The Flying Fish Festival
Catalina Island’s first annual Flying Fish Festival is fun for the whole family.
By Margot Black, Photos by Robert Aboulache

Santa Catalina Island, (more commonly, just Catalina), rises visibly above the horizon 22 miles off the Southern California coast — but it feels a world away. This quaint, 22-mile-long island with Mediterranean charm has a population of about 4,000, but receives nearly one million visitors each year to its rocky shores.

This spring, Catalina Island debuted its first ever Flying Fish Festival in celebration of the annual return of their famous flying fish. I realized I had never seen a flying fish before, much less the famous ones at Catalina. And so there was only one thing to do — we boarded the Catalina Express and headed off to a four-day festival packed with family fun.

The Catalina Express ferries you from downtown Long Beach to Catalina Island in under an hour. Since they take nearly 30 trips daily during the high season, they’re pros at loading everyone and their luggage on board, even with baby and stroller in hand. It’s an easy and convenient operation. We enjoyed the short trip on the ocean, sitting on the partly covered outside upper deck, watching for dolphins. Since seating is first come, first served, it’s worth getting there early if you want to get a good seat outside.

Traveling with a family, I have found it’s often easier to stay someplace with a kitchen or kitchenette. We turned to Catalina Island Vacation Rentals to organize our housing and they found us a gem of a place. We stayed in a beautiful vacation rental apartment with a stunning harbor view right above Brown’s Bike Shop in the center of town. The owner, Mesa Bradley, thoughtfully decorated the apartment with perfect attention to every detail. The place was warm, welcoming and, best of all for families, right next door to a playground.

The Flying Fish Festival kicked off with a Taste Around of Avalon.Avalon is the main town center of Catalina, a picturesque seaside town featuring cute restaurants and shops and the island’s main harbor, filled with visiting yachts in season. Taste Around was a chance to explore some of Avalon’s eateries (it felt like almost all of them) and taste their heralded menu items — all in one night. As we purchased our tasting tickets, we were handed a scorecard. Restaurants were judged on either food or drink. One entry was far and above all others in the competition, both in taste and presentation — the Restaurante Villa Portofino. There, bartender Aaron Pitts created a decadent drink called a Raspberry Lemon Drop. I voted for it and I’m happy to say it won. Ristorante Villa Portofino, 101 Crescent Avenue, Santa Catalina Island, CA, Tel: 310-510-2009.

Our favorite breakfast was at The Pancake Cottage. What’s wonderful about it? Well, for starters, they seat everyone with their own carafe of coffee and pitcher of water. Simple and very much appreciated. The Pancake Cottage has a kids’ menu and plenty of high chairs. We sat outside and enjoyed our breakfast overlooking the harbor. Their breakfast and lunch menu is so extensive it was hard to choose. We selected the Chef’s Mess omelet, made with six eggs, mushrooms, cheese, bacon and sausage. Everything comes with pancakes that are served with maple and boysenberry syrups. My mouth is watering as I write this. But beware: don’t let your appetite overwhelm you. The portions are so large, my husband and I would have been content splitting a kiddie dish. The Pancake Cottage, 118 Catalina Ave, Avalon, CA 90704, Tel: 310-510-0726.

Well nourished, if not stuffed, we set out for a day of Flying Fish Festival family fun. The day included free craft stations for kids (brilliant!), a sand sculpture building, family kayak relay races, beach bingo and a marine touch tank (think: aqua petting zoo). Most day activities were free, some had nominal charges, like $1 for beach bingo. We walked through Avalon to Descanso Beach, where we settled in to enjoy a little sun and sea.

Descanso Beach is a great place to park your family for a multitude of reasons. First of all, you can rent everything you need: kayaks, snorkel gear, boogie boards and inner tubes. There’s a restaurant/bar area, which serves fine burgers, beer and salad (what’s not to love in that combination?) and you’ve got an ocean view from every seat in the house. In addition, there’s a large grassy knoll, for those who may not feel like hanging out at the beach, with wait service as well. The beach is calm and easily accessible, even tiny kids can feel comfortable here. There are umbrellas, lounge chairs and the piped-in music reaches some spots, so you may find yourself sipping some buffalo milk to a little reggae music — a fine way to spend a summer day in my books! There are public restrooms and outdoor showers, so you can clean up before heading back home or to your hotel. I overheard people complaining about the price of everything, but as a new parent who is exhausted from carrying everything, I was happy to pay a little more for a day at the beach without schlepping. And the opportunity to have a sunny afternoon drink, and then hose my kid down when he’s done having fun … priceless.

As the sun set, the Flying Fish Festival activities kicked into high gear. It was time for our family to find us some flying fish! Gil, the convivial flying fish mascot, was on hand to meet and greet his fans (or shall I say fins?). We boarded the recently refurbished Blanche W, a 98-passenger solid wood motor vessel originally built in 1924 for flying fish tours. Flying fish visit Catalina from May to September every year. This unusual and spectacular fish — from a few inches to a foot or more long — soars out of the water and can glide for up to a quarter of a mile. The fish best show themselves at night, when lured out of the water by bright lights.

Since we were visiting at the start of the season and I wasn’t quite sure if the fish had gotten the festival memo, I thought perhaps we’d see a few but wasn’t expecting much. I was startled and delighted at the sheer number of fish that — I’ll be darned — were indeed flying out of the water in great schools. Or is it flocks? Not only were the fish fun to watch, but the sound effects from everyone on the boat were hilarious. It was a chorus of ooohs andaaaahs, and an occasional shriek, as someone ducked a flying fish.

The waters surrounding Catalina are gorgeous: clear and turquoise to rival the Caribbean. We just couldn’t get enough. We set off the next day for a Discovery Tours Glass Bottom Boat ride, which we caught at the aptly named Green Pleasure Pier. As a family traveling with a small baby, this was the best option for a little extra outdoor fun and fish viewing. (Discovery Tours has a guarded space for you to park your stroller while you are on the boat, so you can roll it right up to the entrance.) There were lots of families on board with enraptured kids leaning into the glass staring at the fish (and fish staring back!). In addition, many elderly visitors were enjoying the ride, since a covered glass bottom boat ride is such a calm and easy trip. The trip lasts about an hour and cruises along the island coast. They drop fish food into the water, which brings hoards of happy fish to everyone’s delight.

We could hardly pull ourselves off the beautiful shoreline, but made some time to explore Catalina’s beautiful art deco dance hall called The Casino. Built in 1929, surrounded by sea on three sides, the upper level houses the world’s largest circular ballroom with a 180-foot diameter dance floor. On the ground level, the Avalon Theater is still in use showing movies nightly. If you’ve got the time, this is quite a place to catch a film. The theatre shows first-run movies and the theater’s original organ still plays before the show. On the side of the casino is a little history museum that has a few fun exhibits. My favorite spot in the casino was upstairs on the balconies. The views are sensational.

While we confined our explorations to the coastal areas, there are several tour companies to assist you in further exploring the island’s interior. You can’t drive it yourself, as most of Catalina is undeveloped, owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy and cars are heavily restricted. There’s a 10-year waiting list to bring a car to the island (many of them, the original Mini Coopers). Most people get around via golf cart, which tourists can also rent for the fun of it. As our travels kept to Avalon, we walked everywhere.

Waterside dining is abundant in Avalon and we tried to sample it all. We enjoyed brunch at the Busy Bee Restaurant and although they were indeed busy, the service was great and they were very family-friendly with lots of high chairs, kid-friendly portions, and of course, families. And if all those flying fish activities put you in the mood for fish, right next to the Busy Bee restaurant you’ll find Armstrong’s, for fish.

Catalina’s First Annual Flying Fish Festival was drawing to a close: the sandcastle display finally looked complete, the craft stations were closing up and the town was readying itself for its first Flying Fish Parade. It might have been the world’s shortest parade ever with one float, three groups of people and approximately eight Mini Coopers. But in a small summer town, it was filled with enthusiasm and will long be remembered as a charming and quirky close to a weekend of fabulous family fun.

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Note: This trip was sponsored in part by the Catalina CVB.