If you live in Los Angeles, you probably know that Catalina Island is just a short, hour-long boat ride away. But unlike many other places within an hour’s reach of LA, you really do feel like you’ve gotten away from it all in Catalina.
At least I certainly did when I was there.
During my first visit to Catalina since I was a kid, I had a chance to explore a bit of the island, test out a few family friendly activities and report back to you with these Catalina travel tips for LA families.
If you’re heading to Avalon, the main hub of the island, Michele at FunOrangeCountryParks.com has some great tips on getting there. I left Long Beach Harbor and made it to Avalon before 10 a.m.
If you’re traveling with your family, head out on an early ferry. Most kids are up early any way, it allows you to get to Catalina before the crowds, and the water is calmest earlier in the day. The kids may want to keep an eye out for dolphins and other marine life during the ride.
A word about seasickness: I am prone to bad bouts of seasickness, but the ride to Catalina Island was very doable for me. I made sure to sit outside and face the front of the boat.
I was worried about how to get around once I was off the ferry, but it’s just a short, 10-minute walk from the dock to the city center. There are locker rentals near the dock if you need to drop off some larger items for pickup later (helpful if you want to leave your beach gear behind).
From here, most, if not all, of what you’ll want to see and do is within walking distance. Catalina Island is stroller friendly, and bicycles and golf carts can be rented as well. (This would be a great way to head up to the Botanical Gardens, which are about a 30-minute walk up from Avalon. The walk might be a bit too long, or too uphill, for some little kids.)
Things to Do
What you do when you reach Catalina Island will depend on your family’s interests. There’s plenty to choose from! (You might want to start with this post of the top 25 things to do in Avalon.)
If you’re looking for a tour, The Santa Catalina Island Company offers a wide array of activities, from the adventurous (like zip lining and a rock climbing wall) to the more subdued (like a bus tour or a glass bottom boat ride). If you think you might want to book a few, consider getting an Unlimited Fun Day Pass to cut down on costs.
Here is just a small sampling of what I thought my family might enjoy:
On the water:
The Glass Bottom Boat Voyage – 40-minute, interpretive-led ride to Lover’s Cove and back. Cost: $19 for adults, $16 kids 2 to 11
- You are seated on a bench overlooking a large, encased windowed viewing area that’s set down on the bottom of the boat
- Two stops along the way for feedings (you’re pretty much guaranteed to see fish)
- The kids on our trip loved it!
Undersea Expedition – 45-minute cruise five feet under water in a spacious, climate-controlled cabin. Cost: $35 for adults, $29 kids
- Each passenger has their own seat and a porthole – and you can move around the cabin to look out other windows, too
- I am prone to claustrophobia but had no problem on this outing
- It really feels like you are right in the water swimming with the fish!
Miniature Golf – Play a round of mini-golf less than one block from the beach! Cost: $12 for adults, $10 kids 2 to 11
- The course is right in the heart of the city, but tucked away in a quaint garden setting
- Allow about an hour to complete the 18-hole course
If you prefer to forgo the cost of a tour, there’s still plenty to do on your own.
- I enjoyed walking down the beachfront to the Casino Building and looking around.
- Stroll through the city streets, shops and street vendors. There’s even an arcade with mini-bowling (though I strongly encourage you to spend your time outside instead!)
- Have ice cream at the beach (a Big Olaf cone is a must!)
- Get in the water! The area adjacent to the pier is perfect for little swimmers. Younger kids may even get a kick out of snorkeling in the shallows (though I’m not sure how much they’ll see).
- Watch the sunset from the beach
Sample Family Itinerary
Take an early morning ferry out of Long Beach, arriving in Avalon before the crowds. Grab a bite to eat for breakfast (or bring your own and enjoy it beachfront) before heading out on a boating tour while the water is still calm. We really enjoyed the Undersea Expedition, but if you think your kids would fare better above the water, try the Glass Bottom Boat Voyage instead.
Then have some lunch – we liked Original Jack’s Country Kitchen for family-friendly, casual dining. After lunch, spend some time at the beach – the one right along the main street is perfect for little kids. (An alternative would be to play a round of mini-golf.) Don’t forget to enjoy a mid-afternoon treat at Big Olaf’s!
At this point in your day, younger kids may be ready for a nap – which you can time with your departure back to Long Beach. Or stick around to watch the sunset. During my visit, we grabbed pizza to go from Original Antonio’s Pizzeria and ate it while watching the sunset, then took an evening ferry back.
If you want to stay overnight in Catalina, you can return to your room at nap time, then venture out later for dinner and a sunset walk. Plan to head home the following morning.
For more information:
- Santa Catalina Island Company for boating and land tour activities
- Catalina Express for ferry information to and from Catalina Island
Disclosure: Catalina Express and the Santa Catalina Island Company granted me complimentary transportation to the island and 3 tours – at my request – for the purpose of comparing their offerings. Although we rarely take advantage of these opportunities, we thought our readers would appreciate an unbiased review for families who are trying to make informed decisions about activity choices during their stay. The companies did not request that any specific opinions be expressed.