Welcome To The Enchanted Island Of Catalina: Far-Out But Not Far Away!

When our yacht docked at the whimsical cay that is Santa Catalina, we didn't know whether to cue up Marley's "Lively Up Yourself," Moby's "Porcelain" (remember that scene from The Beach?), or Coldplay's "Paradise." And as it turns out, all three apply — this destination would give never-never land a run for its money! Around every corner, there are wild buffalo, mermaids, trippy mosaics, flying fish, cacti, and even a dollop of true Old Hollywood glamour.
What's most uncanny, though, is that the historical enclave has remained relatively on the DL. Perhaps that's just because most don't realize it's a quick hour and some change away by boat (with a bar) from L.A. Well, consider this your surreal sneak peek and ultimate guide to Catalina, a place that'll surely be your new go-to getaway. Keep clicking for the deets on where to shop, play, eat, and so much more. Welcome to "Para, para, paradise!"
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Catalina Express
Even on a smogless day, those mounds in the distance may seem lonely, but this Channel Island is a social butterfly waiting for you to discover her beauty. And sure, you can hop in a helicopter or charter a jet (it has a mini-airport!), but your best transport bet is via the Catalina Express. With departures out of three L.A. ports, and multiple takeoff times, you can easily embark even on a Friday after work. And, in about an hour-and-a-half (roughly 26 miles), you'll feel like an ancient explorer sighting land! Up top, there's a first-class cabin, but we say why not get a little Pacific-misted on deck and wave your L.A. woes adios, sans windows? The best part about this watercraft, though, is its selection of booze (unless you're already fully loaded with Dramamine, of course). Smooth sailing, either way!
Catalina Express, 95 Berth (near Seaside Freeway); 310-519-7971.

Photo: Courtesy of Catalina Express
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It's A Wildlife!
When chewing-gum guru William Wrigley Jr. purchased the isle in 1919 for a little over 3 mill, he contributed beaucoup bucks to not only its commercial attractions, but Mother Nature's safekeeping, too. Eighty-eight percent of the island was deeded to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which means the land is ripe for sightings of all types! As we mentioned, wild bison were "herded" to Catalina for author and resident Zane Grey's silent Western flick, The Vanishing American. Well, even though all of the animals vanished onto the cutting room floor, Wrigley allowed them to remain and graze! To keep the hairy beasts from overtaking the island, they were prescribed "bison birth control," and their number is suspended at exactly 150. Sighting one is sort of like inland whale-watching — you definitely get bragging rights at the local watering holes later that night!

As far as other species, 25 bald eagles serve as island security, and the deer are almost freakily comfortable with tourists. You'll easily spot five in a day, and watch out, one may even get a little too close for comfort! Goats used to run rampant, too, and in an effort to save their lives, PETA had 20,000 of them airlifted out. One last little fun fact? A naturalist told us that foxes like to munch on the fermented cacti fruit that's fallen to the ground, and often can be seen stumbling around, tipsy as can be! Now, do you believe us that this place is wacky in the best of ways?

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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The Real Estate
It's a common misconception that there are no actual residents on the key, but au contraire — about 4,000 people live in eclectic abodes like this dwelling that was previously an actual ship! Tiny cottages dot the narrow streets, which were built around the "tent-city" Avalon used to be. Our favorites include a Mid-Century mod pad shaped like the state of Cali, and an entire home devoted to mermaids (the driveway is composed of shells, and even the rain spout is in the shape of a fish's mouth!). All of the terra-cotta in the gorgeous tile around the island and on other edifices is made from clay straight from the mountains towering above.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Mermaid Art Installations
You'll find cheeky nods to mer-men and women just about everywhere you turn on Catalina. Your own two feet and golf carts are the main mode of transportation to see these extraordinary sights, and residents even trick-out their rides with rims and other personal paraphernalia. One must procure a permit to get anywhere outside of the township of Avalon (even on foot), but the panoramic hikes are 100% worth getting the free pass. You can also travel by boat to Moonstone Cove, where locals swear they still find the kaleidoscopic stone playing hide-and-seek in the sand — and for the die-hard surfers in your clan, certain obscure beaches get 12- to 15-foot swells!

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Catalina Island Pet Cemetery
Horror fans listen up! Stephen King found inspiration from the island for his spooky reincarnation tale, Pet Sematary, and many of the residents refuse to go there after dark. We bet it's bumpin' around Halloween time!
Catalina Island Pet Cemetery, Wrigley Road (near Clemente Avenue); no phone.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Pavilion Hotel
We set up camp at this boutique lodge, and couldn't have been more pleased with our pick. You can't beat cozy Cali-king-sized beds right on the water, and a free wine and cheese happy hour! Plus, in the center of its plush courtyard, you'll find a fire pit for sharing all of your fresh island intel with pals. We even spotted one super-cute couple roasting their own marshmallows beside it.
Pavilion Hotel, 513 Crescent Avenue (at Sumner Avenue); 310-510-1788.

The Inn At Mt. Ada
This hotel and former home of William Wrigley Jr. was named for his wife, and he chose the perch because it's blessed with dawn's first morning rays and the last bits of light at sunset (what a romantic!). Wrigley also owned the Chicago Cubs, and hosted the team's spring training on a field below. The steps up to the manse are daunting (you'll prefer to ascend via golf carts, for sure), and it's said that they were used as a disciplinary tool for disobedient players. Ronald Reagan, the Prince of Wales, and many a Hollywood starlet have overnighted here, and it's still super-exclusive. We'd recommend planning months in advance to secure a room!
The Inn on Mt. Ada, 398 Wrigley Road (near Upper Terrace Road); 310-510-2030.

Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel
This is the spot for any hopeless nostalgics — the old-school building has an unparalleled historical allure, not to mention a spectacular view of the bay. Formerly the home of novelist Zane Grey, who penned over 100 books in his lifetime (and was responsible for that buffalo delivery), the Hopi Indian-style pueblo doesn't have room numbers. Each weekend nest is named for one of his paperbacks. If you ask us, the arrowhead-shaped pool in the back is exactly where we'd want to jot our very own roman à clef.
Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, 199 Chimes Tower Road (near Vieudelou Avenue); 310-510-0966.

Hotel Atwater
Located a hop, skip, and a jump from the water, you'll find a '20s-style budget-friendly boutique that the Scuba divers and surfers tend to gravitate towards (maybe it's the outdoor rinse-off showers?). There's free piping-hot Starbucks in the early a.m., too.
Hotel Atwater, 125 Sumner Street (near Crescent Avenue); 800-626-1496.

Avalon Hotel
This may be the cutest B&B we've seen! The foundation is a beautiful example of early-CA Craftsmen architecture, but it's been modernized without compromising the bones. There's a rooftop deck with sprawling vistas of the island, and they'll even give you a GPS and binoculars for bird-watching (kudos if you can spot a bald eagle!).
Avalon Hotel, 124 Whittley Avenue (near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-7070.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Avalon Grille
Our first night in town, we had the pleasure of noshing on AG's culinary feats, and we'll just go ahead and make the claim: No other bites even came close to this kind of satisfaction the rest of the trip. There's waterfront alfresco tables, and the bar scene is upscale-swank swinging! The must-trys? We highly recommend the seared Ahi tuna, served with edamame purée, sesame avocado, Sriracha chili, and wasabi aioli. And for you carnivores, you can't go wrong with the 30-day dry-aged 20-ounce rib eye drizzled with bacon butter! Is your mouth watering yet?
Avalon Grille, 423 Crescent Avenue (at Catalina Avenue); 310-510-7494.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Descanso Beach Club
First of all, if you like a Bloody Mary extra-spicy like us, hair-of-the-dogging here with the sand between your toes is practically mandatory. If you're more of a mimosa kind of gal, Descanso has a Sunday bottomless-champs and gourmet-buffet combo (only $35!) that will give even the most virtuous a case of serious gluttony. But, beyond satiating those taste buds, this will be your jam for bronzing (and lazing) the day away. You are on a remote-ish island, after all! The private beach club is tucked away in an intimate little cove, and boasts a bevy of cabanas and comfy chaises perfect to catch up on reading (or canoodling with your weekend partner). The entrance fee is two dollars per guest, and free if you're dining. Trust us, entering this enchanted piece of real estate is like meeting the pearly gates to relaxation heaven!
Descanso Beach Club, St. Catherine Way (near Airport Road); 310-510-7410.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Catalina Country Club
This posh spot isn't open to the public, but the Santa Catalina Island Company is more than happy to arrange a private dinner for you and your group (they're pretty much your one-stop shop for doing anything cool in Avalon!). And, checking out the building alone is worth any extra dough you may dole out: A gorgeous fairy-lit courtyard greets you, and the most glamourous photos of celebs in retro garb line the walls (we were Instagramming up a storm inside!).
Catalina Country Club, 1 Country Club Drive (near Banning Drive); 310-510-7428.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Sally's Waffle Shop
No doubt, you'll be famished after all of this trekking around town (or over-imbibing the night before). We hit Sally's for blueberry waffles and a good old-fashioned veggie scramble. It's nothing fancy, but we left with full bellies, and rearin' to explore the rest of this wonderland for you!
Sally's Waffle Shop, 501 Crescent Avenue (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-0355.

Another Notable
M Restaurant, 205 Crescent Avenue (between Metropole and Whittley avenues); 310-510-8404.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Luau Larry's
Here's your plan of attack at this Hawaiian-inspired joint: Order a Grey Goose martini, a plate of ooey-gooey oysters (as fresh as it gets!), and then go head-to-head with the pictured mile-high burger (a beer goes best here). The live tunes blaring in the background are the only other pairing you'll need.
Luau Larry's, 509 Crescent Avenue (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-1919.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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The Lobster Trap
We won't lie, we may or may not have taken shots for the first time since college at this eatery. The offerings were just too tasty not to try! We sampled The Candiland, poured with Malibu Passion, Cruzan Vanilla, cranberry and OJ, and then, the Pancake Breakfast, comprised of Jameson and Buttershots and chased with more OJ and bacon — yes, bacon. Okay, we'll 'fess up, the Otterpop-infused Alexander The Grape was delish, too! If you're not feeling quite as luscious (or just need to soak up all that alcohol), the lobster tacos and jalapeno poppers are foolproof choices.
The Lobster Trap, 128 Catalina Avenue (at 3rd Street); 310-510-8585.

Another Notable
Steve’s Steakhouse, 417 Crescent Avenue (at Catalina Avenue); 301-510-0333.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Joe's Place
Prominently located right off the pier, Joe's is easy breezy for a morning cup of Jo and a great basic brekkie. It's the sister spot to the aforementioned Sally's, and if that teensy bistro has a wait, here's where you should head!
Joe's Place, 501 Crescent Avenue (at Catalina Avenue); 310-510-0491.

Another Notable
Pancake Cottage, 615 Crescent Avenue (at Pebbly Beach Road); 310-510-0726.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Eric's on the Pier
You'll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy the fish and chips on this pier property's menu. It's an en-route spot, perfect to grab a bite, then head on down the dock to rent snorkeling or kayak gear, or just stare off into the Pacific in a "I'm fulfilled" food coma.
Eric's on the Pier, 2 Green Pier (near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-0894.

Another Notable
Landing Bar & Grill, 101 Marilla Avenue (near Whittley Avenue); 310-510-0486.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Marlin Club
If only every dive bar was this rad! Trippy fish line the space, there's a mermaid and mer-man cutout wall prime for picture-snapping, and the buoyant bartender even has a side business crafting Koozies emblazoned with your favorite team or print (leopard-enveloped brewskies, y.e.s. please!). Good times, folks, good times.
Marlin Club, 108 Catalina Avenue (near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-0044.

Photographed by Brenna Egan
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Lloyd's of Avalon Confectionery
If ever there was a time to use the phrase "Like a little kid in a candy shop," this would be it. Willy Wonka would have a wild party inside these four walls — there's not a sugarcoated item left off of Lloyd's shelves! We stocked up on caramel apples and lollipops to sooth late-night sweet tooths.
Lloyd's of Avalon Confectionery, 315 Crescent Avenue (near Whittley Avenue); 310-510-7266.

Another Notable
Pete's Cafe, 128 Sumner Avenue (between Crescent Avenue and Beacon Street); 310-510-0523.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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El Galleon Restaurant
This island makes you feel so elated, you may want to belt out "Like A Prayer" from the mountaintops — but unless you'd like a run-in with drunk foxes, or roaming buffalo and deer, we suggest heading to this Mexican resto instead. Known as the place to get your karaoke kicks, the margs are more than liquid courage, they're delectably dangerous. Put your name on the long list early, but don't down too many — no one enjoys a sloppy Madonna cover.
El Galleon Restaurant, 411 Crescent Avenue (between Sumner and Catalina avenues); 310-510-1188.

Another Notable
The Sandtrap, 501 Avalon Canyon Road (near Tremont Street); 310-510-2505.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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CC Gallagher
By and far our favorite boutique on the island, we didn't know whether to eat sushi, drink wine, down caffeine, or just shop 'til we dropped. Of course, we couldn't help ourselves from doing all of the above, and CC's became sort of a people-watching hub. Besides the delectable dessert coffees, our favorites were its selection of eccentric, collaged cards, unique baubles, and an array of Lollia products (have you tried the In Love scent yet?).
CC Gallagher, 523 Crescent Avenue (at Claressa Avenue); 310-510-1278.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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C.C. Beau Deli
Where else but Catalina can you walk into a deli expecting gourmet eats and things, then stumble upon a super-chic florist's shop in the back? There were too many treasures in this emporium to count (coral, starfish, cards, and cool knickknacks), all magnified by the scent of fresh orchids.
C.C. Beau Deli, 109 Claressa Avenue (near Beacon Street); 310-510-0833.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Two's Co. Of Avalon
If you have an artiste in your life, you'll need to bring them a memento of your trip back from this beaut of a boutique. Vividly spray-painted coral attached to island wood had our DIY-minds churning, but they were so well-priced that we decided to bite the bullet for the moms, BFFs, and work pals.
Two's Co. Of Avalon, 519 Crescent Avenue (near Claresse Avenue); 310-510-1748.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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The Steamer Trunk
If you make it here before the holidays, you will undoubtedly cross every single person off of your gift list in one fell swoop! We snatched up some reproduction Catalina tile (originals are elusive and cost a small fortune), mermaid coat hangers, and more quippy cards galore! After the register rang, the bounty was so big that there was serious concern the Catalina Express may charge us for an extra person ...
The Steamer Trunk, 121 Sumner Avenue (near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-2600.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Cape Canyon Tour
If you only book one excursion your entire weekend, this is absolutely the one not to miss. Kim, our encyclopedic guide and captain of our eco-friendly Hummer (yes, they exist), may as well be the island's resident historian! In full disclosure, most of the factoids you've read here came from copious notes taken along the bumpy trails on the Eastern side of the isle. You'll traverse 2,100 feet up for head-spinning views, get some steep roller-coaster jollies, and soak up so much cool conversation fodder that you'll indisputably win a most popular contest at the Marlin Club later that night!
Cape Canyon Tour, 1 Island Plaza (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-8687.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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The Casino
Day or night, the first awe-inducing landmark that will greet you while approaching dry land is Catalina's pièce de résistance, The Casino, which stands sentinel as the emblem of the island. No gambling has ever taken place in the building — but it was the first-ever theatre built for motion pictures— breaking the mold in the silent-only era of the '30s. Acoustically perfect, movie stars crossed the channel for every "Hollywood" premiere for a period of time, so you can imagine the glam-factor its walls have witnessed! And, since we know Wrigley was an avant-garde gent, it's no surprise that he commissioned artist John Gabriel Beckman to create mosaic masterpieces on the outer walls and some of the coolest paintings we've ever seen inside the actual arena (think swinging '60s meets Art Deco meets mermaids). In the ballroom upstairs, Tiffany chandeliers will salute you, and one even rotates like a Deco disco ball! The magnate's magnum opus took 14 months to build, and two million dollars to create, so it most definitely needs to make your vacay to-do list!
The Casino, 1 Casino Way (near St. Catherine Way); 310-510-7428.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Catalina Coastal Tours
Whether you want to go on a hunt to spot dolphin, whale-watch, hit up Moonstone Cove, or the secret surf spots we hinted at, this company has you covered. It offers private charters, sunset cruises, and even an after-dusk "Astronomy Experience," where a guide to the galaxy imparts her knowledge on the lore and naked truth about the stars above.
Catalina Coastal Tours, 105 Pebbly Beach Road (near near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-1777.

Photo: Courtesy of Catalina Coastal Tours
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The Botanical Gardens
You won't find anything but cacti in this brilliant patch, but we promise the exotic array of endemic succulents seen here will leave you thinking "Forget peonies!" for your next bouquet! Some of the variety is even on the Endangered Species List, so this may be the only place you'll ever find them. You can reach the stunning enclosure either by hoofing it up one of the cottage-lined streets from town (it's about a mile-and-a-half away), take a trolley, or just cab it like we did. No matter what, your camera and your peepers will be appreciative of all the glorious shades of green.
The Botanical Gardens, 1400 Avalon Canyon Road (near Tremont Street); 310-510-2595.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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The Wrigley Memorial
There's no gambling in Catalina's Casino, no roses in the Botanical Garden, and no dead bodies in this mausoleum! Wrigley's wife, Ada, commissioned the stunning structure for his burial, using mostly native stones and tile from the Catalina Pottery Plant (it closed in 1937). However, she mysteriously moved his remains to Forest Lawn in L.A. after spending nearly two years laboring over the fixture. Serving as a sort of watchtower above all the cacti below, it almost looks like an ancient ruin from a far-off land — we seriously didn't want to close our eyes! The other-worldly appearance, coupled with the ambiguity of Ada's decision, definitely imparts a surreal aura about it all.
The Wrigley Memorial, 1400 Avalon Canyon Road (near Tremont Street); 310-510-2595.

Photographed by Sarah St. Lifer
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Catalina Parasail
You may as well parasail with these kinds of sights surrounding you, right? You can fly with up to two of your pals, and spend 9 to 14 minutes at 800 feet, toes dangling beneath. If you feel like getting dunked, your captain will happily oblige!
Catalina Parasail, 105 Pebbly Beach Road (near Crescent Avenue); 310-510-1777.

Photo: Via Catalina Parasail
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Rock Climbing Wall
Just behind the Descanso Beach Club, you can snag a rigorous workout with the most gratifying dessert at the top — views of that pristine stretch of sand. At only 10 bucks for three climbs and with eight people allowed on the boulder at a time, you can race to the peak "best out of three" with your buddies. Loser buys shots at the Lobster Trap later!
Rock Climbing Wall at the Descanso Beach Club, St. Catherine Way (near Airport Road); 310-510-7428.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Undersea Expedition
This is probably the closest you'll ever get to hopping aboard a submarine, and submerging yourself with the undersea creatures of Catalina. You'll descend underneath the Pacific, placed within inches of marine life like bright-orange garibaldi, spotted calico bass, urchins, rockfish, and bat rays. The crew feeds the critters from the vessel, so you're sure to see aplenty!
Undersea Expedition, 1 Island Plaza (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-8687.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Zip Line Eco Tour
What a rush! Swing like Tarzan along five separate zip lines for a total of 1,100 feet of "weeee!" That's right, for almost three-quarters of a mile, you'll whiz 300 feet above the canyons of Catalina at over 45 miles per hour. At each platform, a history lesson on the wildlife and ecology of the magical island awaits, which also serves to sooth any nerves. And, even if you are a little squeamish about heights (us!), it's probably one of the safest ways to face your fear. For the superhero-style brave folks, they also offer night zips, the first of its kind in California.
Zip Line Eco Tour, 1 Island Plaza (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-8687.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Glass Bottom Boat Voyage
Legend has it that the painter behind the crazy creations at The Casino was inspired by a cruise on one of these boats, and with all the vibrant colors and aquatic life blurring beneath, it's easy to see why. It will either really urge you to want to snorkel later (perhaps get that scuba license you've always yearned for?), or not want to swim at all, knowing how much life is teeming at your feet!
Glass Bottom Boat Voyage, 1 Island Plaza (near Catalina Avenue); 310-510-8687.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company
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Catalina Island Golf Course
Not too many places in the U.S. have bragging rights to putting greens just steps from the beach, but yet again, this anomalous island has something special for everyone! It's the oldest course operating West of the Mississippi, and is challenging, too. If nine holes seems too harrowing, there's always mini-golf just down the way, where each hole has a fact about the island. And that's the true overall beauty of this destination: Even if you're engaged in downright silliness, there's always an eccentric history to indulge your mind in at every turn.
Catalina Island Golf Course, 1 Country Club Drive (near Banning Drive); 310-510-7428.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company