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What It’s Really Like to Live on Catalina Island

Stunning views. Car-free streets. White sand beaches. What's it really like to call paradise home?

By Annette Benedetti on July 13, 2018

Catalina has long been considered an accessible island escape for those living on the mainland. Just 22 miles off the southern California coast, visitors are welcomed by warm waters, white sand beaches and palm trees. This sweet destination is so idyllic that it’s been the filming location for over 500 movies, and has been a beloved retreat to celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.

While Catalina is perfect for a weekend filled with activities like snorkeling, basking in the sun and sipping cocktails, it is also home to an island community that is passionate about their way of life. If the idea of making this dreamy getaway your home sounds intriguing, there’s no better way to find out what you need to know than by heeding the advice of those who have successfully built a life there.

Here’s the scoop.

A Small Town That Feels a World Away

Only an hour from LA by boat, Catalina is 76 square miles in area, most of which lies within a protected conservancy. Avalon is the biggest town on the island, and also where people moving there are most likely to live. The area has a mild climate, with temperatures that rarely fluctuate beyond 50-85°F, and locals generally enjoy a casual day-to-day lifestyle.

Cathy Miller is the Director of Marketing and Sales for the Catalina Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. She moved to the small city two years ago and says that what brought her there was the place itself. “When you arrive in Avalon Bay, you feel like you are a world away and in a different country,” she says. “In fact, many visitors ask us if they need a passport to visit and if their cell phones will work here on their US cell service plan.”

Avalon may not be a different country, but it is truly a small town. It takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes to walk end-to-end, and it is home to just 4,000 full-time residents. According to Cathy, the local population is diverse both ethnically and demographically, despite its small size. She describes the locals as largely humble, hard-working, middle-class people. “It’s a quaint town, but not everyone who lives here is rich.”

With two grocery stores, a hospital, medical and dental services, and cable television and phone services all available locally, residents don’t have to leave the island to get their basic needs met. You won’t find big-box stores in Avalon, though; the nearest Target is a ferry ride away. While most residents consider that a plus, Cathy admits, “I wouldn’t cry if a mini-Trader Joe’s set up shop on the island.”

Getting Around

By law, only 400 permitted, full-sized cars and trucks are allowed on the island, and the waiting list for a full-size vehicle permit is about 40 years. Two cars must leave the island for one new permit to be issued. As a result, most residents use golf carts to get around the one-by-one-and-a-half-mile town of Avalon.

There are currently about 1,500 golf carts permitted in Avalon. Other popular modes of transportation include bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles and walking. The lack of full-sized vehicles makes Avalon streets safe for kids to roam more freely than they do on the mainland.

Greg Miller is the owner of the Hotel Metropole and Metropole Marketplace. He’s worked on the island for 43 years and was a regular visitor for 15 years prior to relocating. “I love being near the ocean and living in a community with no traffic lights,” he says. “And I don’t have to get into a car every day. I can just walk.”

When locals do head to the mainland, they typically take the Catalina Express: a ferry just for people. The commute takes approximately an hour and costs around $75/ person for a round trip. “I like that to get to the mainland I don’t have to drive. Rather, I sit outside, relax for an hour and feel the ocean breeze, and try and watch the dolphins dancing,” says Cathy. “It’s a time I can catch up on my favorite podcasts. Since I don’t have any commute time on the island, it’s challenging to stay caught up on my favorites.”

Daily Life

Haley Anne Stickler is Island Enterprises‘ Director of Operations. She has lived on Catalina Island her entire life. As a youth growing up in Avalon, Haley’s life was much like that of children growing up anywhere. She attended school during the fall, winter, and spring – and she hung out and worked with her dad during the summer months.

Eventually, she left to get her US Coast Guard Master’s License so that she could run boats for the family. Now, she dedicates her time to the family business. “I have the best office, the best job, and I love the community here,” says Stickler.

Avalon is primarily a resort community with a tourism-based economy. Those looking to move there are likely to find work as entrepreneurs, or in the entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food service industries.

“If you are retired, it is a great community. If you are young, be prepared to work a lot to keep up with the cost of living,” says Greg. “The rewards are clean air, clean water and a healthy outdoor lifestyle.”

As a small town with limited housing options, finding a place to live in Avalon can be a challenge. “Housing is hard to find, so seriously take that into consideration first,” warns Stickler. “If you can secure housing, or a place to stay, then you’ve already conquered the hardest part.”  

Greg agrees, advising newcomers to be patient and work on becoming part of the community. “After you’ve been here a while and get to know people, your housing options will improve.”

Off-the-clock, locals spend a good amount of time outdoors. “I love that I can be out of town without cell service in about 20 minutes,” says Stickler. “I love the water and I have horses. Catalina allows me to have the best of both worlds – two completely different worlds – a short drive from each other.”

Cathy describes life on Catalina as being pretty much as idyllic as it seems. “Kids can run around town, swim in the ocean and play in parks unsupervised,” she says. “You hear kids playing and laughing outside a lot. Family and life are the priority here.”

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