Hotel Spotlight

Forget Hollywood, Catalina Island Is Where Dreams Come True

by California Chaney
Hotel Exterior of Hotel Atwater. Photo courtesy of Catalina Island Company.

Hotel Atwater
Catalina Island, California
Island chic, $$ (From $350)

Los Angeles is full of mirages. On a clear day, the iconic Hollywood sign appears as a beacon of light from certain vantages, while at other times it vanishes into its elusive hills. But long before the silver screen era, there was another landmark mystifying Los Angeles — Santa Catalina Island. Located 22 miles off the coast, the mountainous island has been inhabited for more than 7,000 years, first by native California tribes, then by Spanish conquerors establishing their empire. Along the way, pirates, smugglers, gold diggers, and missionaries anchored on its shores. In 1894, when wealthy elites established the Santa Catalina Island Company to develop the island into their resort destination, hotels, attractions, and roads were built into the rugged island. In 1919, William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, he of chewing gum fame) bought the company and invested millions into his vision to create a "playground for all."

As the 1920s roared in Hollywood, word spread quickly about a remote island with a glamorous palm-tree-lined seafront, shiny new hotels, shops, and a casino ideal for flaunting and gambling one's new-found wealth: LA's very own French Riviera. And since the movie stars were raising their sails toward its shores, the island became a popular location for production companies to shoot big-picture films. Marilyn Monroe even fled Hollywood to retreat to the island for a year-long escape.

Centuries old and centrally located, Hotel Atwater was the first hotel Wrigley built in 1920 and named in honor of his wife, Helen Atwater. A gracious host and classy lady, Helen was a lover of Art Deco design and wanted to create a space that was inviting to her guests, as warm and sunny as her beloved island. Esteemed for a century, the hotel went through a top-to-bottom renovation in 2019, with careful attention to preserve Helen's namesake and the hotel's glamour. Black and white photos of the island's history line the walls, while the 95 rooms received a welcome upgrade with pops of color and refreshed seating areas. The expanded lobby creates more seating for guests to mingle over cocktails and watch island life pass by through the large bay windows. While Hollywood's glitz and glam eventually returned to the mainland, Hotel Atwater remains a celebration of the island's historic beginnings and a getaway that continues to feels worlds away — a place where the grass my truly be greener.

Book It

Rates start at $350. Click here for reservations. Or contact the Fathom Concierge and we can book your trip for you.

At a Glance

The Vibe: French Riviera meets old Hollywood.

Charming Detail: Guests receive sparkling wine upon arrival — a tribute to the bubbly Helen Wrigley enjoyed every evening before bed.

This Place Is Perfect For: Couples and families who want to be whisked away from the hustle of LA and feel surrounded by mountains and sea life.

Rooms: There's no bad view from the 95 rooms and four suites, which overlook Avalon Bay and its palm-tree-lined seafront and surrounding mountains. The renovation added new life to the guest rooms, including beach-y wooden accents and bright colors. Suites feature large soaking tubs and separate living spaces with a desk and bar.

On Site: While LA loves its see and be seen amenities — rooftop pools, cocktail service, and beautifying spas — Catalina relies on the laid-back vibes and bounty of ocean activities to entertain guests. The sunny, carnation-filled lobby (a salute to Helen's favorite flower) is the central hangout zone, with board game tables set up below large windows where guests can watch island life come and go.

Food + Drink: Guests receive a $20 daily credit to use at hotel-adjacent restaurants, including Bistro at the Atwater (a grab-and-go staple with beach-picnic fixings), Descanso Beach Club (toes in the sand, drinks in hand dining) and Avalon Grille (surf 'n' turf paired with a famous Wrigley martini).

What to Do Nearby

The Catalina Express runs hour-long ferries several times a day from LA's mainland ports of San Pedro and Long Beach to Avalon and Two Harbors. (Fun fact: you ride free if it's your birthday.) When you first come into the port, it's hard to miss the large circular red-roofed building: the Catalina Casino, one of the islands most iconic buildings for its Spanish-Revival Art Deco structure commissioned by Wrigley in 1929. The movie palace and circular ballroom still operate and host fancy gatherings. 

Today, most of the island action is centered around the town of Avalon. Crescent Avenue is the main street and scenic walkway of the harbor. Other notable architectural landmarks include the curved Serpentine Wall and Wrigley Fountain decorated with authentic Catalina tile. Of course, you didn't come to Catalina just for the Old Hollywood appeal. There's great snorkeling and scuba diving right off the docks, with large schools of bright orange garibaldi (California's state fish). You can also spot them from a kayak: Several outfitters offer tours along the clear-water shores. And as any island getaway should, pampering is at the ready at the Island Spa Catalina with sea-salt infused treatments and an ocean-view relaxation deck.

Keep Exploring Catalina

Sun Meets Noir on Catalina Island
Three-Day Weekends From Los Angeles
U.S. Road Trips: The West