Catalina’s Summer Fun Begins With the Flying Fish Festival
It was getting dark as we cruised north along the Catalina coastline on our flying fish cruise when we began to see our first flying fish. They propelled themselves out of the water and glided for amazingly long distances, their silvery winged bodies illuminated in our boat’s spotlights and the passengers’ flashlights.
As exciting as this aquatic show was, little did we know a life and death drama just a few feet away would be the tour’s highlight. Fast-swimming sea lions had showed up for dinner, their dark, tubular shapes darting through the water alongside our catamaran, unerringly tracking down one fleeing flying fish after another. The drama ended with an unbelievably fast flick of the hunter’s head and a mouthful of sharp teeth piercing the hapless flying fish. This went on until the captain mercifully turned off our boat’s spotlights and we headed back to port, awed by the spectacle we had witnessed.
Such was our welcome to Catalina’s four-day Flying Fish Festival, which ushers in the beginning of the island’s busy summer season. This year’s festival kicked off on a Thursday afternoon in the end of May with a food fair followed by three more days of creative events and activities, including a street fair, a cardboard boat regatta, sand sculpture, kayak racing, face painting for kids, and free outdoor concerts.
Since first discovering Catalina Island last summer, my wife and I have been taken with its Mediterranean feel and its deceptively rich variety of activities and intriguing history. Our visit to the Catalina Island Museum revealed many surprises about the island’s past. We learned Marilyn Monroe lived on the island for a year with her first husband. And that the Chicago Cubs conducted their spring training in Catalina from 1921 to 1951 because the owner of the team, Mr. Wrigley, also owned the island; Ronald Reagan was broadcasting the Cubs’ spring training when he was called to the mainland for his first screen test. We also discovered that the Catalina Island Golf Course is the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi and that modern day sport fishing began in 1889 at the Catalina Tuna Club, the oldest fishing club in the US.
Located 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, Catalina is usually reached via ferryboat, although some visitors use a helicopter service or their own plane or sailboat. We took the Catalina Express from Dana Point (it also leaves from San Pedro and Long Beach). A word of advice: Don’t let fear of seasickness deter you from this trip; the one-hour crossing hasn’t been a problem for my seasick-prone self. When in doubt, take a non-drowsy Dramamine or Bonine pill, eat ginger, or wear an acupuncture wristband. Parking is a chore at Dana Point, so get there at least 45 minutes prior to departure.
There are only two permanent settlements on this 22-mile-long island: Avalon, with around 3,700 residents, and the much smaller Two Harbors, with only 300 residents. Like most visitors, we landed at Avalon and immediately felt its special island vibe, enhanced by the fact that there are no fast food restaurants and few buildings more than three stories tall. We marveled at the myriad golf carts of all shapes and sizes that buzzed around us in all directions (a necessity since traditional vehicles are severely restricted), along with a procession of walkers, joggers, and bikers along the waterfront.
Despite being a tourist town, Avalon retains a great deal of charm and authenticity with its colorful homes and shops, a Spanish-style bell tower on the hillside that chimes on the quarter hour, and sandy beach in the middle of town that separates the gentle bay water on one side and a row of restaurants, bars, and shops on the other.
Generally speaking, Avalon is not a cheap place to visit, but it’s also true that with a little effort we found restaurants, hotels, and rentals with reasonable prices. We used Catalina Island Vacation Rentals to help us find our nice little house in the middle of town, within walking distance of everything we wanted to do. Our rental had a kitchen, so we shopped at the little Vons market and ate at home as well as at various restaurants. A suggestion: If you rent a house in town, get one on the north side of the street so you get morning sun and afternoon shade.
Avalon is a good place to just relax, but we wanted to be active and explore other parts of the island, too. Some of the options we considered were a golf cart tour of Avalon, a jeep eco tour into the interior, zip lining, hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, beach lounging, golfing, parasailing, or fishing.
Ultimately we chose the following activities, which we highly recommend:
This boat allowed us to comfortably observe the undersea world close-up in the nearby marine preserve. I particularly liked the forests of golden kelp plants waving in the clear blue water, highlighted by undulating shafts of sunlight. When we pressed our feeding buttons, sudden bursts of fish food in front of our portholes attracted swarms of bright orange, silver, and gray fish with unlikely names such as Senoritas, Halfmoons, Garibaldi, and Blacksmiths. If you can’t snorkel or dive in these waters, then do the next best thing and take this tour.
This evening tour provided great views of the coastline in addition to the excitement of watching flying fish and the sea lions hunting them. I recommend this to anyone. Tours are available from May until August.
This is one of the best ways to see the rest of Catalina Island. Our naturalist guide explained a great deal about the island’s unique wildlife and geology, but best of all we were able to get up close and personal with bison, native foxes, and bald eagles, along with remote beaches and hidden beach trails. (Bison herds are a famous attraction; the 150 bison are remnants of the small herd brought to the island in 1924 for a film. Go figure, the movie never even showed the bison.)
Catalina is known for good but challenging hikes. We spent a couple of hours doing the Garden to the Sky hike that begins in the Wrigley Botanic Garden, next to the Wrigley Memorial. It was a moderately strenuous hike—1.2 miles to the top—but the expansive views made the effort worthwhile. For variety we chose to return via the Hermit Gulch Trail. All in all, it was a very satisfying hike.
This secluded beach, located just a 10-minute walk from Avalon, was another one of the highlights of our visit. We wisely decided to reserve one of the cabanas overlooking the beach and the clear blue water just feet away from our balcony. All day we luxuriated on our lounge chairs while attentive servers brought us cold bottled water, fruit smoothies, and, best of all, fresh fruit skewers. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every cent. Alternatively, guests can use the free sandy beach or the beachside bar, which serves drinks and food. A rental kiosk offers kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling gear, and more. This is the place for a day at the beach.
My wife and I don’t return to places very often, but this was our second Catalina trip in the past year. Based on how much we enjoyed both visits, we will be back for more island mojo. For your next getaway, think about doing a Catalina adventure.