Catalina Island holds a special place in the heart of every Southern Californian. Just a one-hour ferry ride takes you away from the hustle and bustle of So Cal life and into the magical Mediterranean town of Avalon. Instead of traffic jams and people you have golf carts and buffalo. The water is crystal clear and the night skies are dark and starlit. Can this even be part of America? We kept hearing about how they roll out the red carpet for birthday guests and wanted to find out for ourselves what was up. This is what we learned.
Enjoy your night before
Our pre-trip night started very late. We used every bit of daylight and then some photographing down the Big Sur coast. We beat LA traffic but didn’t have time to savor the super cute Hotel Maya Jenn found for us. The hotel looked like it was lifted straight out of the tropics and placed in Long Beach Harbor. We had a bay side room and from our porch, we could see the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific. We’ll have to come back to this place and explore here properly. Today, however, we just enjoyed their complimentary shuttle to the ferry landing.
Book your ferry early
and register for your birthday tickets
We rolled into the ticket counter feeling happy that we had registered for my free birthday round trip ticket. It’s always good to save 70 bucks. We were planning on leaving out of the San Pedro station and catching a slightly earlier ferry to save on parking. Consequently, we didn’t make reservations ahead of time. We were too shagged out from the long night of driving to get up early, so we made the right call to get a little more rest. Unfortunately, all the regular seats were sold on the way over and we had to upgrade to first class. The comfy chairs and Bailey’s spiked coffee were nice but not quite worth the $15 dollar/ticket upgrade. At least we had seats. The ticket agent said it was just past the summer peak season and the boat had been selling out of ALL walk up tickets several hours before boarding during peak season. She said that they almost always sell out year round, so ALWAYS book ahead. Good advice which we will heed on future trips. We settled in and soon were on island time.
** Note – As of December 31, 2017 Catalina Express no longer offers Free Birthday Trips. It was a good ride while it lasted.**
Ocean sports in the morning or at sunset and bring your GoPro
I have always wanted to go parasailing and both companies on the island offered BOGO flights. We originally planned a morning birthday BOGO paddle boarding trip, but we choose a little more sleep instead. Now we were slightly ahead of schedule and they were able to slip us onto the next tour. We didn’t get our GoPro charged so we went ahead and got the photo package. We watched the first couple filming their flight with their fully charged GoPro with more than a slight bit of envy. The views of the rugged island and crystal blue water were amazing from under the canopy. Instead, we got some perfunctory shots of our take-off and landing. Pro tip camera dude – pan out and let me crop in if I want! In the captain’s defense, the winds were kicking up so he couldn’t worry about camera angles and capturing the scene. He had to get us in the air and back down safely. We were lucky there too. After our flight, the winds crossed the 20-knot no-fly limit and the last group couldn’t go up at all. So far my birthday luck was holding. Still, we had to be upgraded to the 800’ flight. They were offering a sunset special that looked awesome and wasn’t limited to your birthday but we weren’t going to be there.
Lots of little freebies for your birthday
Paragliding was as much fun as imagined and I couldn’t keep from smiling. I put on the birthday ribbon Catalina Express gave me and started to go through their book looking for more free things to do. We wandered out to the pier and considered going on the BOGO walking tour of the Casino (20$/pp). We passed figuring some time when we staying longer on the island we would go to the movie night and get inside for the cost of a movie. We didn’t partake in the myriad of discounts on tourist swag either but we did do the free coffee at Catalina Coffee and Cookie Company. They made a seriously good cup of joe and good cookies to boot.
Hiking and camping on Catalina
We wandered down to the Catalina Island Conservancy to pick up my free birthday map but we got so much more. They were so friendly. They immediately said happy birthday and gave me a gift when they saw my ribbon. It was mid-week off-season, so they walked us through many insider tips. They suggested to take the city bus to Hermit Gulch Campground (which is actually within city limits) or use it to shuttle up to the Botanical Gardens (which are free for the birthday guest). From the Wrigley Botanical Gardens (or the secret back trail behind the campground) you can hike up to the Divide Road the runs the ridge line of the island. They swore the views from the top are amazing and we really wanted to find out but we weren’t ready for that today. Besides, I have my BOGO birthday lunch to look forward to. The fact that you can go backpacking or even camp support your visit is absolutely amazing for coastal Cali. We discussed many more trips for later days too. Make sure you chat with the staff at the Conservancy when you stop in for your mandatory hiking permit. They are chocked full of great info.
We made our way to the Buffalo Nickel and I ordered my free birthday lunch. We also had the island’s signature drink – Buffalo Milk (vodka, Kahlua, crème de cacao, milk, and fresh bananas, all blended with ice and topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg (super yum)). We watched the helicopter taking off and sure enough, it was on the birthday discount list. Zip lining, jeep tours, golf and glass bottom boats were not, but falconry, climbing walls, mini golf, and bowling where. The island has a lot of activities when the wind and seas kick up. So many activities, in fact, it brings up the next point…
Stay for more than one day
Visiting Catalina can be a meditative practice where you let your mind wander free. Besides, if you love photography or water sports the golden hours are morning and night. You heard about camping already. You can even have Catalina Backcountry set up your camping for a truly worry-free trip. Catalina Island has only cute boutique hotels and fourteen of them offer birthday specials. You might have to pay for your own ferry back but isn’t it worth it to reset your watch to island time? I had to be back at work in the morning so I couldn’t stay over but it broke my heart just a little bit when I boarded the ferry to go home. In many ways, I thought I missed the boat on this trip.
Wrapping up my birthday gift
Do you remember in grade school when the class sang Happy Birthday and everybody got cupcakes? My Catalina Island birthday was kind of like that. I enjoyed wearing my ribbon and having everybody wishing me happy birthday. I enjoyed seeing the other people with their birthday ribbons on too. We had at least one thing in common in the wide crazy world. Two actually, our birthdays and spending them on Catalina Island. Each discount, in and of itself, was minor and conditional, but by the end of the day, I had a special feeling that I haven’t felt for a long time. Thank you Catalina Island for making my birthday special. The Catalina Island Chamber of commerce has two pages of birthday specials here if you want to experience the magic an island birthday for yourself.