The only word that comes to mind when I think of Catalina Island is enchanting. This place is the best-kept gem of California – we felt a world away and couldn’t believe we only were 26 miles off the coast! We put a lot of time into planning how to spend two nights on Catalina Island, and I’m happy to report back that a couple days is all you need to take in all the local flavor and what the island has to offer!
We opted to take the Catalina Island Express ferry out of Long Beach, which is about an hour drive from Anaheim. It was a hike, but doable and we saw a lot of people coming from Disneyland when we got back. So, obviously that’s a common thing to do.
Now, something we never even thought of when booking our tickets was how weather could affect our trip. Our ferry to the island almost was cancelled due to weather conditions, but they decided to go ahead with it … well, joke was on us. I know that they wouldn’t run the ferry if it was unsafe, but holy hell we should’ve heeded that warning. Come to find out, by the time we got to the island there was a small craft wind advisory as well as a GALE FORCE WIND WARNING. Guess that explains the six-to-eight-foot swells and Ryan locking himself in the bathroom for the whole hour trip. At one point, I half-jokingly asked one of the crew members if we were safe and his response was “well, you know how to swim right?” THANKS FOR THE REASSURANCE, PAL! He was being 0% serious.
But really, while that trip was slightly terrifying I was so impressed with the entire crew. From handing out bags and ginger ale to having a constant presence and asking everyone if they were okay and needed anything. One of the crew members actually went to rescue Ryan from the bathroom and got him outside for some fresh air – I was beyond thankful. And, our return trip back to the mainland was a piece of cake so it just depends on the weather.
Thanks to Brittany, we stayed at the Aurora Hotel. We’re glad that we opted to take a cab there – it sits right off the main area of town up on a steep street; however, we did walk to the ferry landing a couple days later when we left. It’s no more than a 10-minute walk and still super easy with luggage!
We obviously were a bit frazzled walking in after that ferry death ride, so we were incredibly thankful for the immediate warm welcome and hospitality. They make every guest feel like a VIP!
I unfortunately didn’t think to take any photos, but their website will give you a good idea. We loved how beautifully modern and clean everything was! The rooms are small, yes, but I believe that’s typical everywhere on the island. Plus, for only a couple days it was all the space we needed. The hotel really thinks of every single amenity you could want/need – ladies, there’s a dedicated makeup vanity/mirror! – so the lack of space is hardly noticed. We didn’t get a chance to check out the rooftop deck due to the wind, but apparently it’s wonderful.
Day One Activities
It took us a few hours to get settled and our land legs back under us. What can I say – that ferry ride knocked it out of us both physically and emotionally. So by the time we were ready to venture out, it was time to head over to the Catalina Island Casino for a guided behind-the-scenes tour.
Catalina Island Casino was commissioned in 1929 by William Wrigley Jr. – yes, the same Wrigley as Wrigley Field of the Chicago Cubs! As Cubs fans ourselves, it was fun to see the W flags lining the entire upper perimeter of the casino. The Cubs even used to spring train on Catalina Island for 30 years or so.
Fun fact: this place is not and never was a gambling casino. Instead, it’s both a theater and ballroom! And, let me tell you that it is simply spectacular. This was THE place to be back in the day – I loved hearing our tour guide talk about all the events, films and general glamor that used to occur on a regular basis.
Nearly everything inside the building is original with minimal-to-no renovations. They still host events in the ballroom, and a new-release movie plays nightly in the theater.
Oh, and you can’t beat the view from the top!
The tour lasted a little more than an hour, and we highly recommend it! The casino is one of the defining landmarks of the island, so it’s interesting to learn more about it’s history.
From there, it was time to find food! Thanks to a stellar recommendation from the hotel, we went to Coyote Joe’s for dinner. This was our kind of place, and their Mexican food is so, so good. The drinks, too. 😉 It was exactly what we needed after a long day.
Day Two Activities
We woke up in better spirits the following day and were ready to take-on our number one reason for visiting the island – it was time to zip line!
If you do nothing else on Catalina Island, you HAVE to do the zip line. It takes around two-ish hours, so I recommend snagging a morning time so you still have the whole day after. We had such a fun group of people, too, which totally adds to the experience. Actually, big shout out to our group member Andrew for snapping these pictures for us since neither Ryan or I had pants pockets for our phones!
Full disclaimer that I was nervous as hell. Like, full-on shaking and wasn’t sure if I could go through with it. Luckily, our guides were awesome and made me feel reassured that I was 110% safe. I think they were making fun of me a bit, too, but hey! That’s part of the fun. And, once I took that first step off the platform for the first zip line I was all in! It was such a fun, insane experience that I’ll never forget. I even thanked Ryan for pushing me out of my comfort zone because I would’ve been so disappointed if I/we didn’t experience this!
We filled the rest of our day with walking around, a little shopping and of course, a golf cart rental! This is the main form of transportation on the island and the only way to get high up in the hills for some of those sweeping landscape views. We drove the scenic route in about an hour (most of the rental places have a two-hour time limit).
To end the day, we had a late lunch/early dinner at Bluewater Avalon. This is the top-rated, “fanciest” restaurant on the island so we knew that we wanted to treat ourselves with a special meal. The fresh fish was unbelievable, and we loved being able to sit on the dock right on the water.
Things to Know
We had a great couple days on Catalina Island – obviously – but there are a few things we wish we would’ve known before we went …
+ The top thing being that practically everything closes early-to-mid-afternoon. Some of the shops don’t even open at all if they don’t feel like it! We had to eat a late lunch at Bluewater Avalon because they’re only open for dinner until 7 p.m. That is not something that we are used to, and we fully admit that come nighttime we were a little lost of what to do (read: bored). There are a couple bars that stay open, but that’s not really our thing. It’s possible this is different on a weekend or when the cruise ships are docked.
+ Even though we did rent a golf cart, we mildly regretted the decision to do so. This is arguably the top tourist thing to do on the island, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Signs are confusing to follow, and I admit I was terrified of some of the turns and being so close to the edge of the cliff. The locals also didn’t appear to be the most understanding when it was clear we didn’t know where to go, etc. We would’ve much rather taken the time to explore the island museum or go play mini golf.
+ Probably goes without saying to be prepared to shell out some money while visiting the island. It’s not cheap (nothing in California is!), but even the local pharmacy gave us sticker shock.
+ And, lastly just to reiterate again – pay attention to the weather in regard to the ferry schedule! Obviously, our experience getting to the island was a unique one and not something that occurs regularly, but if you get the least bit seasick then you’ll thank me later for the warning.
And, that’s how to spend two nights on Catalina Island! We’re not sure when (or if) we’ll ever be back, but it is a trip and experience that we’ll always cherish. Such a unique place!