Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Catalina Island may be small, but there is no shortage of fun to be had once your feet hit solid ground in the city of Avalon.
I usually prepare for each cruise port well in advance, but I booked my Baja cruise at the last minute. I had little time to research what to do once I arrived on Catalina Island. My plan was to wing it, but a lovely couple onboard our cruise had me thinking otherwise. And boy am I glad they did.
After talking to the couple, we learned the “thing to do” in Avalon is rent a golf cart. The couple had pre-booked one online before setting sail. They suggested we do the same thing, but we were already well away from land. It would cost us a fortune to use our cell phones to surf the net. We vowed to get up at the crack of dawn so that, as soon as we were close enough to shore to use our cell phones without racking up enormous charges.
The water off the coast of Catalina is too shallow for cruise ships to come into port. Instead, they anchor at sea and “tender” cruisers ashore in small charter boats. On this particular cruise aboard Carnival Inspiration, if you chose to leave the ship between 8 and 9 a.m., tenders were first come, first serve.
From 9 to 10 a.m., people on ship-sanctioned shore excursions got priority, which could result in long lineups for anyone else. After 10 a.m., you could once again take the first available boat. My friend and I decided the night before we would cut our losses and get out ahead of the crowd. We had a plan in mind and wanted to make it happen. We set our alarm for 7 a.m.
As we ate breakfast, we madly searched for golf cart rentals in Catalina. Sadly, the first three companies we contacted were fully booked. So, rather than sit on the ship wallowing, we decided to make our way to the tenders. It was just prior to 9 a.m., and we didn’t want to miss our opportunity to get on a boat right away. We figured we would hit up some of the places on the boardwalk to see if they had any carts left.
But we never gave up hope. As we sailed under sunny skies, we continued our plight. Finally, we found success! The fellow who answered the phone at Catalina Golf Cart Rentals told us if we got there by 10:30 we would likely be able to get a cart. It was now 8:55 a.m., so we hoped we would make it. When we told the man on the phone we were sitting on the tender, he replied with, “See you in five minutes.” Our hearts swelled. We did it!
The Adventure Begins
Island Rentals is, literally, a hop, skip, and jump from where the tender docks. About half a block up the street on the left side, you’ll stumble upon a tiny building with an outdoor counter. You can’t miss it—there’s a bison on the roof that you can see all the way to the dock.
Just walk right up and request a cart. After signing a few release forms, you’ll be on your way. Just be sure to bring cash—they don’t accept other forms of payment. It’s $40 per hour, and if you pre-pay for 2 hours, you get the third hour for free. And, to sweeten the deal, for every half hour you return prior to the two hours you pay for, you get $20 back. But be sure to bring cash. They don’t accept credit cards.
There is a set 12-mile route for golf carts that takes you all around Avalon. The rental center will give you a map, but the route is also marked with numbered signs throughout the city. You begin your ride driving seaside along the main roadway. The locals are used to maneuvering around the carts, so there’s no need to worry about rolling with the regular traffic. Drive at your own pace, and they’ll pass you if needed.
The view is amazing as you ride along the cliff wall leading to the peak of the island. Along the route, there are various places where you can stop briefly for a picture and to take in the scenery. You’ll get stunning shots of your ship and all of Avalon from here.
Continuing along the pre-planned route, you head back downhill and through residential streets, catching a glimpse of island life as you scoot past the colorful houses. Climbing uphill along Avalon Canyon, you’ll reach the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, where you can park your cart and take a look around. Admission is $7, and you’ll get to see the monument built to honor the owner of the largest chewing gum company in the world, as well as a beautiful view of Avalon Bay.
After your stroll through the gardens, jump back in your golf cart to complete your tour. Sights you’ll see as you motor through along the route include Descanso Beach Club, Catalina Island Casino, and the Zip Line Eco Tour. You’ll even coast through the town center.
According to the rental center, you can complete the entire golf cart route in one hour if you don’t make any stops. We paused a few times for pictures—once to let a few deer pass by—and we were done in an hour and a half. We got back $20 when we returned the cart, and we’d had the time of our life.
Pro tip: When we got back to the rental center after our tour, there were scads of people waiting for carts. We saw this all over town. Get off the ship early to make sure you can get your hands on a golf cart, and enjoy the sights before they get too busy.
After our golf cart adventure, we went for a walk through town. There are lots of cute boutiques. Most sell beach wear, dive gear, or souvenir trinkets. But others, like Latitude 33, Catalina Gear, and Afishinados offer designer clothing and pieces from local artists. These are just a few of the shops you’ll find in the seaside community.
Next, grab a mid-morning snack to refuel before heading to the beach. Scoops has homemade ice cream, or you can head to Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co for a caffeine fix. For every type of candy and confection imaginable, stop in at Lloyd’s of Avalon. A bite of creamy fudge satisfied my sweet tooth.
By now, the mid-day sun will be casting down upon you. It’s time to hit the beach and cool off. We considered parasailing since the day was still young, but ultimately decided against it. Looking back, I highly recommend giving it a try. Watching from the sidelines as friends rode tandem through the sky over this quaint community would be a wonderful experience. Don’t miss out like I did.
Instead, we found some open space along the water and relaxed on the beach for an hour. The ship provides towels you can take ashore, just be sure to bring them back onboard so you don’t get charged for them at the end of your journey. The beach near the boat gets really crowded quite quickly, so don’t dally reserving your spot in the sand.
Don’t worry if you don’t want to get wet. There’s plenty of people watching if you’re not into swimming. Plus the calm bobbing of the boats on the water makes for a pleasant sight. Kick back, and enjoy the moment.
Pro tip: Descanso Beach tends to be much less busy than the main area near the dock. It’s a short walk past the town center, and you can find a bit of peace a quiet there. There’s even a restaurant where you can enjoy lunch or cabanas you can rent to help keep you cool in the hot sun.
By early afternoon—around 1:30 p.m.—we were ready to head back on board our ship. We managed to secure loungers in the adult-only pool area at the back of the boat with a view of the island. We spent the rest of the day watching parasailers being whisked through the cobalt sky, laughing and screaming in delight.
Avalon is an adorable community with many other exciting sights to enjoy. To share your ideas for the best way to spend the perfect day on Catalina Island, head over to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.