Wander Or Bust: Catalina Island & Laguna Beach

By Julia Ries

Wander or Bust is an Elite Daily travel series that follows young women all over the globe to record their journeys as they experience the thrill of the far-flung and unknown.

They'll track their budgets, where they stay, where they eat and drink, and where they took that amazing Instagram that got them ~maximum exposure.~ The internet is full of travel advice, but none from women just like you. Read on for the tips no one else gives you, and when in doubt, get on the plane.

Here's Julia Ries' Wander Or Bust guide to Catalina Island and Laguna Beach.

My Name: Julia Ries

What I Do: Freelance Writer

Where I Live: Los Angeles, CA

Where I Went: Catalina Island and Laguna Beach

Purpose of trip: My parents were visiting from out of town, so my boyfriend and I wanted to take them outside of LA for a few days.

How Long I Stayed: 3 days, 2 nights

My Spending Style: I definitely don't mind spending money when I travel. I’m all about the experiences, so if it costs more to experience more, I’m happy to splurge!

Where I Got My Recommendations: I used the internet to plan most of our activities, but I also browsed other people's social media to figure out useful recs and hacks.

I made an online poll to determine how long we should spend in Catalina (I live in LA, so a ton of people I know had already been). Mostly everyone voted that one day was more than enough, so we cut our visit to Catalina down by a day and tacked on an extra day in Laguna Beach, which is just a short drive away.

Preferred Payment Method: Credit card all the way. If I can spend my money and earn travel points while doing it, I’m all for it.

Luggage Type: I packed a carry-on bag along with a small backpack to take with me during our day excursions.

The 10 Most Important Items I Packed:

Because California weather fluctuates so much (it's a desert, after all), I packed a couple outfits for each day. And I always carried a light jacket. Here are the 10 things I wouldn't have survived without:

  • Sunglasses
  • Suntan lotion
  • A hat
  • Phone charger (my phone drained fast since I was taking so many pictures)
  • Denim jacket (it gets so chilly as soon as dusk sets in)
  • Backpack (for snacks — duh!)
  • A book (for the hour-long ferry ride)
  • Scrunchies (strong coastal winds = impossible hair)
  • A wine opener

What Skincare/Beauty Essentials I Don’t Travel Without:

Since it's so incredibly dry in California, moisturizer is a must. If it has SPF in it, even better. The sun can be brutal along the coast.

Mode of Transport: Car and Catalina Express Ferry

Price of transport: The ferry cost $74.50 per person, roundtrip. We took a ferry out of the Long Beach Port, which took us about an hour to get to the island. The best part was that we could book our tickets right on Expedia, which meant free cancellations in case our plans changed, no booking or credit card fees (score!), and best of all: no long lines at the ticket office. Once we boarded the ferry, all we had to do was kick back and enjoy the incredible views.

During the second leg of the trip, we drove from the Long Beach Port to Laguna Beach, which took about 40 minutes and cost approximately $10 in gas.

Extra Costs: We parked our car in an overnight garage near the ferry, which cost $28. If you have a car, this is more cost efficient and convenient compared to taking a ride share.

Transport Total: $112.50

Accommodation: In Catalina, we stayed at a highly rated oceanfront hotel right in the middle of Catalina's downtown area of Avalon. In Laguna Beach we stayed at a beachside hotel about a mile from downtown.

Location: We couldn't have picked a more perfect location for our Catalina hotel; in Laguna Beach, I wish we stayed closer to where all the action was.

Price:

Catalina hotel: $295/night

Laguna Beach hotel: $334/night

Extra Costs: Taxes are kinda steep in California, so that tacked on an extra 20 to 25 percent (taxes on accommodations alone ended up being around $115 total).

Would I Recommend It To Someone Else: I’d 100% recommend our Catalina hotel. It’s a boutique hotel that’s recently been renovated so the rooms are clean, stylish, and modern. It’s also super close the water, so you can sit by the window and people watch or look out at the ocean during your morning coffee or happy hour.

The view from our hotel in Catalina

I would not recommend our Laguna Beach hotel, unless you could get it for a much lower rate. The hotel was outdated and could use a deep, deep clean — the photos on their website are a bit misleading. That said, the views from our room were incredible as the hotel hugs the ocean’s edge. Ultimately, I wish I got something closer to the main hub in Laguna where all the restaurants and bars are.

The view from our Laguna Beach hotel

In hindsight, it would have also been amazing to stay at the Surf and Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, which happens to also be the location of my favorite bar in the area — but more on that later!

Accommodation Total: $744

Breakfast Cost: $15/day

Lunch Cost: $25/day

Dinner Cost: $45 to $55/day

Average Total Cost: $85 to $95/day

Tip Situation: Definitely tip! For food, I usually leave 20 percent of the bill.

Food Situation: OK, we kind of got carried away with the food sitch and really splurged on most of our meals. That said, it was a special trip for us, so we convinced ourselves that it was totally worth it. We mostly ate at casual ocean-side restaurants for breakfast and lunch, and upscale restaurants for dinner. There are tons of options in both Catalina and Laguna Beach — but do your research and make a reservation a few weeks ahead of time because tables fill up quickly!

Favorite Restaurant: Avalon Grille

Favorite Dish: The grilled pork chop. It’s covered in Brussels sprouts and pancetta and is absolute deliciousness.

Location: Avalon, Catalina

Price: $34 for the pork chop

Food Total: $300

Nightlife Situation: Catalina Island was full of both upscale spots and charming little dive bars with live music and cheap drinks, so it was great to have both options available depending on our mood!

In Laguna, we spent a very fun night at Splashes Bar before turning in early. It’s right alongside the ocean, so you have a front row seat to the waves crashing down on the beach. It’s a six-minute drive or 25-minute walk from downtown, and so, so worth it — a picture perfect semi-hidden place, for sure.

What People Wear Out: Beach casual! Shorts, tanks, sandals, sundresses — nothing too fancy.

Average Cost Of A Drink: $10 to $15

Local Drink Of Choice: We mostly ordered bottles of wine sourced from various California wineries. Yum!

Last Call Is At: Some bars go 'til 2 a.m., Splashes Bar shuts down at 10 p.m.

Average Total Cost Of A Night Out: $80

Best Bar I'd Actually Go Back To: Splashes Bar! This place is so charming and cozy — plus, it has the best ocean views. It also didn’t get too packed, which is always a plus in my book.

Going Out Total: $160

Most Interesting Thing I Learned About My Destination: If you take an off-roading tour of Catalina, you’ll likely run into a herd or two of bison. These animals aren’t endemic to the island, but rather 14 were brought over in the 1920s for a scene in a movie that was being filmed there. The crew left the bison and they’ve since multiplied — there are now about 150 roaming the island!

Most Fun Interaction With A Local: Tom, our guide for the eco-tour we did, has lived on the island for nearly 30 years. He was super knowledgable and passionate about the island’s history, and listening to him talk was like listening to a literal nature podcast.

Best Excursion I Went On: The Catalina Island Undersea Expedition, at $42.75 a person.

This 45-minute semi-submarine excursion takes you around the coast of Catalina, while you get to look out the glass undersea windows at all the surrounding ocean life. You can also pay extra to release fish food into the sea, which of course attracts all kinds of beautiful creatures (including seals).

Best Day Trip I Took: We hiked the Car Wreck Trail in Laguna Beach, which is fairly steep and about three to four miles roundtrip. This trail goes up to a rest area called Top of the World. Not only did this hike have stunning views of the Pacific, but we hiked past an old, rusty car, which has allegedly been there for decades. I guess no one knows exactly how it got there, but the legend is that it’s left over from a brutal car crash back in the '60s.

Most Interesting Historical Site I Saw: During the Eco Tour (detailed below), we learned that the CIA had a secret camp on Catalina during World War II known as Camp Cactus. They had two hidden bomb shelters, which we got to explore. The shelters are from the 1940s, so they're too crumbled to actually go inside, but it was really cool (and creepy!) to walk around and peek in.

Best Guided Tour I Took: The Catalina Conservancy 3-Hour Eco Tour. It’s pricy ($119 a person), but this is hands-down the best way to see the island. You trek over 200 miles in an open-air truck, while a local naturalist teaches you about the island’s history, plant life, secret beaches, hikes, and wildlife. It’s magical!

Excursions/Culture Total: $161.75

What I Spent A Lot On That Was Totally Worth It: The Catalina Conservancy 3-Hour Eco Tour.

What I Spent A Lot of On That Was Totally Not Worth It: Our hotel in Laguna Beach. It wasn’t cheap, and I ended up wishing I had booked somewhere like the Surf and Sand Resort.

What I Spent Little Or No Money On That Was Awesome: I spent a whopping 25 cents on fish food — which is sold in little containers at the end of the pier in Catalina. We spent a good 20 minutes throwing the pellets down into the ocean. The water is so clear around the island that we could see a ton of bright, colorful fish swim up for the food. Best quarter I’ve ever spent.

Favorite Thing I Did, Regardless Of Cost: The eco tour was by far the most memorable and special thing we did.

Favorite Hidden Gem I Found: We walked to the Catalina Casino, which is an old Hollywood event venue from the 1920s. It's definitely worth checking out, as the architecture is gorgeous. Pro-tip: Book a tour through Expedia so you really get the full experience.

After we walked around the casino for a bit, we kept walking and stumbled upon Descanso Beach Club, which is a hidden cove with a private beach bar and restaurant. It’s open to the public, though, so you can grab a drink or rent a cabana on their beach!

Favorite View(s) I Saw: Ben Westin Beach. It's a private, stunning beach on the backside of Catalina. There are also plenty of remarkable places to camp around Catalina, so if you want to pitch a tent with a quiet view of the Pacific, this is your place.

Best Catalina And Laguna Beach Hack: Try to book as early as possible, since the hotels tend to fill up fast! We were booking about a month ahead of time, and our hotel options were already super limited. Hotels can also be quite pricy as there’s limited lodging in both Catalina and Laguna Beach, so definitely use a travel site like Expedia to finagle a discount.

Advice For Anyone Traveling Alone To My Destination: The locals are so, so nice and welcoming in both Catalina and Laguna Beach. Be sure to take time to get to know them and learn about coastal life.

What I Wish I Knew Before I Went: It's worth it to spend a full weekend in Catalina, even if you read reviews claiming one day is enough.

Total Trip Cost: $1,478.25

Worth It? Why? Yes, yes, yes! Both Catalina Island and Laguna Beach are such nice escapes from busy, crowded LA. Catalina takes a little longer to get to, but it is absolutely stunning. Laguna Beach has amazing hikes if you like to get active on vacation. It also has a fun strip of restaurants, shops, and bars right alongside the ocean.

I can't wait to go back!

This post is sponsored by Expedia.