Santa Catalina

Avalon harbor, Santa Catalina, CA.
Avalon harbor, Santa Catalina, CA.

I always heard that the scuba diving in California was excellent, so when my girlfriend asked me what I wanted to do for my 40th birthday, I immediately thought of Catalina.

Santa Catalina is a relatively small island about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. It’s 22 miles long and only 8 miles across at its widest point. We drove to Long Beach on a Thursday afternoon and, after sitting in traffic for two hours, hopped on the ferry to Catalina. Sixty minutes later, the hellacious LA traffic was already a distant memory.

Once we arrived in Avalon, we hopped in a taxi and headed for the hotel. It wasn’t a very long distance, but with all of my dive gear, walking was out of the question. Interestingly enough, there are very few cars on Catalina. According to the chamber of commerce, there is a fourteen year waiting list to own a car on the island. The locals get around by golf cart and since Avalon is a very small town, most tourists can easily get around on foot. Golf cart rentals are available by the hour, which makes for some interesting, if not treacherous situations when you mix flip flops and alcohol with gas-powered vehicles and no seat belts.

We stayed at the Catalina Island Inn. It was recently renovated and the staff was great, but the rooms were ridiculously tiny. For us, it was convenient because it’s right in the middle of town and we could walk to everything, but if you suffer from claustrophobia, I’d recommend staying somewhere else.

Food on the island can be hit or miss. There are some tourist traps that you should avoid, but there are also some gems. We had great meals at Bluewater Grill and The Lobster Trap, which is popular with the locals. Luau Larry’s makes some really awesome burgers, but it’s also a popular tourist bar, so it does get crazy at times. My favorite meal was definitely my birthday dinner at Avalon Grille. Their cioppino was outstanding and I asked for extra bread to sop up all of the deliciousness. It was definitely one of my top five meals ever.

When I wasn’t gorging myself with seafood and burgers, I was diving. I booked two full days of diving with Catalina Scuba Luv. It had been a while since I was in the water and  since my girlfriend doesn’t dive, I needed to hire a personal guide in order to have a buddy. The entire Scuba Luv crew was awesome. They paired me with the right dive master and provided me with all of the rental gear I needed. The Pacific stays fairly cold all year long, so a 7mm wetsuit was in order, along with a hood, booties and gloves. Water temps in August are generally in the low 60s and depending on how deep you go, there is at least one thermocline.

I completed four dives over two days and saw some really amazing things: horn sharks, tons of lobsters, crabs, flying fish and even a sea lion. It was my first time diving in kelp, which was very surreal, and although I missed a few of the larger marine animals that were spotted by other divers (bat rays and leopard sharks), it was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to go back.

If you’re not a diver, I’m not sure if I would recommend going to Catalina for more than a few days. The “beaches” in Avalon are not what you’d expect. They are very small and very crowded. There are other activities to enjoy topside (camping, zip lining, golf) and there are spas, shops, bars and even a small arcade, but I think I’d get bored after a few days if I wasn’t in the water.

One activity I can definitely recommend is the inland Jeep Eco Tour run by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Almost 90 percent of the island is protected from development and under the control of the conservancy. The eco tour gives you access to many parts of the island that most people never see, as well as the opportunity to view wildlife such as bison, bald eagles and an endemic species of fox. There are a few spots along the way that get a little hairy, especially the steep climb up towards the airport in the sky, but our driver insisted that they hadn’t rolled any jeeps in quite a while.