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Catalina Island -- What Families Should See, Do and Where to Stay

March 17, 2019
8 min read
Happy Family Parasailing
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While it's not always practical to whisk your family off to the Maldives or one of Thailand's exotic isles, a laid-back island vacation is still within reach — quite easy reach, in fact. Just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island is a crowd-pleaser during peak summer months but there’s plenty for families to do during the offseason of November to March too. You can cover a lot of ground over a two- or three-day weekend on Catalina — and half the fun is getting there.

How to Get to Catalina Island

Kids will enjoy hopping on board the Catalina Express, a year-round ferry service departing from the California port cities of Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro. The vessels feature inside cabin seating and outside upper deck seating. Don’t be surprised if you spot a few dolphins frolicking in the surf during the scenic hourlong journey. Ticket prices vary, with one-way general seating from San Pedro and Long Beach costing $37.25 per adult (12–54), $29.50 per child (2–11) and just $3 for infants under 2. Ferry fares from Dana Point are just a few dollars higher.

Catalina Express
Heading to Catalina Island aboard the Catalina Express ferry. (Photo courtesy of Catalina Express)

The ferry docks in the compact city of Avalon, Catalina’s chief-port-of-call, a mere two blocks from the town’s main street. There’s no need to rent a car as the community measures only 1 square mile and is easily traversed on foot. Besides, cars are few and far between in Avalon; even the locals rely on golf carts to get around. Many hotels are a quick stroll from the ferry dock.

Sightsee by Golf Cart or Bike

Two-hour Catalina Island Golf Cart Rentals are an excellent way to kick off a visit. Ensconced behind the wheel, you can introduce your family to thrilling new heights as you cruise along the steep streets and mountainous terrain of Avalon. Follow the mapped out scenic route or forge a trail of your own -- either way, you’ll get a good lay of the land. You can rent golf carts that seat four or six people. A two-hour rental will cost you about $90.

Nearly everyone travels by golf cart on Catalina Island. (Photo by Justin Lewis / Getty Images)

Catalina Island Bike Rentals are another way to go; the eco-friendly electric bikes make even the hilliest routes surmountable. Bike rentals are $20 for one hour, $50 for a half-day and $69 for the entire day. Children must be 16 or older to rent a bike.

Want someone else to do the driving? Book an Avalon Scenic Drive staffed by a knowledgeable guide who will also provide plenty of facts and folklore about Catalina. A 55-minute tour costs $19.95 for adults and $17.95 for kids 2–11. There are discounts for seniors and military personnel.

Explore the Undersea

No trip to Catalina is complete without a glass bottom boat tour. It provides a perfect window into another world, plus the island’s renowned crystal-clear water makes it all the easier to see an array of colorful fish, plants and other ocean creatures. A vessel christened the Moonstone cruises through Avalon Harbor and into the local marine preserve known as Lover’s Cove. Tickets for the 45-minute journey are $21.35 per adult (12–54), $19.21 for seniors (55+) and $19.21 for kids (3–11); infants under 3 are free.

You can also dive a little deeper, courtesy of an Undersea Expedition, and cruise 5 feet underwater right alongside fish in the roomy, climate-controlled cabin of a semi-submarine. Each expedition takes about 45 minutes and is ideal for little ones. This trip is a bit pricier than the glass bottom boat tour and costs $42.75 per adult (12–54), $40.61 per senior (55+), and $40.61 per child (2–11); infants under 2 are free.

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Undersea Expedition Catalina Island
Undersea Expedition (Photo courtesy of Catalina Express)

Hang on for Some High-Flying Fun

Passive tours are all well and good, but after a while your kids may be itching for more physical fare. On that front, Catalina Island doesn't disappoint. Take a left at the iconic Catalina Casino and head to Descanso Canyon, right above Descanso Beach. There they can take their pick among the Catalina Climbing Wall, Catalina Aerial Adventure (for ages 7+ with a height restriction of at least 55 inches) and the Zip Line Eco Tour — or possibly attempt all three. The rock climbing wall offers something for every level of experience as do the five varied self-guided and self-paced aerial adventure courses. (Age and weight restrictions may apply; $4.95 for three climbs.) The Zip Line Eco Tour offers five separate zip lines that drop from 600 feet above sea level with jaw-dropping views to match. Kids must be 10 years old and weigh at least 80 pounds in order to ride the zip line solo. (If a child meets the age level but weighs less than 80 pounds, he or she can ride tandem with another participant.) Ticket prices start at $119 per person.

Catalina Climbing Wall
Catalina Climbing Wall (Photo courtesy of Catalina Aerial Adventure)

Of course, Descanso Beach is a destination in its own right. The sand is powdery soft and from the beach you can swim, snorkel or kayak. It costs $2 per day for beach access. Restrooms and showers are on-site and you can rent chairs/umbrellas and cabanas.

Relish a Few Tamer Pursuits

Once all feet are back on the ground, a game of miniature golf might be in order. Catalina Island’s Golf Gardens features 18 challenging holes in an idyllic setting and has been a fixture on the island for nearly 40 years. Mini-golf costs $12 per adult and $10 per child (2–11) or senior (55+). If inclement weather descends, the Catalina Island Museum could prove an interesting diversion. It has much to share about the island’s extraordinary history as well as exhibitions and events. Children aged 15 and under are admitted free with a paid adult ticket ($17), and word on the street is to ask about the Kids Treasure Map. The Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden is an opportunity to see native Catalina and California plants. (Tickets cost $8 per adult, $6 per senior over 60, and $4 for kids 5–12; it is free for children under 5.) The site is also the primary gateway to the Garden to Sky Trail, a moderate one-hour hike and one of the island’s most popular.

Wrigley Memorial Hike Catalina Island
Wrigley Memorial Hike (Photo courtesy of Catalina Express)

Where to Stay

Boat and hotel packages abound. IHG Rewards Club members will want to concentrate on the Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Island, which happens to boast the only hotel swimming pool on the island. There's free Wi-Fi and rooms have microwaves and mini-fridges. Plus, the hotel offers free local shuttle service from 7am to 9pm. Award nights are available from 30,000 IHG points for a room with two queen beds.

Right now the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card is offering an increased bonus of up to 120,000 IHG points — 80,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months, and another 40,000 after spending $5,000 total in the first six months.

Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Resort
Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Resort

If you'd prefer, you can also book a room through Chase Ultimate Rewards’ travel portal. Pay cash or use your points (though be aware the rate of return may not be that great). The number of points charged per night will depend on the type of Chase card you have, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Chase's Ultimate Rewards travel portal
Chase's Ultimate Rewards travel portal and availability on Catalina Island.

My family enjoyed the centrally located Hotel Metropole’s spacious and well-appointed rooms. Go for the Deluxe or Superior Sleeper rooms that offer two queen beds plus a twin sleeper sofa. The property offers free Wi-Fi and the complimentary continental breakfast started each day off on the right foot. Plus I, for one, can’t forget luxurious amenities such as lush Frette towels.

Bottom Line

Catalina Island takes a bit of effort to get to, but once you board the ferry, you're on your way to an island destination that packs a lot of punch for families.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.