A big thanks to Catalina Island Company for arranging my stay so I could provide this detailed review of my experience.

Flashbacks of Italy came to mind as we spiraled up and around switchback turns from the harbor town of Avalon. The cliff-hugging ocean vista views were certainly worth these fearful moments, expressing “OMG” aloud as we whizzed above the aquamarine crystal-clear waters below, where white boats accented the dazzling blue hues and homes hung off the curved hugging hillsides. Just 26 miles off the California coast, Catalina Island feels worlds away from mainland Los Angeles. RELATED: Things to Do on Catalina Island

We hit the bumpy dirt Stagecoach Road summit in a 1993 fully restored bus named Betsy, driven by an expert, experienced storyteller with many cautionary tales of approaching and talking to the island’s wild bison. As we bounced along, we admired the raw beauty of the land, untouched and rugged with sloped rolling green hills, more verdant than ever due to recent rains. The air felt so fresh that I wondered if breathing deeply here might prolong my life.

Views on Catalina Island.

We’ve experienced a similar adventure on a biofuel Hummer, in search of the free-roaming American Bison (about 50 descendants left from a movie shoot in the 1920s) and the island’s endemic fox – a once-endangered species that are just as curious as us.  One evening at dusk at Banning House Lodge in Two Harbors, five of the petite cat-like creatures with blackberry noses sniffed us out over sunset wine on the terrace. They’re adorable!

The Catalina Express transports visitors from the mainland to the island.

This time, we arrived in Catalina to venture an hour into the interior to experience El Rancho Escondido, the Wrigley family’s hidden ranch, now open to the public for the first time ever. The tour, offered by Catalina Island Company, was oh so much more than we imagined.

Pro Tip:  To get to Catalina Island, book one of the eight modern Catalina Express vessels that depart from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point year-round. Be sure to upgrade the hour-long journey on one of their sleek smooth-riding boats with comfortable seating in the Commodore Lounge. For $20 more per ticket, enjoy priority boarding and check-in privileges, with complimentary beverages and snacks served right to your seat. Bubbly, beer, and wine are among the options. For added privacy and exclusivity, upgrade to the Captain’s Lounge with your six closest friends. Book tickets in advance as these upgrades sell out fairly quickly and are rarely available on the day of departure. RELATED: Destination Guide: Catalina Island

Beautiful harbor on Catalina Island.

Five New Reasons to Visit Catalina Island

Venture into the island’s interior to a Hidden Ranch

Built in 1932 by Philip and Helen Wrigley, the island’s Arabian horse ranch was once used for a Wild West Cattle Show, as Philip Wrigley (who died in 1977) wanted to develop a place in the interior of the island as a tourist destination.  The couple set out to develop a breeding program for Santa Catalina Island’s wild horses. By the 1950s, their efforts evolved into breeding champion Arabian horses that were exhibited at shows and competitions across the US. El Rancho became a world-class horse ranch that dignitaries came to visit in later years to get away from it all.

The rolling green hills of Catalina Island.

The spectacular landmark, nearly a century old, with a Spanish-style courtyard and stables, recently underwent a two-year remodel. The three- to four-hour tour includes a horse exhibition where guests learn about horses’ body functions, behavioral habits, how different types of horses are used, and horse ranch riding techniques. We loved being able to pet the horses and take photos with them. The golden, sleek, honey-colored stallion – similar to a palomino – was beautiful, while the wild speed of the white Arabian mare was impressive to witness. Once Palomino and feral horses could be found on the ranch because they could be let loose, but in the 1930s, they decided a higher class of horse was needed, so they brought an Arabian stallion named Kabba to the island in 1931. Today, many horses on the island are descendants of those bred in the mid-20th century.

Arabian horse ranch on Catalina Island.

An impressive Saddle & Trophy Room houses one-of-a-kind saddles, trophies won, and many personal Western memorabilia and photos from the Wrigleys. In addition to serving as a home for the family’s horses, the estate features vines of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel, planted in 2008 for Rusack Vineyards, who determined the same type of grapes that grow well in Burgundy grow well in Catalina. Their sustainable practices deliver handcrafted award-winning wines with a tasting room and winery on the central coast.

Things to do on Catalina Island.

The second stop at The Bishop’s Chapel, with original stained-glass windows, comes with more awe-inspiring views. Learn about Jory’s Bell, the 130-year-old Baptismal Font, and the cross that once sat atop the entry doors to the downtown Los Angeles Cathedral of St. Paul’s, having spent 30 years on Santa Cruz Island before being refurbished and gifted to The Bishop’s Chapel in 2021.

If time permits, the tour may stop at the private “Airport in the Sky” in the center of the island to learn about the island’s exciting aviation history and grab one of their Killer Cookies or Bison Burgers to go.

The Wrigley family has preserved the island’s natural beauty, deeding 42,000 acres to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit they established in 1972. Their daughter, Alison Wrigley Rusack, and her husband, Geoff Rusack, have continued to serve as custodians of the island.

Pro Tips: Wear sturdy shoes. Bring binoculars. Close your eyes if you are scared of heights. Use the bathroom beforehand, although clean bathrooms are available at the ranch. Find the local Rusack wine at the Vons store in town.

Sip a flight of California craft brews from Flx Biergarten

This new colorful open-air Biergarten right in town offers a variety of exceptional SoCal suds with fire pits, outdoor games, and even beer pong. On a summer day, you’ll love the Firestone Cali Squeeze Blood Orange Hefeweizen (an island favorite) or Captain Fatty’s Brewery Beach Beer from Goleta with a lemon cucumber aftertaste. They have cultivated a selection of brews that will appeal to all. Check out the fun beer tap handles like Beachwood Brewing’s golden trophies with delicious West Coast IPAs. Wine, seltzer, kombucha, and nonalcoholic options are also available.

Sip a flight of California craft brews from Flx Biergarten.

You may notice the Flx bus has the same logo as the new Biergarten, taking its name from the iconic 50s Flxible buses that carried tourists on the streets of Avalon and the island’s interior.

Order a beer flight to try many unique SoCal craft beers and pair them with snacks like Spicy Teriyaki Jerky and mustard pretzels.

Pro Tip: Order a beer flight to try many unique SoCal craft beers and pair them with snacks like Spicy Teriyaki Jerky and mustard pretzels.

Dive deep into history with a self-guided Catalina “Casino” Tour

Step back in time and appreciate Catalina’s most well-known landmark with a $20 self-guided tour. Explore the historic building, watch films from the silent movie era in the cinema, and marvel at the sweeping views of Avalon Bay from the second-floor veranda. Built in 1929, the “Casino” – originally from Italian as a gathering or entertaining place – is an entertainment destination and not a gambling venue. This is where the red-carpet movie premier was born, where old-school Hollywood starlets flocked, and where the first sound and motion picture theater began.

Today, admire the Art Deco details of the past – like hand-painted murals at the entrance, ornamental light fixtures, the original pipe organ, and the auditorium’s murals depicting the history of the island, California, and the progress of man. On the top level in the Casino, imagine 4,000 people dancing the night away to Big Band music in the world’s largest circular ballroom.

Pro Tip: Photo opportunities abound on the top level with soaring columns and views of the entire harbor.

Explore Ocean Wonders at the Dome Theater and New Exhibits at the Catalina Museum for Art and History

Find Chicago Cubs memorabilia at the Catalina Museum for Art and History along with films about Catalina and the people who’ve inhabited the island. Permanent exhibits include Dale Chihuly’s Aureolin’s yellow spire chandelier and the Roy Rose Sculpture Garden. The Cabinet of Curiosities, in honor of its 70th anniversary, displays 70 objects showcasing the rich heritage of the island over 70 years.

Catch two new exhibits at the Catalina Museum of Art and History coming this year:

Ann Weber: 26 Miles (March 23 – August 2, 2024)

The voyage of her totemic sculptures across the San Pedro Channel.

Sarah Kaizer: Rare Air (June 8 – September 8, 2024)

Original gouache and ink artwork from the book Rare Air, with an interactive component for audiences to recognize and appreciate the diversity of winged creatures that share our world.

Nearby, find the Ocean Wonders at the Dome Theater to experience “IMMERSED: Ocean Wonders” in an immersive bubble that simulates scuba diving through the world’s oceans. Perfect for young kids or those who aren’t ready to kayak, snorkel, or scuba offshore just yet, the IMMERSED: Ocean Wonders 30-minute virtual dive may whet your desire to explore the island. The full 360-degree film captures moments from all angles and offers total immersion in Catalina’s lush kelp forests, getting up close and personal with majestic whale sharks, playful sea lions and dolphins, bull sharks, manta rays, and a rare dugong.

Pro Tip:  Ten percent of Ocean Wonders ticket sales are donated to conservation groups affiliated with filming locations. Open from 12 noon to 8:30 PM; arrive 15 minutes before show time.

Stay at the recently renovated Hotel Atwater

Right in the town center, in the heart of Avalon, and steps from all of the restaurants, shops, and land and ocean excursions, a recent hotel renovation stays true to the Wrigley family legacy. Hotel Atwater is decorated in refreshing oceanic style décor and showcases a large, bold, colored painting that anchors the check-in, showing what Catalina may have once looked like long ago. Established in 1920, Hotel Atwater was the first hotel built by the Catalina Island Company under the ownership of William Wrigley, Jr., who named the hotel after Helen Atwater Wrigley, wife of his son Philip Knight Wrigley.

The airy and bright lobby is a nice place to rest, with historic Wrigley artifacts such as talented musician Helen Atwater Wrigley’s prized accordion, built by hand in Stradella, Italy. In the lobby’s bathroom, have a chuckle and look closely at the wallpaper depicting cheeky whimsical animals behaving badly – smoking and drinking champagne.

A stay here means sleeping peacefully in a comfy bed with luxurious linens, in one of 95 modern rooms and suites. Even 2 mini bottles of bubbly await in the room’s fridge. Enjoy added perks like a $20 daily restaurant credit for dining and drinks, 15% off Catalina Island Company activities and tours, use of beach towels, and luggage service to and from the ferry terminal.

Next door to the lobby, guests can find the hotel’s new Bistro at the Atwater Café – serving yummy coffee medleys, scrumptious pastries, warm quiches, and breakfast sandwiches and burritos – perfect to take on the go to the beach or elsewhere. Try the Machaca Breakfast Burrito with shredded beef and Oaxacan cheese stuffed inside the scrambled eggs and cilantro onion mix. Here, a neon sign reminds you “In All the World, No Place Like This.”

Pro Tips: Mosey a block over for lunch or dinner at Avalon Grille for exceptional meats, local fish like fresh seared yellowtail atop truffle mashed potatoes and pork belly bites, and the island’s famous Buffalo Milk cocktail – created in the 1970s – a boozy milkshake made with vodka, coffee liqueur, crème de Banana, Crème de Cacao, vanilla ice cream, banana, and whipped cream doused with nutmeg. Yum! Nearby, Bluewater Grill serves up seafood and clam chowder and Descanso Beach Club is a great beachfront option for lunch on the water.

Catalina is a memorable destination any time of year. While summer is the most popular time to visit, May and October may be the best months, with great weather and fewer crowds. Special events include weekend festivities like marathons, jazz festivals, craft festivals, and the ever-popular Catalina Wine Mixer.

Local Pro Tips:

Visit mid-week when there are fewer crowds and better deals.

Book the Sea Wolf semi-submersible adventure to get face-to-face with marine life as you cruise 5 feet below.

Take the yellow Cyclone power boat ferry to Two Harbors, on the other end of the island, for a day or overnight. It leaves early in the morning and returns to the main harbor of Avalon around 4 PM.

Restaurants are upgrading. Lobster Trap should be open by summer as they are renovating and expanding with a sushi bar. Antonio’s is taking over the old Pier 24 opening with a new menu concept by summer.

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