For a thrilling time when you are in LA, venture across the water to Catalina Island, writes Alexia Santamaria

When you think of Los Angeles, taking a boat out to an island, snorkelling, zip-lining in canyons and seeing wild bison may not be the first things that come to mind. But a day trip to Catalina island can involve all that, and more.

The Catalina Express ferry leaves from Long Beach Port and the first thing I notice is how smoothly everything runs with boarding. An hour later, after an easy crossing, we are disembarking on an island that seems incredibly removed from the general vibe of LA.

It still has the same arid landscape created by extreme drought conditions in California but culturally, it really seems like another country — or at least a totally different state. It's intriguing sailing into this scene of rows of boats with houses built all the way up the hill, like a mini Monaco — but not so "Riviera".


Before long we find ourselves in an open-roofed biofuel Hummer. Right, that's a bit more LA. We're taken on a 50-minute ride around part of the 194.2sq/km island to give us more of an idea of its geography and history. We hear a lot about William Wrigley (yes, of chewing gum fame) who bought 99 per cent of this island back in 1919 with a vision of protecting it and simultaneously creating a resort destination. We pass the Botanic Gardens, get a spectacular view from up high, drive past the former Bird Park - it was one of the largest in the world — marvel at the gorgeous casino theatre with its beautiful Art Deco style panels — and even see some bison.

A Catalina bison. Photo / Getty Images
A Catalina bison. Photo / Getty Images

Yes bison. It's a great story. In the 1920s Zane Grey's silent western The Vanishing American was filmed on Catalina with bison shipped in as part of the cast. Inevitably some escaped (if you saw the size of these beasts you'd see why no one tried to catch them) and they went on to breed and form today's current population. We're told there are also bald eagles, foxes, giant squirrels and rattlesnakes among other fascinating species on the island but sadly - or maybe happily in the case of the snake - we don't see any of them.

After a lunch stop it's on to the big activity of our day — ziplining. Our guides at Zip Line Eco tours are friendly and skilled at putting us at ease. I feel particularly relaxed when I hear guide Nicole's Kiwi twang. She's from Christchurch, living on Catalina for a while on an overseas adventure. I know that, as a fellow countrywoman, she's got my back and she seems delighted to hear my familiar Antipodean rising inflection.

After our safety briefing and signing the ominous waiver releasing the company from any liability if we damage ourselves, we're off up the hill — in another open-topped Hummer — those and golf carts are the only way to get around the island. We get to the top platform for the first of five lines, and nerves set in as we see how long and deep the course is.

We watch a woman chicken out in front of us and see how easy it is to talk yourself out of this madness involving not much more than a harness, a line and a big step out into nothingness before hurtling at speed over a deep canyon. I'm sure at that moment our whole group silently commits to not over-thinking what's coming, lest we follow her example.

Standing at the edge I try not to look too far down. My adrenaline production is in overdrive but I'm determined not to be a big baby and after my 10-point safety check (which they do every time you clip on), my heart beating rapidly, palms sweating, I step out into the abyss.

It's exhilarating and far more fun than I imagined. A giant flying fox for grown-ups in the middle of wild rocky Californian desert scenery. I'm not sure if I say it out loud but my only thoughts are "wheeeeeeeeeeeeee". I remember just in time to assume the landing position and swing my legs up and over to land in the capable arms of the catching instructor. Wow!

One by one our whole group comes across, all looking very relieved at the other end. At each platform, our guides give us interesting titbits of info about the flora and fauna of the Island and good recommendations for food (apparently the Lobster Trap is where they all go to eat).

Alexia Santamaria on the Catalina Zipline Tour.
Alexia Santamaria on the Catalina Zipline Tour.

Two hours "zips" past and by the time we reach the final line we're all "busting moves" — think the Running Man or Superman pose, but on a zip line. It's so much fun and I feel incredibly proud to have done something so far outside my comfort zone and not only survived, but enjoyed myself.

We all feel we deserve a drink so are very pleased to see our guide ushering us towards a golf cart to take us to a beachside bar where we're served Buffalo Milk, the island's special cocktail. It's definitely got more fake whipped cream on the top than I would ever have on anything but, when in Rome . . . The vodka, Kahlua, creme de bananes, creme de cacao and milk concoction is surprisingly pleasant, like a milkshake with a kick.

We have some time before the boat takes us back to the mainland, so we wander around the cutesy tourist shops near the port. The common souvenir seems to be Catalina tile (another Wrigley enterprise) which comes in all manner of multi-coloured seemingly Spanish- or Portuguese-influenced patterns. Our guides convince us there's time for one more drink and some wings (I just can't say no to great American buffalo wings) so we head for Luau Larry's. It's seems rude not to order their signature cocktail the — wait for it — Wiki Wacker. Every cocktail comes with the most ridiculous straw hat: a perfectly frivolous end to a fun day on the island.

There's no time for snorkelling, but a glance at the water on the way onto the boat reveals all manner of brightly coloured species in the super clear waters. We're told Two Harbors and Lover's Cove offer some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving in the States and are we are gutted we're not there for longer as kayaking and paddle boarding are also on offer. We settle in for the ride home and bid Catalina a fond farewell as it fades into the distance.

I'd highly recommend a day on this island as a whimsical escape from the fun, but mad metropolis that is LA.

Tourist shops on Catalina Island. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
Tourist shops on Catalina Island. Photo / Alexia Santamaria


Getting there:

Catalina Island is about an hour by ferry from four mainland ports in Southern California — San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point (San Pedro and Long Beach are closes to LAX). You can also travel by private aircraft, private boat or helicopter.

Further information: See