular with divers, is one of the few Avalon lodgings that is dog-friendly and has consistently lower rates than most competitors. Summer rates from $195 per night.
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10. The Catalina Island Inn (125 Metropole Ave.), a four-story Victorian built in 1907, is another old-timer that has been renovated. Many of its guest rooms were gutted, and showers, tile, carpet, furniture, beds, lighting and TVs were replaced. The lobby was tiled and painted, and hallways carpeted. Summer rates from $368 per night.
11. The island’s hotels are pricey; how about camping instead? Catalina is an outdoor lover’s paradise; campers will find new digs at Avalon’s only campground, Hermit Gulch (1201 Avalon Canyon Road), about two miles from downtown. Nine new cabins have been installed. Another helpful improvement is a new reservation system that allows campers to book online.
Take a hike
12. The most challenging hike on the island is the Trans-Catalina Trail, a rugged three- to four-day backcountry route from one end of the island to the other. Among the pluses are camping spots near pristine beaches. During the pandemic, the 38½-mile route was realigned by the Catalina Conservancy to offer more picturesque views and less interaction with the public. The conservancy also improved other trails on the island, added trailside toilets and shade structures, and replaced signs.
Grab your date
13. Looking for entertainment? Try the Catalina Island Co.'s new Movies Under the Stars at Descanso Beach Club (1 St. Catherine Way). From July 11 through Sept. 26, grab dinner at the beach, then watch a movie under the stars. Dinner is 5-8 p.m., with the movie beginning at sunset. Full bar available.
14. How about a romantic tour of the island’s interior? Catalina Taxi & Tours, under new management, has added a Toast California Tour that will whisk a couple to one of the island’s picturesque overlooks for wine, charcuterie and a couple of hours of alone time. Rates from $437 for two.
15. Take a custom tour of Avalon with your honey. Pop the question at a romantic overlook or just celebrate with a special someone. CatalinaTourGuide.com, a new golf cart service, offers a two-hour guided tour for two that includes food and beverages. $500; add a guitarist for $100 more. Guided group tours (up to five) also available, from $260. Pet-friendly.
Seven new or recently updated hotels in Santa Barbara County, an easy-drive destination for beach, biking and wine-tasting vacations.
Hooked on big fish?
16. Fishing devotees looking for a challenge can hook up with a new Catalina charter. John King, whose Afishinados charters have been uniting fishermen with game fish for more than two decades, is now offering swordfish charters. “During the pandemic, we had time to figure out how to catch them,” he said. The eight-hour swordfish charter is $2,400, but King also does shorter charters for families that cost $300 per hour.
26 miles across the sea
17. Catalina has a rich history that includes hosting countless Hollywood stars. During the pandemic shutdown, the staff at Catalina Island Museum (217 Metropole Ave.) kept busy setting up new exhibitions and adding to the facility’s permanent collections. When you visit, expect to learn about the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and even Winston Churchill, who was fond of fishing the island’s waters. You’ll even learn about the Four Preps’ famous 1957 song about the island, “26 Miles.” And don’t miss the newest exhibitions at the museum, which feature tales and artifacts from the Titanic’s deadly 1912 voyage.
Shop, shop, shop
18. If you’re a fan of retail therapy, you’ll find two new clothing shops in downtown Avalon: Catalina Blue (523B Crescent Ave.) and Sun & Sea Surfwear (621 Crescent Ave.). If you’re a diver, don’t miss the renovated Catalina Divers Supply (1 Casino Way), the oldest dive shop on the island, which has moved into larger digs inside the Casino. The shop is now adjacent to the Casino Point Dive Park.
You can hike and camp at a remote beach on Santa Catalina Island’s wild side. And there’s an easy way to do it.
Eat your heart out
19. Foodies will love the island’s new dining choices. We’ve already mentioned Toyon Grill and the Naughty Fox, but several restaurants have changed hands.
•M Restaurant (205 Crescent Ave.): Open daily serving an upscale menu with a nice Italian vibe. Choose from pastas, burrata, pizzas and local seafood such as seabass, swordfish and lobster. Excellent wine selection. Entrees from $11.
Pancake Cottage (615 Crescent Ave.): This breakfast and lunch spot has reopened after a yearlong closure and is now open for dinner, adding a happy hour and several new menu items.
Chill at Descanso Beach Club (1 Descanso Beach): Cool off with a frozen cocktail from Chill, a new beachside bar. Flavors include Buffalo Milk, Blue Hawaiian, Mango Margarita, Piña Colada, Jack & Coke and Strawberry Daiquiri.
Sailor’s Delight Ice Cream Shop (220 Crescent Ave.) Looking for a cone or sandwich? Sailor’s Delight becomes the third ice cream shop on Crescent Avenue, joining Lloyd’s and Scoops. It is in the former Olaf’s space and features ice cream from Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Co. in Madison, Wis.
NDMK (Endemic) Fish House (109 Claressa Ave.): This seafood restaurant, owned by a family of fishermen, specializes in locally caught fish. Entrees from $12.
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20. Several new or recently purchased restaurants are in the initial stages of planning menus or developing a customer base. Among these are Eric’s on the Pier, the Cove Bar & Grill and Mrs. T’s Chinese Kitchen.
Other longtime Avalon favorites are updating their menus and introducing new flavors: Standout Avalon Grille has a fun new menu that includes small bites such as baked polpettes (meatballs), chicken lollipops and flash-fried Brussels sprouts, in addition to handcrafted cocktails such as the lavender lemon-tini. An updated cocktail menu is among new items at popular Maggie’s Blue Rose, where you might want to try the margaritas con paletas.
Ship out — for free
21. Catalina Express wants to make it easier to get to the island this summer. The ferry company, which sails from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point, will celebrate its 40th anniversary on July 16 and plans to give away 40 trips for two, or a total of 80 round-trip tickets. How to enter? Check out its website on July 15; participants can enter once a day, with the last winner notified by Aug. 24.
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