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Island Time: Destination Weddings on Santa Catalina Island

Catalina, which has doubled as the South Pacific in numerous cinematic classics, such as Mutiny on The Bounty, offers the same sand, sea and almost year-round pleasant weather as the mainland, but with less urban sprawl, more small-town friendliness and roaming buffalo (The current 150-head herd descended from 14 brought over for a 1920s film shoot.) Visitors can relax by watching the tranquil tide roll in and out while sipping a Buffalo Milk—the island’s signature cocktail—or play hard, thanks to zip lines, convertible Hummer tours, fruitful scuba spots and heli-hiking in the verdant mountains.

Holding an island wedding takes a little extra forethought and organization, as many items need to be barged over, lodging is limited, and transportation must be reserved. Most folks take an hour-long ferry ride over, but the happy couple should splurge on a 15-minute Island Express helicopter ride. With the exception of a few backcountry campgrounds and scenic overlooks, most of Catalina’s event spaces are found in its two cities.

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An ariel view of Avalon  

Avalon

Chewing-gum heir William Wrigley Jr. used to own the island—his Mt. Ada mansion is now a bed-and-breakfast—and he is given credit for saving Catalina from overdevelopment and nurturing the isle’s hub, Avalon, into a resort destination. The town offers the most civilization within walking distance in the form of restaurants (Avalon Grille and Maggie’s Blue Rose Mexican restaurant are great for welcome dinners), shops, bars (Luau Larry’s secret tiki nook is a must) and hotels. A recently redesigned boutique offering, Pavilion Hotel has a spectacular fire ring as well as daily wine and cheese service made for mingling. 

The 1929 Catalina Casino, the paradise’s emblem, is a meticulously maintained Art Deco palace complete with the world’s largest circular ballroom, that can that can accommodate as many as 1,200, intricate murals, a movie theater, vintage piano bar and a wood dance floor. It is a perfect setting for Gatsby and classic Hollywood-themed soirees, with almost infinite backdrops for photos. The pièce de résistance is the 360-degree veranda that rises 12 stories from the ground and offers fantastic views of the Pacific, the town and, thanks to pristine water, the bright orange Garibaldi fish swimming below. 

The magical history tour continues at the Catalina Country Club, which was once the spring-training locker room for the Wrigley-owned Chicago Cubs and is now a fetching example of early California revival architecture, set on a hill with harbor views. It’s impossible to choose between the unique areas, so many couples opt to use all of them. Start with a ceremony on fountain terrace, with its portico and columns; move to the main dining room, with its massive stone fireplace, wraparound balcony and arched French doors; and cap the night off in the masculine pub, with its pendant lighting, tiled window surrounds and baseball paraphernalia. Perfect for parties of 170 or fewer.

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The famed seaside Casino offers stunning views day and night.

Prefer sandy shores, and the smell of eucalyptus? Stroll down the oceanfront promenade to Descanso Beach Club, where you can tie the knot on a giant terraced lawn (seats 250), under creamy cabanas or with the beach beneath your feet. All spaces look out over the cove and the iconic casino (aka the money shot). Hold the reception alfresco or move the celebration to the brand-new Catherine’s Terrace (capacity 170). With its white wainscoting, metal roof, cupolas, working fireplace and expansive deck, it looks like it’s straight out of the pages of Coastal Living. You’ll likely have an audience as the compound doesn’t close to the public.

Two Harbors

The unincorporated and isolated village of Two Harbors is not for dainty duos, as wild animals regularly roll through, the environment is rugged, windy and dusty with far fewer amenities and tourist services available. But if rustic and remote are buzzwords on your vision board, Catalina’s West End will not disappoint. Sailing is the recommended way to arrive, as the road from Avalon includes a 13-mile unpaved section. Vibrant wildflowers make early spring the peak season, which is also a perfect time to host a welcome picnic at the no-frills facility on Ballast Point.

Most venue options and packages, including two ’70s ranch rental homes, Casa Santa Rosa and Casa Santa Cruz, the Brisa Del Mar group campsite and the Harbor Reef Restaurant, work best for intimate gatherings of 25 or fewer. The aforementioned eatery/caterer, which specializes in locally caught swordfish, can host more guests (as many as 150) if you serve surf and turf inside the “South Seas casual” restaurant or on the patio.

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The rustic Banning House Lodge is tucked into the hills in Two Harbors.

Banning House Lodge, the crème de la crème—and yet that still means no TVs and bare-bones decor—can accommodate 85, but a smaller guest list is ideal for the hilltop 1910 Craftsman, built as a hunting lodge and summer home by the island’s pre-Wrigley owners, the Banning brothers. All 12 rooms must be filled in order to hold your shindig in the lacey-curtained, warm-wooded sunroom; trellised courtyard; paver-covered patio (on a clear day, you can see San Pedro); or the cozy common room with fireplace.

Ah, Spa!

Last November’s grand opening of Island Spa Catalina made Avalon infinitely more wedding-weekend worthy. Housed in the reworked historic El Encanto Building on the main drag, the first proper resort-style day spa is a beautiful mix of aqua, adobe and pampering.

Its designers made up for lost time by thinking of everything: adjustable shades on the open-air relaxation deck with ocean views, a healthy café, a serene courtyard soaking pool, a gift shop with eco-friendly products and regional artisans’ wares, steam room and sauna, a wellness studio and the only warm alpha quartz sand table for joint-relieving cat naps on the West Coast. To meet special-occasion needs, there are nail services, blowouts and makeup artists.

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Island Spa Catalina

There are two comfy, well-appointed suites that can be rented for hanging out before the ceremony, getting ready or to jumpstart the honeymoon. Massages, facials and body treatments are provided in the seven other bright treatment rooms. Services on the menu use intrinsic botanicals such as white algae, copper peptides and citrus, and are inspired by island life.

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