Travel

12 Reasons to Take a Trip to Catalina Island

Wild buffalo, karaoke, and day drinking await.

Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island

Catalina Island is famously just 26 miles across the sea from LA proper, but it feels like another world: the mostly-uninhabited island, and its tiny, charming oceanside town of Avalon (and the even smaller seaside town of Two Harbors), are about as far removed from the intensity of the city as anywhere you can get for a day or weekend trip.

Getting there is a breeze. You can take a one-hour ferry via Catalina Express from either Long Beach or San Pedro to Avalon, or if you get seasick and have money to burn, take a helicopter over. From there, you’ll step into a semi-time machine: the town was established in the 1920s by William Wrigley (yes, of chewing gum fame) and at one time was both a training ground for the Chicago Cubs and a destination for Hollywood royalty, who danced in the lavish ballroom at the iconic Catalina Casino (which, fun fact, was never used for gambling, only entertainment). Lots of the old-school charm that made it popular in the roaring ‘20s still exists in Avalon, though updates over the past decade have helped bring it into the 21st century, meaning it’s a great place to chill, party, or explore the outdoors, depending on what your vibe is. Here’s what to do to make your trip a memorable one.

Get the lay of the land in a golf cart

If you’ve never been to Avalon before, perhaps the best place to start is in a rented golf cart, the preferred mode of transport on an island so small that most residents don’t even have cars. The carts are available day-of on either side of the boardwalk, and a self-guided tour takes between one and two hours, to give you the overall sense of where you’re going to go on the rest of your trip. You can take it all the way to the Casino and Descanso Beach, up to the Wrigley Memorial and gardens, and around to the most picturesque vistas on the island.

California Parasail
California Parasail
California Parasail

Take it all in from way up in the sky on a parasail

If you’d rather take in the whole of the island from up above, sign up for a parasail: you’ll get into a speedboat with about eight other people and take turns being strapped into a harness attached to a massive parachute, and then flown 800 feet in the air above the water. Though it seems extreme-sports-ish, it’s actually pretty relaxing once you’re up there, with a nice ocean breeze and literally endless views. An attached-to-the-chute dip into the water at the end of your flight is optional but recommended. Book in advance here or find the office at 105 Pebbly Beach Rd, across from the basketball court.

Get your Wiki Wacked at Luau Larry’s

The first bar you’ll see on your left side as you start your walk on the main boardwalk is Luau Larry’s, a tiny burger-and-beer-and-tiki-drink joint that’s been there for decades and is the home of one of Catalina’s longest-running traditions: getting your Wiki Wacked. It’s not nearly as dirty as it sounds: basically, a Wiki Wacker is a sweet, delicious cocktail with Cruzan aged light rum, Parrott brandy, grenadine, and pineapple juice, but the kicker is the hat that comes with it: a massive, strawed extravaganza that’s basically a must-have souvenir from the island; you’ll see ‘em all over as you walk through Avalon.

Avalon Grille
Avalon Grille
Avalon Grille

Fine dine your way through your island stay

Avalon used to have a reputation as a food desert, and the longstanding restaurants were better known for their kitsch than their food or ambience. That changed when Avalon Grille opened a little over a decade ago: the sleek design felt modern and sophisticated, and the food, which includes deliciousness like pan-seared scallops with a chimichurri sauce and a pepper-crusted NY steak, is next-level. Other nicer options include M Restaurant and Bluewater Grill, while classics like Antonio’s (known for their day-old spaghetti) and Pete’s Plaza Cafe (for late-night eats) still hit the spot.

Become a karaoke hero at El Galleon

There aren’t a ton of nighttime activities in the quiet town of Avalon, which means the center-hub for drinking/partying/peacocking after dark is El Galleon, a nautically-themed restaurant with great prime rib and an even better karaoke songbook. Every night (except for Tuesday) myriad bar crawls/bachelorette parties/cougar hunting expeditions begin here with everything from “Sweet Caroline” to “7 Rings” belted at full blast before the parties move to the dive bar The Marlin and the cheesy-in-the-best-ways dance club the Chi Chi.

Day drink on Descanso Beach

Just past the casino is Descanso Beach, long known as “booze beach” for, well, its party-hearty daytime drinking culture. Though it used to be under-developed, it’s now got everything from private cabanas with bottle service to weekend DJs to a full cash bar and restaurant, along with kayak, snorkel, and stand-up paddle board rentals for when you get tired of just lazing around. It’s also the gateway for adventurers on the island to…

Conquer your fear of heights on the zipline and aerial adventure

Just up the hill from the lawn above Descanso is the check-in for two of the most high-octane experiences on the island: the zipline adventure, which takes you high above the trees for five 30 mph zips, and the aerial adventure, a self-guided ropes course with five different paths ranging from the honestly-still-pretty-tough beginner to a Black Diamond that’s actually pretty demonic (picture 30-foot-high jumps from one dangling log to another).

Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island

Check out the buffalo (yep, there are buffalo!) on the Bison Expedition

American bison were introduced to the island for a movie shoot early in the 20th century and (surprise, surprise) multiplied thereafter. Catalina Island Conservancy maintains the herd at about 150 to protect the bison and the landscape, so you’re unlikely to see one strolling through town, but it’s worth taking the Bison Expedition tour both to check out the massive creatures in person and also to see the mostly-untouched nature in the interior of the island, accessible only on these tours and on major multi-day hikes.

See your favourite sea animals on a boat tour

There are a ton of different boat tours offered on the island: if you’re more of a let’s-see-all-the-things-on-the-ocean-floor type, book yourself a glass-bottom boat tour, where you’ll check out all sort of sea creatures, including the iconic garibaldi, the protected California state fish that looks like a massive goldfish. If you’re there during on-season in the summer months, you should definitely take a trip on the Flying Fish voyage, a nighttime excursion in which, yes, fish fly out of the water for 30-foot sprints. If you’d rather be mammal-hunting (and prefer something a bit speedier), take a daytime trip on the Sea Life Safari to watch for seals and dolphins. And if you don’t like tours at all, you can rent a motorboat from Joe’s Rent-a-Boat right on the pier, which can provide a great launching pad to explore some of the more remote beaches on the island.

Hotel Atwater
Hotel Atwater
Hotel Atwater

Stay in the nicest hotel on the island at Hotel Atwater

The Atwater’s located right in the heart of Avalon and has been there since the ‘20s, but underwent a massive renovation in 2019 that unquestionably made it one of the nicest places to stay on the island. The rooms are outfitted in island-inspired, modern decor; the lobby is massive and classic; and amenities include two splits of sparkling wine upon arrival and discounts at a ton of other attractions on the island. And, oh yeah, the beds are comfortable and there’s great coffee right outside the front door.

Relax at the Island Spa

One of the newest and most welcome additions to the island is a full-service day-spa. If your idea of an oceanside retreat is getting a massage/facial/etc, going for a dip, sitting in a sauna and watching the boats go by out the oceanside windows, well, you’re in luck. They’ve got nine full-treatment rooms, a pool and jacuzzi, and separate saunas for men and women in 15,000-square feet of blissed out wellness.

Get out of town to Two Harbors

If your trip lasts a couple days or more, it’s worth getting out of Avalon and visiting its even smaller, even slower cousin: Two Harbors is a short boat trip away and feels even more like an escape than Avalon: all that’s there is basically one restaurant (with a burger that’s honestly worth the trip in and of itself), some kayak and snorkel rental kiosks, a campground, and one tiny hotel with just twelve rooms. It’s a great spot to go for complete off-the-grid hiking and relaxing, and a completely worthwhile day-trip-within-your-weekend-trip for a change of scenery.

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Jeff Miller has been visiting Catalina regularly since he was three years old and still tries to go once a year to visit his late mother, who has a permanent spot by the tree closest to the pier right on the beach in Avalon. Say hi if you get a chance. Fruit sandwiches, ya’ll: @jeffmillerla on Insta.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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