The first time I went to Catalina Island I was a tween-ager… around twelve or thirteen. My parents owned a 16-foot cabin cruiser. One weekend we went to Long Beach to launch our boat for a day adventure. It was a really nice day. As we were launching the boat we could see Catalina. It’s only 21 miles off shore. So, on the spur of the moment my parents decided we would go there and spend the night.
Off we went… it probably only took around an hour or a little more to get there. It was a reasonably nice ride getting there… considering it was a 16-foot boat. We looked around the stores and shops a bit during the day and went to the old “casino” in the evening. Even back then it wasn’t a casino. The only thing I remember was it had some kind of stars on the ceiling of what was then a theater. The presentation was something about the universe.
When we got up the next day the weather had set in. Visibility was only a mile or two and the seas had risen to 10-12 foot swells. For me, it was a great adventure to head out into the ocean with those swells. I thought, “People pay extra for such thrill rides and I was getting it for free”. And since we couldn’t see land we had to navigate just using a little compass on the dashboard. No GPS or electronic navigation in those days. Yes indeed, great adventure for a tween-ager. I just didn’t understand why my dad seemed so concerned.
This time… many moons later, the boat is a teeeeny bit bigger… an 850+ foot long, zillion ton, cruise ship. We sailed from Long Beach around 5:30 P.M. It took about 14 hours to get to Catalina. All the stuff on the island is there just like when I was a kid… well, sort of. I don’t think much has changed in the years since I was first there. But somehow, I remember Avalon as being a lot bigger.
For all of the following pics, you can click into them for full size.
The town of Avalon is small. You can see from the pics it is little more than a village next to the little harbor. Most of the island is a desert and there are very few permanent folks living there. The total population is a little over four thousand. Most of them, about 3500, live in Avalon. The other principal place is “Two Harbors” where around three hundred people live. Cruise folks rarely go to Two Harbors.
The cruise ships now have large tenders to get you ashore. The last time I was on a cruise here they used boats that were only a little bigger than a rowboat. When we went ashore in those tenders, Bloody Mary was a little nervous… and a little green. These new tenders are large, stable ships and can take maybe a couple hundred people… a vast improvement over the old tenders.
I didn’t do any of the tours that are available. But I did gather up a lot of information about the tours that are offered locally. Perhaps I’ll write a guide later on. For today I just did a walk-about.
You can walk around most of the Avalon area in a few hours. There are lots of quaint shops to look in. Yes, some are the standard tourist type shops like in a lot of the Caribbean ports, but Catalina is different. Instead of being covered with trinket places, there are a variety of boutique stores with clothing, art, and collectables.
I found a nice little place to have a good cup of coffee. I like coffee most mornings, but the coffee on cruise ships is PATOOOOOYYYY. I usually bring some of those coffee bags with me so all I need is just hot water to have something that passes for coffee. But this time I didn’t bring any because this is just a quickie. So… I was really glad to find the Catalina Coffee and Cookie Co. It’s just a little place in the “Metropole Marketplace” with outdoor tables.
Even though it was a little cool, I sat outside and used their internet (free with purchase) to check email and such. I didn’t bring my computer with me… I had decided not to post the “live froms”… so I just used my smart phone to check on stuff. What a world we live in today. Anyway. I would have stopped in there for the coffee even if there were no internet. There coffee was really good. I won’t try to tell you exactly where it is because I would only confuse you. But… if you are a coffee lover, Google the Catalina Coffee and Cookie Co. before you go to find out where it is. Oh… I almost forgot, they have fresh homemade cookies too. I didn’t have any, but they smelled good.
[One of the good things about putting the finishing touches on this stuff after the cruise is over is that I can use all the stuff on my desktop computer to give you more information. Thanks to Google Earth and a little of “paint” you can see exactly where the Catalina Coffee and Cookie Co. is. Tell them Kokomo Man sent you. And no… I don’t get anything for putting this here. Not even a free cup of coffee.]
There are also several ice cream shops. These aren’t the cheapie type… these are the mmmmmm – mmmmmm good places with 453 rich, creamy flavors for you to choose from. I thought I would just have one right after I got off the ship. But as the day wore on, I stopped in three different places. Each had its own character and the ice cream was GREAT. Now that I’m back on the ship, I wish I could have one more. Of course as it is… and with all the chocolate melting cake, I’m going to have to spend an extra 30 minutes in the gym every day of the trip.
I also strolled over to the famous casino. It’s the iconic spot on the island. A long time ago it stopped being an actual casino. Today, it’s sort of a history museum about the island. It costs five bucks to go in on a self-guided tour… twenty-five bucks for the whole guided tour. I was getting low on time so I didn’t go. Instead I just walked around and took some pics.
For those that like to SCUBA dive, there is a dive shop right in the back of the “Casino”. I have never been diving there… or anywhere off the coast of California because the water is so cold. That said, lots of people tell me that the diving in Catalina is great. There are huge kelp forests and the lots of the orange Garibaldi fish the area is known for. So if you don’t mind wearing a 7mm wet suit, it’s probably a good place to dive. I’m told it’s also a good place to snorkel.
It was still a bit chilly today… then anything below 80 is chilly to me. I didn’t expect to see anyone diving or snorkeling but sure enough there were people there. As I arrived, four people were just getting in the water at the bottom of the steps. The first two tippy-toed down into the water without saying anything. Then a third person just leaped in. Remember Chevy Chase in the movie “Vacation”… when he jumped in after a very “hot” Christine Brinkley. Well… after this guy jumped in, he came up hollarin’ “COOOOLD” (Just in case… here’s a the link to the Chevy Chase scene on youtube: )
Diving there behind the casino is a shore dive and you enter the ocean via a set of steps down to the water from the casino. You can either just rent the gear right there if you have someone to dive with or you can go with one of the dive-masters / instructors in a group. I talked to a couple of the dive masters, and they said that they put together groups throughout the day. Of course the ship offers dive tours, but I think I would rather just join a group there ashore.
They also offer “discover scuba” where people that have never been diving can give it a try. The instructors will take you through all the basics and within a little while you will be diving. Although I prefer the warm Caribbean or Florida Keys (AKA the Northern Caribbean), Catalina might be a good spot for some of you to try out SCUBA.
When I write the guide to Catalina, I’ll tell you about all the tours available. But for now I’ll tell you that while I was researching the tours I did find out that Carnival now offers a 110% price match guarantee. It goes something like this… “If you find the same tour offered at a lower price, they will pay you 110% of the difference”. I don’t have the details, but I will check it out and let you know.
There are also two small beaches within easy walking distance from the pier where the tenders let you off in Catalina. It was a bit cool today, so there was plenty of room on the beach. But I suspect the beaches will be quite crowded in the summer time.
Of course there are plenty of “watering holes” within easy walking distance. That said, they don’t line the street like Key West or a lot of the Caribbean areas. I did not see any of the big chain watering holes like the Senior Frogs or Hard Rocks typical of the Caribbean. Still you won’t have any trouble finding a place to have a frozen concoction to help you hang on.
I stopped in at “Maggie’s Blue Rose” for a bite to eat and margaritas. Ok… it was mostly for the margarita, but the food was really good. Maggie’s is right there along the bay. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. When I come back to Catalina again, I’ll be sure to eat… and have a frozen concoction to help me hang on at Maggie’s.
That’s all for today. Tomorrow it’s on to Ensenada… Ole!