For those wanting a mini-vacation getaway, Catalina Island is only 45 miles off the coast of Southern California. On clear days, we can see it out on the horizon from Huntington Beach and it calls to us to visit. With daily boat rides, like those through the Catalina Flyer (Newport) or Catalina Express (Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point), it’s about an hour and 45 minutes to the seaport of Avalon. You can go for a day or stay for a weekend with a plethora of small hotel options to choose from.
My husband and I love to SCUBA dive and Catalina is one of the top “cold-water” destinations to do so. September to November is the best time of year to dive because the water is still warm at about 60 degrees and it has the greatest visibility at about 50-60 feet. December to March is too cold. April to June has plankton blooms which reduces visibility to 20 feet. July and August may have warmer and clear water, but because it’s also tourist season, the boats and Casino Point Dive Park can get crowded. Plus, more people kicking up sand on the bottom means less visibility.
We like visiting Catalina in October because the diving is optimal, the island is less crowded with tourists, and the weather above water is just perfect at mid to high 70s. This past weekend was our second trip out and now that we know the lay of the land, we spent less time scoping things out and more time doing activities. It was a jam-packed weekend of experiencing new things!
Friday, October 13
We took the 9 AM Catalina Flyer out of Newport Harbor on Friday morning. I had found a Groupon discount of 50% off the fare (normally $70 roundtrip). The first time we stayed in Catalina, we had found a Groupon hotel at the Hermosa (I highly recommend against ever staying there unless you truly enjoy a more hostel like experience and aren’t big on hygiene). Having learned that lesson, we booked this weekend at the Atwater Hotel, which was a big upgrade without any sticker shock. Surprisingly, they had our room ready at 11 AM so we didn’t need to check in our bags.
We then headed straight to the Descanso Beach Club to find the Aerial Adventure, which is a series of obstacles — such as rope ladders, log bridges, and balancing beams — high up in a grove of eucalyptus. It offers five different courses, which are self-guided and paced, at varying levels of difficulty. You can do any and all of them as long as you’re done within the 90 minutes allotted.
When we arrived, the young man checking us in said, “I hope you brought your upper body strength today.”
Like it’s something you just happen to pack in your luggage for occasions such as this. Hmmm…floppy beach hat or upper body strength, which should I choose because I only have room for one?
This would be a first time activity for both my husband and I. As such, we opted to try the Beginner course first to test our abilities. We zoomed through it and while it was challenging, we knew we could push ourselves much farther. Rather than stepping up to the Intermediate, we jumped straight to the Advanced course. Our reasoning? Conserving upper body strength if we wanted to try a third course.
We were two obstacles in when we started questioning our decision. The logs that we had balanced on from one hanging step to the other on the Beginner course were now rolling logs at alternating heights and individually swinging. I felt like I was on American Ninja Warrior. For each obstacle, we were much slower, more calculated and more physically exhausted.
Finishing the Advanced course was challenging and required all of my focus, determination and strength. Years of climbing trees as a kid paid off. I didn’t fall or need to be rescued. Watching from the canyon floor, the staff coached us through some and yet complimented our ability to make it through the ones that they’re usually rescuing people from. Faith (who we happened to run into throughout the weekend) thought we’d done this kind of aerial course before because we were naturals. That alone made me feel confident.
Once it was over, we needed to stop for a water break and regroup. Dare we push ourselves to do another course? We had the time. Wanting to make the most of it, we challenged ourselves to complete an Intermediate course as our final hoorah.
Compared to the Advanced, this was a cake walk. Though with fatigued arms and bruised legs, it still took a lot of pep-talking to get through a couple of the obstacles. I mean, you can’t do an Advanced only to be rescued in the middle of an Intermediate. Mind over matter, we made it to the end and managed to laugh at ourselves throughout the process. For as tired as we were, we were having an absolute blast!
As I jumped out into the air for the last trust-fall to the ground, I completely let myself relax into the experience. So much so that I landed ever-so-not-gracefully onto my back in the wood chips in a fit of laughter. (BTW, we were picking wood chip splinters out of my shorts the rest of the afternoon. Hysterical for anyone watching trying to figure out what we were doing.)
We rewarded ourselves with a few drinks and lunch at the beach club overlooking the ocean before heading back to the hotel to shower.
That afternoon we relaxed, perused the gift shops, bar-hopped and just let the day flow by. For dinner, we hit Maggie’s Blue Rose, which is one of our favorite restaurants, serving Mexican out on a patio overlooking the beach and dock. I ordered the duck mole enchiladas while Jeff had the chicken enchiladas. If you go, try their empanadas, they’re delicious! (We would have ordered them but were so full from snacking throughout the day and our late lunch.) It was an early night in with anticipating of an early morning dive.
Saturday, October 14
We woke up early to prep our gear and grab a small pastry to eat before diving. It was a brisk morning and the sun was starting to rise and light up the boats on the bay. We carried our dive bag to Casino Point, where we met our dive master Jordan with Diving Catalina.
SCUBA diving in Catalina is unlike anywhere else I’ve dove. I was certified in Maui and all my dives since then had been in tropical climates, which offer warm water, bright coral reefs and colorful small fish. Diving off Casino Point Dive Park, which is a protected nature preserve, you’ll encounter beautiful Bladder Kelp forests, bright orange and blue Garibaldi, and giant Black Sea Bass. When I say giant, I am talking longer than I am tall and about the width of a football linebacker. It’s a surreal experience floating next to these gentle giants. On this special occasion, we were able to watch a smaller fish cleaning the teeth of one of the Sea Bass (though we were too slow to catch it on camera).
Rather than explaining this experience with words, I’ve provided a video of our dive.
Here are a few of our favorite photos from the morning:
If you’ve never tried SCUBA diving before, and aren’t claustrophobic, I highly recommend you learn. It’s one of the most meditative and exhilarating experiences. On the meditative side, you are breathing slowly and deeply some of the cleanest air you’ll ever breath for about 45 minutes straight. That’s a high within itself. To then add in visiting a completely different world full of new wonders while floating fully weightless, it’s a peaceful, present and centering experience. I feel utterly rejuvenated after diving. The calming memory of it lasting for hours and even years later when recalled.
The rest of the day we opted to check out the Chihuly exhibit at the Catalina Island Museum because it’s one we hadn’t visited yet. (They made us check our bags, so the only photos I have are those outside the museum.)
At Bluewater Grill, I ordered my first ever Buffalo Milk, which is made from Vodka, Kalua, Creme de Banana, Creme de Cacao, milk, whipped cream and freshly grated nutmeg.
In the afternoon we decided to take the Catalina Ocean Expeditions semi-submersible boat ride out to see more fish. (One can never have too much of a good thing.) I have seen these at various vacation destinations, and we decided to give it a try. It’s more made for children, but I do enjoy watching fish.
After another full day of activities, we ended up eating at M, which was recommended by the bartender at Bluewater Grill. She said to take advantage now because the owner only opens to the general public on the island event weekends, of which this happened to be JazzTrax. The menu is new every day based on what the chef decides she wants to cook that day. This was a treat we couldn’t pass up.
The food was excellent. I had the butternut squash risotto and Jeff had the lobster mac n’ cheese. For dessert, we ate an apple crisp.
Sunday, October 15
We woke up early to watch the sun rise and capture photos of the harbor before it was full of people. I love this time of day when everything comes alive. Even the birds start to chirp at signs of light.
We booked the first reservation for the Zip Line Tour at 9:20 AM. Neither one of us has zip-lined before, except for a similar experience in Zimbabwe which they called the flying squirrel, where they attached a harness to our trunk and we flew horizontally (face down) out over a gorge before being pulled back by a rope. I was excited to see what zip-lining was all about.
The Zip Line Eco Tour consisted of five different zip lines from the top of the mountain down to Descanso Beach over the course of two hours. We had an absolute blast…here’s the video:
As we were walking back through Descanso Beach Club, we saw a mom dear and her fawn.
By then we’d worked up an appetite and decided to try Steve’s Steakhouse & Seafood Bar & Grill, which is one of the few restaurants we hadn’t eaten at yet. Apparently Steve is married to Maggie, who owns and runs the Mexican Restaurant directly below. The food was excellent and the view is perfectly situated above the hustle of the main strip and overlooking the boats in the harbor. I ate a delicious tuna melt while Jeff opted for the buffalo burger. Neither disappointed.
From there, we had had our fill of excitement and opted for a chill afternoon of watching Sunday football from the beach bars at Descanso and Bluewater Grill, where I tried an oyster shooter for the first time. It’s less work than being served a plate of oysters on the shell.
The day flew by and next thing we knew it was time to catch the 4:30 PM boat ride back home.
Goodbye, Catalina; Until next year! What a rejuvenating and exhilarating weekend!