If you had told me a weekend adventure out to the Californian island of Catalina would have been a good winter trip, I would have immediately disagreed and planned a warm weekend of movie theaters and indoor shopping. Instead what awaited me and my beau was a cozy, adventurous and all together spectacular island that was more romantic than any advertisements or travel photos would have you believe.
There are five ports in Southern California that service Catalina Island and after arriving in the southernmost of them, Dana Point, we made ready to embark for the island aboard the shuttle ferry: the Catalina Express. The water was slightly choppy, but the hour-long ride was wonderful, and there is more wildlife to be seen when seated on the outside deck of the ship instead of the inner cabins. As it’s no longer summer weather, you’ll want to bundle up and, speaking from experience, it’s best to take a seat outside before the ride begins rather than once it’s in motion. If you’re averse to the cold or are just looking for a little more privacy ask about the Captain’s Lounge to see if the upgrade is available on your ship.
The first sights of the city of Avalon, will doubtlessly leave you wondering which Pirates of the Caribbean set you’ve stumbled upon. It looks picturesque and postcard-worthy, a set of beautiful homes scattered along the shoreline and dotting up the hillside with palm trees swaying in the breeze. However, with the families, golf carts and bundles of tourists, even in the off-season, it didn’t seem like an island meant for an amorous getaway—but then, the sun wasn’t setting yet.
Everything is within walking distance in the seaside town; a short stroll away from the dock and literally steps from the sand is the Pavilion—one of the most luxurious hotels on the island. Checking in, anxious to warm up from the chilly boat ride, we were invited to enjoy their complimentary wine and cheese tasting which they hold every afternoon from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the courtyard around the fire pit. Feel free to grab a seat near the ocean as there are patio heaters that will keep you nice and toasty. As the sun began to set, the wide, unobscured ocean views from the Pavilion displayed the true beauty of the island and even before our wine was finished, we were in love.
Dining options on the island might seem limited to fish and seafood, but there is quite an eclectic mix of fares all around town. Just a block from the Pavilion is the Avalon Grille, a swanky little restaurant with a menu to match. A beautiful building with large glass doors, mahogany tables and Frank Sinatra tunes set the perfect mood for a enchanting evening out. Starting with appetizers that consisted of seasonal spices, savory sauces and local seafood only spurred on our appetite. Opting for a richer dish, I ventured out of my comfort zone and ordered the Lobster Mac N’ Cheese. While not normally a fan of this dish, the entrée was simply spectacular and left me with cravings long after the weekend was over. It’s an experience not to be missed—just be sure to request a seat by the windows to catch the last glows of the seaside sunset.
During most vacations it seems like a waste not to venture out to partake in local cusine for every meal—but a relaxing breakfast at the Pavilion is exceptional in itself, because all you’ll want to do is sit and waste away the day watching the anchored boats bobbing up and down in the quiet cove. Suddenly granola and fruit seemed so perfect.
One of the most iconic spots on the island and a definite must-see is the Casino, consisting of the Avalon Theatre, ballroom and Catalina Island Museum. For a little old Hollywood glamour this is an excellent stop and only a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Art deco murals hand-painted by John Gabriel Beckman wind in and out of the building, many of which are the untouched originals from 1929. The Avalon ballroom, which can accommodate up to 1,200 people, still has its original hardwood flooring and the views from the top floor overlooking the bay are sparkling. The salty air and clear water almost tempt you to crave a quick dip, but the cool breeze reminds you it’s the Pacific in winter, not prime for swimming.
There are numerous ways to see the island that include golfing, zip-lining and helicopter tours, but for some truly stunning views, an East End Tour is highly recommended. While riding around in a Hummer through dirt trails doesn’t sound terribly romantic, the near-death, fast-paced expedition will leave you cuddled close and reminds you that life is fleeting. Tearing around straight-drop cliffs and high-altitude roads gives you a new vigor for life, and chances are good you’ll also make friends with the other passengers—and discover who the true daredevils are. The tour climbs up 1,500 feet above sea level and almost gives you a 360 degree view of the island. While there were no local bison or foxes to be seen, the views alone are worth the trek. Taking a late afternoon expedition will allow you to see these spectacular sights as the sun starts to set over the island.
When the sun goes down the town comes to life with beachside partiers, local families gathering for dinner and lovers looking for quiet corners along the shore. A stroll down the main beachfront street of Avalon allows for a little window shopping which offers more than your traditional tourist fare of t-shirts and shot glasses. Art galleries, jewelry shops and restaurants litter the brick streets and during the holidays little strings of glittering lights surround each storefront and nearby palm trees. It’s rare when an entire town offers mood lighting, but somehow, they pulled it off.
Leaving was harder than expected and left us lingering over breakfast in hopes of catching a few more minutes to admire the waves. Watching the island disappear into the horizon on the return trip will likely leave you wondering when you’ll go again. While the island is known for outdoor sports, sunbathing and summer frolics during the warmer months, the quieter, low-key winter season can be the perfect experience for a romantic weekend away.