From Coronado to Alcatraz: Your guide to California’s coastal islands
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Not many visitors think of California as an island destination, but there are actually more than 500 islands within the state. There are plenty of islands, islets and patches of land in rivers and deltas, but some of the most interesting destinations are located off the coast in the Pacific Ocean — stretching from the rocky shores of Del Norte County all the way to the southernmost tip of San Diego.
California islands have something for just about everyone. Aiming for a beachy getaway complete with sandcastles and lounge chairs? Head to the southern coast. Are deep-sea fishing and rugged terrain more your draw? There are plenty of places to scramble over rocks and dodge the spray of waves in California’s northern climes.
While not all 500+ of California’s islands are open for visitors — many are uninhabited or located within protected marine sanctuaries and coastal preserves — there are still plenty of islands in the Golden State open to visitors. Let’s explore some of the more interesting options for planning an off-the-coast adventure.
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Coronado isn’t technically an island but rather a peninsula of land just across the bay from San Diego. Perhaps most famous for its signature resort, the Hotel Del Coronado, Coronado Island is a bustling visitor hotspot. Originally a barren spit of sand, the area was connected to the mainland first by landfill and then an iconic bridge. It’s a favorite destination of presidents, royalty and celebrities, as well as boaters and families seeking a sundrenched, quintessential California beach vacation.
Visitors can stroll down Orange Avenue and pop into any number of restaurants, boutiques, galleries and more. Bicycle and roller skate rentals are popular here with paths that stretch for miles, and because of Coronado’s bay and ocean fronts, the beaches and water activities are plentiful. Paddleboarding, kayaking, surf lessons, sailing and more are all available right on the island.
Where to stay on Coronado Island
Whether you’re in town for an action-packed vacation or a waterfront getaway, Coronado Island Marriott Resort and Spa offers an idyllic retreat perched on the bay across from downtown San Diego. The resort boasts three pools, a newly renovated wellness center, delicious dining options and breathtaking views of the iconic bridge to Coronado.
Discover the seaside charm of San Diego’s only castle, Hotel del Coronado, located on the edge of the Pacific with wide-open beaches and the island’s only beach club serving food and cocktails. The “Hotel Del” as locals call it, is a Curio Hotel by Hilton and offers a magical beach experience full of fun for the entire family. For example, each night families can enjoy an easy and delicious s’mores experience called “Roast.”
Located just off the coast of Newport Beach, man-made Balboa Island offers a rarified experience steeped in nautical themes. The area surrounding Newport Beach has long been a favorite of the sailing world, and Balboa Island is no exception. Easy to reach by car, bike, ferry or even on foot, the island offers a quaint collection of restaurants, boutiques, boat and watersports rentals and private homes.
Celebrity boat captains like John Wayne, Buddy Ebsen and Humphrey Bogart have frequented Balboa Island’s waters. Visitors also flock here to taste the original Frozen Banana, an island mainstay for more than 75 years. Time your visit to coincide with the festive and colorful Balboa Island Parade, always the first Sunday in June each year.
Where to stay near Balboa Island
Balboa Bay Resort is a premier waterfront retreat offering stunning bay views and sunsets over Balboa Bay’s harbor. This hotel offers luxurious guest rooms and suites in a relaxed yet refined environment. Home to the acclaimed Newport Beach Film Festival, the Balboa Bay Resort includes a recreation center offering land and water sport rentals from the hotel’s private dock. The culinary program here is exemplary.
If you’re looking to stay on points, Lido House is a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel constructed on the former site of Newport Beach City Hall. A blend of Cape Cod style and California chic, Lido House is a great location for reaching all the cool things Newport Beach has to offer — including Balboa Island. Home to the area’s only rooftop bar, the hotel offers a distinctive home base as visitors explore the active lifestyle of this area. Biking, boating, swimming, golfing, surfing, skating and more can all be enjoyed just steps away from the lobby.
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island, or just Catalina to the locals, is an idyllic island paradise located just 22 miles off the coast of southern California. Its year-round warm weather, picturesque landscapes, outdoor activities and quaint towns make it a perfect retreat for families, adventurous couples and solo travelers alike who want to escape the hustle and bustle of life on the “mainland.” Popular activities include biking, diving, fishing, parasailing, snorkeling, zip-lining and more.
Getting to Catalina is half the fun of visiting, with the most common way being by ferry. Check daily ferry schedules with Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer for details. Visitors can also arrive via helicopter from IEX Helicopters, with departures from heliports in Long Beach and San Pedro. Catalina’s main town of Avalon is easy to navigate by foot or via golf cart (the preferred mode of transportation for locals). You’ll find very few cars on the island — there’s actually a 25-year waiting list to own a car there.
Where to stay on Catalina Island
The former estate of the Wrigley family (of chewing gum and ballpark fame), Mt Ada is a palatial home. It’s perched on a hilltop overlooking the town of Avalon and the Pacific Ocean, featuring six guest suites, a cozy den with a fireplace and an enormous terrace. However, keep in mind that this is a small property (only six rooms available), and you won’t find all of the same modern amenities in each suite as you would a new hotel property.
A quaint neighborhood inn nestled in the heart of Avalon, the Seaport Village Inn is a short walk to the beach, shops, restaurants and the picturesque Catalina Casino. (Not a gambling hall, the Casino is a stunning circular building built in the Art Deco style and an island icon since 1929 and the Big Band era.) The Seaport Village Inn offers some of the largest hotel rooms on the island.
The Channel Islands
A 70-minute boat ride off the coast of Ventura is Channel Islands National Park, a collection of five islands preserved as natural habitat. The islands — Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Anacapa, San Miguel and Santa Rosa — are uninhabited by humans but teeming with wildlife on land and sea. Often called the “Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands feature housecat-sized foxes, fields of Dr. Seuss-like flowers and open skies with phenomenal stargazing opportunities.
The islands present a true outdoor escape with remote camping, hiking, sea kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and bird-watching. Most commonly visited are Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, the two closest to Ventura. Very few visit the more remote islands of Santa Rosa and San Miguel, but visitors who do venture out can find powdery, empty beaches and spectacular gatherings of wildlife. Whether you go by private boat or Island Packers cruises, the ride out is part of the adventure, with potential sightings of dolphins (sometimes in the hundreds), humpback, gray and blue whales and sometimes even orcas.
Where to stay near the Channel Islands
The only hotel positioned right on the beach in Ventura is the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach. It’s centrally located within two blocks of downtown, where you’ll find a number of shops and restaurants. Spectacular views of the ocean, coastline and nearby mountains can be seen from guest rooms on all 12 floors of the hotel.
Newly renovated and two blocks from the ocean, the Ventura Beach Marriott sits on a 10-mile stretch of the sparkling Pacific coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Comfortable rooms and a sunlit lobby sport an upscale beachy vibe, along with a new restaurant, 24-hour fitness center and heated outdoor pool.
Angel Island State Park, located in the San Francisco Bay, is a quick 10-minute ferry trip from the shores of Tiburon by the Bay on the Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry. It’s not inhabited and there’s limited availability for overnight campers, but the views are spectacular from pretty much any vantage point on the island, reachable by hiking or biking. Also dotting the island are monuments commemorating buildings constructed in 1910 as an immigration center for people coming to America from 84 countries throughout the Pacific.
Visitors can bring a picnic and enjoy several beaches, a 6-mile perimeter trail, fishing and more. Bicycles can be rented in Tiburon — a sweet hamlet just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County — or on the island itself. Picnic supplies can be sourced at a number of restaurants and markets located near the ferry pier.
Where to stay near Angel Island
Located in the nearby town of Mill Valley, the Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley offers an affordable option just a few minutes from the Angel Island ferry landing. Geared for traveling families, the hotel includes a swimming pool, signature breakfast options, complimentary bike rentals and more.
Steps from the ferry landing, the Waters Edge Hotel is a waterfront hotel with views of Angel Island, San Francisco and the surrounding area. Positioned on tiny Tiburon’s Main Street, the hotel offers spacious rooms and luxury accommodations in a quaint setting. It offers a nice, quiet respite from a bigger city’s hustle and bustle.
Some know Treasure Island as the mid-point of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, but where the island and its sister Yerba Buena Island really stand out is for their panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. Treasure Island was constructed from a landfill to serve as the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition and is now home to public art, festivals, rowing events and other civic gatherings. Redevelopment plans are in the works.
To reach Treasure Island, drive across the Bay Bridge, take a car service or catch Muni bus route 108 from downtown San Francisco. There are no accommodations on the island, but several restaurants serve visitors, including wineries and tasting rooms.
Where to stay near Treasure Island
Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, The Clancy Hotel is a relative newcomer to San Francisco’s downtown hotel scene. Close to Oracle Park for a ballgame, The Ferry Building for the food scene and the Embarcadero for waterfront activities, The Clancy is sleek and affordable. Its location is very near the beginning of the Bay Bridge making for a short hop to Treasure Island.
A mainstay hotel in San Francisco for decades, the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero is famous for its revolving bar and restaurant on the top of the hotel. Rooms enjoy spectacular bay views, and the cable car’s California Street Line begins just outside the hotel doors. Guests can walk to a variety of locations including the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square.
If your troop is up for an adventure, then Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge may be an ideal destination. A massive sanctuary that spans almost 3,200 square miles off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands is a wild archipelago teeming with wildlife. The rough waters and rocky shoreline can be inhospitable to humans, but you can spot gray, humpback, blue and orca whales, along with great white sharks, dolphins, sea lions and seals. Seabirds drawn here include tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets, making the whole area virtual heaven for naturalists and photographers. However, keep in mind that the islands are uninhabited and guests are not allowed to disembark onto the islands.
Full-day guided tour boats hosted by the Oceanic Society depart from the San Francisco Yacht Harbor from April through November. If you are feeling especially brave, several tour companies offer safe cage plunges to swim and take photos with the Farallon’s great white sharks, said to be some of the largest in the world.
Where to stay near the Farallon Islands
In the thick of the action but still peaceful when needed, the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf is a great option in the San Francisco area. The cable car turn-around is located just outside, making this hotel a convenient home base for traveling throughout San Francisco.
Located right on Fisherman’s Wharf and very close to popular visitor destinations like Ghirardelli Square, the Palace of Fine Arts, Pier 39 and more, the Argonaut Hotel is in a converted historic warehouse. Well-appointed accommodations and a positively-reviewed restaurant make this a comfortable launching pad for a big island adventure.
Alcatraz Island is an iconic part of San Francisco history and sits in such a prominent position in the middle of San Francisco Bay that it’s hard to miss. There is a storied history to Alcatraz Island, which was the location of the first lighthouse in the Western United States. The island became a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, and that’s how most people recognize the island today. Alcatraz housed such infamous inmates as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly and is now the destination of a fascinating self-guided tour that winds through the cell block, mess hall and other haunting locations of the former prison.
Alcatraz Island can be reached through ticketed excursions leaving on a regular daily schedule from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing near Fisherman’s Wharf. Tickets should be purchased in advance from the destination’s official ferry provider, Alcatraz Cruises. Our family has found the experience to be well-organized and riveting. Plan on spending three to four hours from start to finish, and bring snacks if needed because there are no services on the island. There are no accommodations on Alcatraz Island.
Where to stay near Alcatraz Island
Boasting more waterfront views than almost any other hotel in San Francisco, the Zephyr Hotel is well-positioned within the active Fisherman’s Wharf area. The hotel is decorated in what it describes as “ship-yard chic,” and this nautical theme seems appropriate as a home base for exploring Alcatraz Island and other San Francisco highlights.
A short walk from Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Island ferry departs, the Holiday Inn Express Fisherman’s Wharf is centrally located and easy to reach. A wealth of restaurants, shops, galleries and other diversions are located within steps of the hotel, and a family visit to Pier 39 and the Exploratorium is always welcome with the kids.
Featured photo by Christopher Wo/EyeEm/Getty Images.
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