Monday, December 28, 2015

Where to Travel: Avalon @ Santa Catalina Island

Situated about 22 miles off the California coast, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island is close enough to Los Angeles for a quick weekend getaway, yet far enough to feel like you are in a completely different world, void of smog-ridden air, traffic jammed streets and the big city life.

Only a mere one square mile in size and slightly less than 4,000 inhabitants, the coastal town of Avalon has picturesque streets and jaw-dropping views of the Pacific Ocean at almost every twist and turn, and a laid-back vibe. It’s a suitable destination for romantic couples, groups of friends or even the solo traveler. It has accommodations and leisurely activities that cater to all budgets, and activities for all fitness levels. During the summer, throngs of tourists pack the streets, but during the winter off season, it truly feels as though you have the entire town to yourself, and the weather is still pleasant. 

I decided to compile a list of the top things to experience while in Avalon, regardless of season. But note — this list is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s still so much to see and do — I haven’t yet visited the museum in the Catalina Casino, I want to take an off-road excursion into the interior and I’ve got to get to the nearby village Two Harbors — but in the meantime, this is what I’ve come up with.

So, take a look below to get inspired for your next trip. And as if my Top 10 list isn't enough to convince you to book a trip, perhaps snagging a deal will. From now until March 2016, you can get hotel discounts and a free ride to/from the island through "Best of Winter" packages, offered by Catalina Express and Paradise Hotel partners. Several hotels are participating and some are even offering discounts on sightseeing activities. You can find more information at Catalina Express' Paradise Packages Page; hotels offering the deal are marked "Best of Winter."

I’ll see you over on the island, one day soon! 

For a quintessential American breakfast, Original Jack’s Country Kitchen is the place to go. Within a bright, airy and cozy diner, you’ll get large, filling portions and free refills of Kona coffee. Waits to be seated can be long during the summer peak season but in the soft season, you can literally walk right up to a table. One of the most popular — and tastiest — options is the French toast, made with Portuguese sweet bread and topped with macadamia nuts and coconut syrup (pictured below).


The Descanso Beach Club is located on a strip of sand that’s only a quick walk or trolley ride away, north of Avalon's main town square and the famed Catalina Casino. During the summer, the beach fills up with frolickers playing in the water, laying out on the sand or posted up at the bar, with a nearby DJ spinning the latest and greatest hits. During the winter, it’s a lot less crowded, and you may even have the entire place to yourself, as this couple in the photo below did. All year round the outdoor bar offers phenomenal libations. And for those who are looking to do more than work on their tan by hanging out, rock climbing, water sports and zip lining options are also available here.


8) Where to Eat: Lunch @ Maggie’s Blue Rose

This beachfront restaurant that’s situated in the town center overlooking Avalon Bay is one of the newest dining options in the city. Serving up fresh Mexican fare, it’s a nice option for a filling, but not-so-filling-you-can’t-move-for-the-rest-of-the-day kind of lunch. They offer very tasty tortilla chips and the lobster enchiladas, pictured above, are not to be missed. Also on the menu are varied takes on the classic margarita, such as the Quinceneria, pictured below. This decadently sweet blend includes blue curaçao, grenadine, whipped cream and sprinkles, all infused into a coconut margarita. Grab a seat on the outdoor patio for the best view.


7) Where to Be Merry: Biking All Over Avalon

Renting a bike for several hours is an optimal way to explore Avalon and its surrounding areas, for the more athletically inclined. Note — I say athletically inclined because there are some serious hills mountains that will test even the most fit persons (notice that I’m not on the bike in the above photo, and it's not just because I got off to snap a pic. I definitely had to walk my bike uphill, more than once during our three-hour excursion, due to how intense the ride was). Nonetheless, all of the pain, sweat, blood and tears are worth it, because riding up and through the nearby mountains provides stunning, scenic views of the tiny town of Avalon below, and riding further out provides opportunities to see really cool landmarks, including a golf course, sprawling open fields, a campsite and a nature conservancy, which can all be found on the ride up to The Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens. There are multiple bike shops to rent bikes from, and choose your pick from electric bicycles to beach cruisers and mountain bikes.

6) Where to Be Merry: Carting All Over Avalon

And if you still want to see all of the spectacular sites that you’d see on a bike ride but don’t want to do any of the work to get them, then renting a golf cart is the way to go. Carts can be taken pretty much anywhere that bikes can be taken, and provide access to the same stunning views. The upside to renting a cart is that you can cover more ground in less time than when riding a bike. The only caveat — with the average $40-an-hour price to rent a cart compared to the average $25-all-day-long price to rent a bike, opting for the cart is the more expensive choice. Should you choose to cart it though, multiple shops within walking distance of one another rent out the carts, in downtown Avalon.

CC Callagher is a cute gift shop that also fronts as a café, a sushi spot and my favorite thing — a wine bar. Situated in the back corner, the bar offers a respectable menu of worldly wines and appetizers. For $29, you can also get a flight of three wines and a selection of crackers, cheeses and fruit, pictured above. The ambiance is phenomenal. It’s intimate, thanks to lit candles and ambient lighting, tables in secluded sections and charming knick-knacks strategically placed all over. There’s also a wine room that holds hundreds of wines, if you're inclined to take any to go.


4) Where to Drink: Nightcaps @ Avalon Grille

Avalon Grille is a high-end restaurant right on the waterfront in downtown Avalon that serves up American fare in a handsome, slightly masculine décor. And in my humble opinion, its main selling point is what’s smack in the middle; a big, beautiful bar that serves up strong libations. Featuring both seasonal and traditional cocktails, such as this Old Fashioned pictured above, it has an ambiance that makes you want to pull up a stool and throw back a few, either alone or with friendly companions, and get lost in a satisfying conversation for a few hours. Add impeccable attentiveness from the bar staff, and you’ve got yourself a winner.


While Catalina Island can most certainly be enjoyed in only one day, turning a day trip into an overnighter provides the perfect opportunity to pack more into your trip, or to experience all that Avalon has to offer, simply at a more leisurely pace. There are many accommodation options, for all price points. On my recent trip on the island, I stayed in a room at Hotel Catalina’s Courtyard Garden Suites*. Hotel Catalina has been deemed a historic site. Located in a Victorian house, it has an old-fashioned décor and big, beautiful verandas to relax on. The Courtyard Garden Suites, located a few blocks from Hotel Catalina, has updated, renovated rooms and a courtyard with a fire pit, but also a noteworthy past, as it previously was frequented by scores of Hollywood’s elite, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Marilyn Monroe and even Frank Sinatra, when the hotel had a different name. You still have access to all of Hotel Catalina's amenities if you're staying in The Courtyard. It's a good option if you’re working on a budget, but still want to experience a charming and cozy place to rest your head. The hotel is also currently featuring a "Best of Winter" package deal  until early March 2016 that includes a 10% discount at four restaurants in the city and also with  tours with the Catalina Adventure Tours company and roundtrip transportation to and from the island, when booking a 1- or 2-night stay.


2) Where to Be Merry: Serene Sunrises @ Avalon Bay

And should you decide to stay the night, make sure that no matter what time you go to bed, you wake up early enough to see the sunrise. The town of Avalon faces east, putting you in just the right position to see the sun gradually make its way into the sky, above the glistening ocean. It’s also remarkably peaceful at this time of day, as mostly the entire town is still tucked away in their beds, and there’s no one out. Literally. It was just me and this seal, pictured below, during my recent sunrise experience.

1) Where to Be Merry: Walking on your own @ Avalon

Honestly, one of the best activities to do is simply to go walking through Avalon — on your own! A mere one square mile big, you can pretty much see everything there is to see easily, as quickly or as slowly as you please. The main beachfront of Avalon Bay has a ton of local shops to peek into; streets directly behind the beachfront are lined with more stores and restaurants, and create the downtown center. You can also walk up and down the residential streets to get a glimpse of the quaint houses. The stroll to the Descanso Beach Club offers lovely views and a chance to stop by the museum and movie theater in the Catalina Casino. And the best part of it all — you can do this pretty much any time of the day or night. Below are views of the city, at different times of the day...

**Note: Getting there**

How to get to the island? By boat service, helicopter, seaplane or private yacht charter. Boat service is the most reasonable and affordable option, and there are two main companies, both that I’ve used: the Catalina Express* and the Catalina Flyer. While the Catalina Express has slightly more expensive prices that Catalina Flyer, it has ports that are closer to L.A. The Catalina Flyer operates out of Newport Beach and the Catalina Express operates out of Dana Point and the two closest ports to L.A., San Pedro and Long Beach. Both have deal packages with hotels and activity companies on the island, and right now, Catalina Express is also offering "Best of Winter" packages (as explained earlier in this post) and also a "Free Ride on Your Birthday" deal.

*Catalina Express and Hotel Catalina’s Courtyard Garden Suites provided complimentary access.