On the water
Catalina Island just 75 minutes from Dana Point

Boarding the Catalina Express at Dana Point, we have the feeling we're going to escape Southern California traffic and congestion in VERY short order. We are right. Within minutes, we're "at sea" in the channel between L.A. and Catalina Island - no horns honking, no crawling along the freeway and no worries.

We're on our way to Avalon, the picturesque little town A couple frolicking on the Catalina Island beach built near the southern tip of Catalina Island. It's just a 75-minute ride from the dock at Dana Point, and even a shorter distance from other points closer to L.A. Our slight trepidation about potential seasickness quickly evaporates as we see how well our sleek craft cuts through the moderate waves on what will become a perfect sunny day.

Everyone knows about California beach vacations, but Catalina is where you take your Southern California vacation experience one step further: This is an island vacation.

During our boat ride out to the island, we see merchant vessels as well as a half-dozen or so 30-odd-foot pleasure craft obviously rigged for fishing and congregating at what must be a prime fishing ground. Later, to the port side we run a race with dozens of dolphins who seem intent on showing that anything man can do, they can do better.

Arriving in Avalon, the colorful, ornate — and, yes, expensive — homes arrayed on hillsides and mountain tops combine with the myriad of boats and other sea-going vessels to create the impression we have just been transported to the French Riviera. Not bad considering a roundtrip ticket on the Express was only about 72 bucks and when all is said and done, we'll be home tonight for dinner.

But it's obvious from the gear being packed off the Express A couple shopping in Catalina that there are many more overnighters than daytrippers. On this particular voyage, the hold is chock-full of suitcases, packs, tents, coolers and everything that would allow one to wander off and get to know the island upclose and personal.

For us it's a quick diversion from the rat race. We quickly get our bearings on Crescent Street, the aptly-named street that follows the contour of the harbor. About six streets intersect with Crescent, all heading mauka (island-speak for "toward the mountains"). It's in this tiny little grid that you find most of the shops, restaurants and other tourist services.

We're traveling as a family today — mom, dad and three-year-old — so it's a burger joint for lunch. But the burgers are tasty and quite reasonably priced. Those looking for finer dining and significantly higher prices will not be disappointed, judging from the menus posted as several fine restaurants.

On this warm summer day there is an abundance of families visiting with kids of all ages. But it's also not difficult to find couples holding hands or checking into one of several boutique inns, or frolicking in the unusually warm ocean. In fact, Catalina island is one of those places that can pull off being a destination for both families and romantic couples. They peacefully co-exist on this little island, and neither experience seems negatively impacted by the other.

There are many opportunities for a couple to slip away on the island and do what romantics do. The many hotels and inns, just by themselves, are pretty darn romantic but there are also romantic activities such as a sea kayaking up the coast. In a very short distance you will find a beach that is not accessible by anyone who does not have a boat.

Just visit the market and pick Driving through Catalina Island in a golf cart your picnic lunch first and go about a half hour up the coast. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you'll have the whole beach to yourself.

Or rent a golf cart and drive the many roads around Avalon. Horseback riding is always good for a romantic mood, as long as it doesn't create any physical limitations. Botanical gardens are here for communing with Nature. The list of activities and diversions seems endless.

Our day on the island goes by quickly and we arrive home in the San Diego area refreshed, ready to tackle the work week. Ready to share stories about our daytrip to the "Riviera" and resolved to put "to sea" much more often.


WHERE: Catalina Island is about 26 miles west of the L.A. area and can be reached by boat from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Air travel is possible as well. If this island is part of your Southern California vacation itinerary, be sure to check departure and arrival times closely.

WHAT: Catalina Island offers many recreational activities ranging from deep-sea fishing to horseback riding to hiking to snorkeling. There are also many attractions such as submarine rides and golf cart rentals. Often there are travel deals available for the island and be sure to check with your hotel about any travel packages that are offered.

WHEN: Best time to visit for the lowest prices is the shoulder season, April-May and September-October. Most hotels offer lower prices then, but vacation packages help reduce the overall cost of lodging and transportation any time of year. Several events are offered throughout the year, so check with the Chamber of Commerce for a listing.

WHY: Catalina Island is close, easy to reach, incredibly picturesque and the perfect daytrip or getaway weekend for anyone living in or visiting Southern California.

HOW: Call the local Chamber of Commerce for a complete list of transportation and lodging options. Phone (310) 510-1520. Many island properties offer vacation packages. For a recommended list of local lodgings, please click here.

RECOMMENDED LODGING: Click here for several options on Catalina Island.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.) OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Catalina is your type of California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend Getaways in Santa Barbara, Coronado, and Long Beach.

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