Catalina on a Cruise: What to Know, Do, and See During Your Visit

If you live in the Los Angeles area, then there is a good idea that you know about the gem that is Catalina. If you’ve never visited, however, you’re in for a treat when you stop during your cruise.

View of Catalina Island in California
The town of Avalon is where your cruise will visit during your trip to Catalina. Here’s what to know about the island, town, weather, and more.

Having visited ports all around North America, Catalina stands out as one of my favorites. It sits so close to the millions that call the Los Angeles area home, yet it feels completely different.

If your cruise is about to visit the island, here is what to know, what to do, and more.

What to Know About Catalina Overall


Let’s start by giving an overview of the island for those that aren’t familiar. Catalina is part of the Channel Islands and sits about 30 miles from the coast of California. It’s relatively mountainous (although some may call them large hills), with peaks that rise up to about 2,000 feet. Catalina is actually fairly large, measuring about 20 miles from end to end and eight miles at its widest point.

Most of the island is uninhabited. When your ship arrives, you’ll visit Avalon — the main town on Catalina — at the southeastern tip of the island. Avalon is home to about 3,000 people and is one of the most picturesque beach towns you’ll ever visit. For more on this focal point of where you’ll visit, keep reading.

Avalon: A Postcard-Worthy Beach Town

The town of Avalon is picture-perfect, nestled at the foot of mountains. It’s where you’ll likely spend most or all of your time while in port.

As mentioned, the ship will stop in Avalon, and this is where most passengers will spend their time.

Avalon sits in a relatively flat spot in the valley between mountains. It’s small — it takes only about 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Most people get around on golf carts and the houses are small and tightly packed.

The entire town wraps around Avalon Bay, dotted with small boats. On the far end of the town sits the Catalina Casino. It’s not a gambling casino, but an art-deco theater and ballroom built in 1929.

The town is hemmed in by mountains, giving it a cozy feeling. In our opinion, the entire place is straight out of a postcard. The geography is gorgeous, flowers are blooming, and the town is usually bathed in California sunshine.

Catalina is a Tender Port

Cruise ships don’t dock at a pier. Instead, they sit offshore while smaller ‘tenders’ bring you back and forth from the ship.

In Catalina, there’s no pier large enough for cruise ships to dock. Instead, it’s what’s known as a tender port.

When you arrive, the ship will stay offshore. Passengers will then board a smaller boat that takes you into Avalon. Unless you like long lines, it’s best to go early in the morning or later in the day. Mid-morning lines to get on a tender can be long.

The boats run back and forth from the ship continually throughout the day, so whenever you want to go ashore or head back, you’ll be able to.

Tips: There’s a Grocery Store for Picking Up Forgotten Items

Odds are that if you visit Catalina, it’s likely the day after your ship departs Los Angeles or Long Beach. In other words, it’s enough time to get on the ship, unpack, and realize you forgot deodorant… or a toothbrush… or you just want to pick up some snacks or drinks for the rest of the cruise.

In that case, there is a Vons grocery store right in the middle of Avalon (between Summer Avenue and Catalina Avenue). There, you can pick up anything you might have forgotten.

Want to mail a postcard home? There is also a post office on Metropole Avenue.

Head to Town Early for Smaller Crowds

Depending on the season, Avalon can be very busy when a cruise ship comes in. I talked to one local who said the beaches and town can be packed during the height of summer when there are a lot of tourists already and then added by having a ship in.

Other times of year (I visited in spring), it gets busy during the afternoon but not overly crowded. Still, if you arrive on one of the first tender ships, then you can feel like you’ve got the town completely to yourself. I really enjoyed being there early and just walking around to see it all, well before the larger crowds showed up.

The Waterfront Is the Focus of Avalon

Waterfront boardwalk in Avalon
Avalon’s waterfront features lots of shops, restaurants, places to sit, restrooms, and beach access. It’s where you’ll find the most things to do and the crowds.

I mentioned that Avalon sits on a small bay that sweeps around in a semi-circle. As you might expect, this waterfront area is where the main action in the town will be. It’s walkable, has lots of boutique shops, rentals for bikes and golf carts, areas to sit, beaches, restaurants, and yes, even restrooms.

Some (not all) is closed to vehicles making it ideal for pedestrians. From the waterfront you’ll also have a nice view across the bay back toward your ship.

Is the waterfront getting too busy during the day? Just head back into town a bit to explore, and you’ll find it quickly quiets down.

Golf Carts and Electric Bikes Get You Around

Golf carts are the common way to get around. You can rent them to cruise the streets and get easier access to some of the more hilly areas.

Thinking of getting a taxi or an Uber? Yeah, that’s not how people get around. Many people walk, but if you want to avoid walking or get to some of the viewpoints overlooking the town that normally require a steep hike, you’re in luck.

Several companies are right along the waterfront as you arrive on the island offering rentals for golf carts and electric bicycles. These can make getting around much easier. During my stop, golf carts were priced at $60 per hour while electric bikes were $60 for a half day. In other words, you’ll pay a decent amount, but it’s the best way if you don’t want to walk all day.

If you know where you want to go, there is a service called COAST (sometimes known as Circuit) that offers on-demand rides around town. You’ll need to download Ride Circuit app before you ride. The cost starts at $2 per person.

There’s Much More to the Island Than Town

I mentioned that Avalon is just a small part of a much larger island. There’s a lot more of the island that most visitors never see, but it’s not just as simple as heading out on your own.

You aren’t allowed to take golf carts far outside the city. Instead, you either have to hike or bike (permit required) or take one of the island tours offered through the Catalina Island Conservancy or other provider.

The tours offer you the chance to see Catalina’s more rugged beauty in the mountains and also see wildlife like foxes, bison, and bald eagles.

What to Do in Catalina on a Cruise

Cruise ship off the coast of Catalina
There’s plenty to do during a day in port, including checking out some of the lookout points near town that offer great views of your ship.

Not sure how to spend your time during your cruise’s stop? I’ve covered a number of items above, but here it is all in one place:

Waterfront: Most cruise passengers will spend the bulk of their time on the waterfront of the bay. It’s the hub of town with a number of restaurants, shops, and large walking area beside the beach. You can definitely spend several hours here just exploring and taking in the vibe and beauty that is Avalon.

Water Activities: Want to do something on the water? Just know you aren’t going to want to go swimming (the water is too cold), but there are still a lot of water activities. Paddle boards are for rent, there are diving excursions (wetsuit included), semi-submarine tours to look under the waves, and you can even rent small boats by the hour.

Viewpoint: One thing I would suggest is a trip to the Buena Vista Point Overlook. It’s just out of town, and offers an amazing view of Avalon and of your ship sitting offshore. You can walk there, but it’s about 20-30 minutes up a steep incline. Most people use a golf cart or electric bike to get there.

Tours: As mentioned, there are tours available that get you out of the more touristy area and into the rugged mountains of Catalina Island. You can book them ahead of time and get a guided look at the wildlife and views that most people don’t experience.

Kid-Friendly: Trying to find something for kids to do? I think they’d love the submarine tours. There’s also a putt-putt course in town (near the grocery store) along with souvenir and candy shops on the waterfront.

Don’t Be Surprised by Morning Clouds

Morning clouds in Catalina
When you arrive in the morning, don’t be surprised if the sky looks unfriendly. It’s quite common and often burns off my mid-morning.

Depending on the time of year you visit, you might wake up and beautiful Catalina… is covered in dense, low-hanging clouds. Don’t let that put a damper on your day. The low clouds are a well-known weather phenomenon here caused by wind patterns and the effect of the cool ocean.

The good news is that the clouds often burn off later in the day, leading to sunny days. Overall, Catalina only has about 14″ of rain each year and 45 days of precipitation. As you’d expect in Southern California, the weather is likely to be perfect during your stop.

Popular: 39 Useful Things to Pack (17 You Wouldn't Think Of)

Read Next: Park & Cruise Hotels for Every Port in America

Popular: 107 Best Cruise Tips, Secrets, Tricks, and Freebies


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here