Catalina IslandCatalina Island is one of the most famous Southern California getaways for the Hollywood crowd. The island is small, notoriously private and a perfect escape for anyone wanting to get away from the California freeways. In fact, you can’t even rent a car here, just a golf cart.

The island’s slogan is that it’s perfect for visitors from 9-90, but I recently found out that Catalina can also be a great destination for little visitors.

Catalina ExpressThere are two ways to get to Catalina: by air or by sea. The most affordable and practical option is to take Catalina Express. The company operates a fleet of high-speed ferries out of three ports. Departure options include Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. The ferries travel to one of two Catalina ports, Two Harbors and Avalon. While Two Harbors is a great jumping off point for adventuring, the more family-friendly option is Catalina’s main town of Avalon.

Avalon is a charming seaside village of approximately 3,700 residents. With homes climbing the hillsides surrounding the port, it feels more like a fishing village in the Mediterranean than a Southern California destination. Avalon serves as a home base for many adventure-based experiences, like scuba diving, zip lining and rock climbing, but it also offers many gentler adventures, perfect for the speed of toddlers.

Undersea_ExplorerFrom the green pier, Undersea Expedition semi-submersible rides give nature lovers a fish’s eye view of the Catalina coastline, from the kelp beds to the protected rock reef. Submersible staff feed the fish for the pleasure of passengers. Little ones will squeal with delight over this close-up with the bright orange Garibaldi and rockfish. The luckiest of little adventurers may even catch a glimpse of an eel or bat ray.

Little ones may also enjoy rattling around in one of Avalon’s signature golf carts. The Golf Cart Rental, which rents in 2-hour segments, allows families to explore the area a little further than toddlers can by foot. Climb up into the hills for a bird’s eye view of the port. The little ones will be thrilled by the twists and turns down the hill. (There are a few parks along the route with public restrooms as well as playgrounds perfect for burning off a little extra energy.) The golf carts come equipped with car seats for the littlest riders.

Two spots designed to delight little ones are the Three Palms Avalon Arcade and the Mini Golf Gardens. The arcade offers a wide range of video and classic arcade games as well as a mini bowling alley and a snack bar. Just a couple blocks off the beach, the Golf Gardens offers classic mini golf fun suitable for the whole family. Just be warned that both activities are pricier than comparable experiences on the mainland. Mini golf is $10/round for children 2-11 and $12 for adults. At Three Palms, most activities are $1/game.

The beach in AvalonBut little travelers will probably most appreciative of Catalina’s simplest pleasures. Take the kids for a morning at the beach and just let them dig in the sand and splash in the clear waters. Forgot your shovel and pail? If one of the many souvenir shops along Crescent Ave. doesn’t offer what you’re looking for, the Von’s grocery store on Metropole should have what you need.

Many Catalina restaurants are family-friendly, including some of the most upscale options. Bluewater Grill, located along the port, offers breathtaking views and a children’s menu with well-balanced meals. Coney Island West is the perfect spot for picking up sandwiches and snacks for the beach. If your little ones have adventurous taste, consider making a reservation at Avalon Grille for the flash-fried whole snapper. Little seafood lovers’ eyes will grow wide at the sight of this presentation-heavy preparation. There is something faintly barbaric about fish, bones, eyeballs, fins and all sitting in the middle of the table. But most kids go crazy for that stuff! (And the fish is undeniably moist, flakey and delicious.)

Although there is a distinct lack of chain motels with identical, adjoining rooms, many Avalon hotels have suites suitable for small families. On our recent visit, we stayed at the Hotel Portofino. The hotel is across the street from the waterfront, an easy walk from the Catalina Express terminal. The hotel offers several suites and complimentary cribs. We stayed in the Villa D’Este suite, with a balcony overlooking charming Crescent Street and the port beyond.

Know before you go:

Most Catalina activities suitable for small children are outdoors. The winter months can be rainy so you might want to consider weather in planning your trip.

Avalon’s beaches are small and can become crowded in summer, when local schools are on break. If you don’t want to have to fight for your spot in the sand, plan your trip for days when the public schools are in session.

Catalina offers special events throughout the year, many of which are family-friendly. For the most up-to-date calendar visit the Catalina Chamber of Commerce website,

Getting there:

Advanced reservations are recommended for Catalina Express. For schedules, visit their website, Because it’s always best to make things as easy as possible when traveling with little ones, consider upgrading to the Commodore Lounge, with complimentary beverages and snacks and priority boarding.