Catalina Island Is The Perfect Place To Play ‘Hooky’ From City Life

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Photo by Emma Svalstad on Unsplash

You’d think — having lived my whole life in Southern California — that I’d have spent significant time on Catalina, the island just roughly 22 miles offshore. But I haven’t. For most Californians, Catalina is just the faded memory of an elementary school field-trip for kids who had extra money, or that place your friend’s weird, new step-mom drunkenly invited you to one weekend, her breath heavy with that, “It’s five o’clock somewhere” vibe.

So, while I was thrilled that my writing job was sending me to an island, the fact that it was an island that I associated with large, double strollers knocking into old, retired white men (who had decided it was high time to take their shirts off) hampered my excitement just a tiny bit. Plus, it didn’t help that every time I mentioned to someone that I was going to Catalina, I’d watch the fire in their eyes instantly dim. I guess because, for many of us, Catalina doesn’t conjure up wild deer and fields of buffalo, or kayaking and zip-lining through the canyons. But here’s the thing; it should. Because when The Catalina Island Company sent me and my girlfriend to the island for a 3-day vacation, we realized that it’s the perfect island to play a little hooky for a few days, or — due to its convenience to shore — just a few hours. It has great food, sparkling blue water that rivals any of your Carribean paradises, and more adventure than you’d expect so close to a major city. In short, Catalina is the ideal mini-getaway, the perfect microadventure.

Instagram Photo

To get to Catalina, we took a very small boat that would dock in Two-Harbors, a small town on the Northwest end of the island. As we approached, I was struck by how the water that surrounds Catalina is absolutely stunning. It’s a translucent blue that glimmers in the Pacific sunlight, illuminating the goldfish, starfish and colored rocks that dot the shore. The water is so fresh and clean it invites you to explore, even if you have no interest in wading into the cold ocean because of an irrational fear of any sea life (like maybe small, harmless fish?) brushing up against you… which… is something we all totally have and not just me, right?!

The boat ride was incredibly pleasant. Again, Los Angeles may be seaside, but you’d be surprised by how infrequently Angelinos get off of the highway and onto the open ocean. So, when we came upon a pod of dolphins crossing our path, I may have freaked out. Truly, those magnificent creatures gliding through the water would be the perfect picture to show right now, but I don’t have one. Because I SAW DOLPHINS. And, in unlike pretty much every other area of my life, it didn’t occur to me to pull out my phone. That is the unique magic of the dolphin, and — I came to find out — also the unique magic of Catalina. It pulls you away from a dependence on technology and our, borderline unhealthy, obsession to document everything rather than experience it. I hadn’t even officially docked on the island, but I was already on the type of vacation we all so desperately need, one that suggests we disconnect.

We arrived, and immediately the “disconnected, beach vacation” vibe was in full force. We had been set up with our very own private palapa (a fun word to say out loud) at Harbor Sands where we settled in for some strawberry daiquiris, swaying palms, and a lunch relaxing on the shore of Isthmus Cove. The palapas are furnished with couches and pillows, perfect for small groups or couples, and it made me feel like some sort of Latin prince as I sprawled out to the sound of gentle waves. But, as much as I was enjoying the lounging, adventure was calling. And we soon found ourselves on a fast boat called the Cyclone straight from Two Harbors to Catalina’s main city: Avalon.

Dane Rivera

The Cyclone is a lot of fun and absolutely as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s a fast and, for lack of a better word, rockin’ boat that takes you on a 40-minute cruise along the Catalina coast, and is set to the beer-soaked-bbq tones of the most embarrassing dad rock you could imagine. AC/DC and Billy Joel blast from the many speakers lining the boat as it crashes through the waves of Catalina. We shared the boat with a few couples and of course, a few — not shirtless but sleeveless — old men, who did, in fact, head-bang with all the swagger of a swap-meet tribute band’s frontman. Somehow though, in this context, I didn’t mind so much. I even found myself tapping my foot along a bit too. We were having fun.

Avalon greets you with beautiful Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco buildings that adorn the picturesque Crescent Ave. The cityscape is so charming, it’s impossible not to instantly fall in love with the seaside town. Upon arrival, we checked in to the Pavilion, a quaint hotel with a large garden of fragrant flowers and lawn chairs perfect for sunbathing or enjoying a late night chat under the very visible stars that hang above Catalina — a welcome break from all the light pollution of LA. At night, they have two bonfires going, and it’s the perfect atmosphere to mingle with other guests and share your adventures from the daytime, the glow of fire making even meeting strangers feel cozy and intimate.

Our first stop after checking in was to visit the Catalina Casino, an over 90-year-old brilliant art-deco edifice, and the most visually stunning structure on the island. The Casino isn’t a gambling hall, but rather, a casino in the traditional Italian sense — a gathering place. It hosts events year-round from nightly movies in the theatre to major events in the magnificent ballroom on the top floor which supports an almost 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape.

Our tour guide on the casino tour was Frank. Frank, a former dancer, was born and raised on the island, and probably the most agile 70-year-old man in the world. He also had unparalleled charm and some smooth game. He bragged about all the ladies he goes dancing with on a regular basis which, by the end of the tour, included my own girlfriend.

But I didn’t mind. Being in the space, surrounded by history, beautiful murals painted on gold and silver leaf that told the history of Catalina Island, and the acoustics of voices that reverberated through the room in dream-like echoes, made us all fall a little in love with the island, and by extension, the people we were experiencing it with. My girlfriend actually said, “I’m so much more in love with you after tonight.” It was a win. We were all under its spell.

Dane Rivera

The next morning, we made our way to the Catalina Aerial Adventure, an outdoor “experience“ consisting of wooden obstacles suspended in eucalyptus trees above a canyon not far from Catalina’s Descanso Beach. It was something I wasn’t really looking forward to. The Aerial Adventure consists of five self-guided and self-paced courses that — thank god — are arranged from beginner to advanced. They all consist of log bridges, rope ladders, balance beams, zip lines and other sh*t I have no business taking part in.

You see, I’m a chubby fella. The idea of strapping myself into a harness and scaling trees like a squirrel or an MPR raccoon just doesn’t jive with anything my body EXPECTS we are about to do. Not to mention that the harness totally hugs and shapes my junk which is precisely why there are no pictures of me swinging from trees. The pictures do exist though, some taken in extremely high resolution- by the Catalina Aerial Adventure staff… cool.

Dane Rivera

I will say though, despite the fact that I did indeed fall from an obstacle and become tangled in a web of ropes in front of my girlfriend and others, having to be saved by a very nice guide who had to clear 10 obstacles just to get to me, that the Catalina Aerial Adventure is a great way to discover the limits of what your body can handle in a safe and fun environment. Despite some mild embarrassment, it has encouraged me to be more active and challenge myself physically, if only to show those beginner’s courses who the real beginner is! Or…something.

Afterward, we relaxed at the Descanso Beach club on beach chairs overlooking the water, a fitting respite from the physical exhaustion of Tarzaning my way across Catalina, followed by dinner at the very fancy Avalon Grille where I had a ridiculously expensive whole roasted chicken.

On our final morning, we met with Dave the Falconer for the Catalina Falconry Experience where we learned how to call a hawk to your glove. And also, the important role that the birds play in maintaining the environment of Catalina. I can’t say I was a person who cared much about birds before I met Tess, Duke, and Ruby (those are all birds! I know their names because we’re friends!) but I left having a real passion for them and their role in the ecosystem. Plus, I learned a lot. I know so much about birds now. Ask me about birds!!

Dane Rivera

It was another example of unexpected fun during an activity I never thought I’d enjoy. And, like the island itself, that unexpected joy seemed to be the theme running through the entire weekend. I found excitement, fun, and magic in all of the activities and experiences Catalina had to offer.

Catalina is so much more than just some island off the coast of the second biggest city in the United States, one frequented by retirees and tourists. No, it’s instead a great destination to escape and relax, a place that has a little of everything: Picturesque beaches to sun yourself on, adventure to get your heart racing, and hiking and wildlife that will disconnect you from the outside world. And with a coast whose beauty rivals that of the Mediterraneanean, it’s the perfect place to play hooky from the stresses of city life. Catalina is an island that allows you to truly take a break, and looking back, I can’t think of a more relaxing place to enjoy the canvas of surprisingly, bright stars than a quiet walk at night, through the empty streets Avalon, after an adventure-packed day.

Uproxx was hosted for this trip. You can find out more about our policy regarding hosting and press trips here.

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