The seaplane windows sprayed with salt water as the pontoons hit the water. Slowly we slid to the dock and climbed out of the little airplane. This is my oldest memory of the island and my family returned to visit Catalina several times over the decades. Now my loved ones are scattered around the country, so it’s a rare treat to get together and over to the island.
I’m not one for crowds. So stopping in Avalon briefly then catching a boat to the tiny landing at Two Harbors was the perfect way to begin our quiet vacation. We left from San Pedro by the Catalina Express and dragged our bags up the hill to the Banning House about three hours later.
The house was built in 1910 for the Banning family and sits perched on a hill between the two harbors. The craftsman style inn has only 12 rooms that are booked most of the year. We were lucky to score a family-style space facing Catalina Harbor. Each morning there was a modest breakfast, a happy hour in the evening and we walked down to the Harbor Restaurant for dinner. It was a relaxed and simple routine.
There’s not much lodging in Two Harbors. A campground is available and after the summer crowds have left you might book one of the modest staff cabins. I recommend booking well in advance.
For two full days, we hiked trails and explored. Our millennials took to the hills as they were training for marathons. There was little WiFi but I did my best to stay up with work for a few hours on the village cafe patio. We tried scuba diving but were thwarted by limited boat rentals. Note* Reserve a skiff ahead of time! Still, it was simple to stroll along the beach and snorkel along the point.
I’ve gone diving from the Casino steps in Avalon and from private boats before. It’s the main reason I feel that winter is the best time to visit Catalina – the water is warmest between October and early January! At least warmer compared to the Southern California coast and my base in San Diego. The coast is colder due to upwelling (where cold water rolls up onto the beaches.) It’s great for kelp but not so for warm-blooded creatures!
Before long our group split with two needing to get back to the mainland and we said goodbye as they walked onto the ferry. Then it was off to cross the island by bus and stop overnight in Avalon. The island ranches still preserve the wilds of the interior but there are several small campgrounds where reservations are a good idea.
Crossing by car or bus also gives you a chance to see Buffalo and they’re magnificent locals.
The small “Airport in the Sky” was full of kitsch and housed in a beautiful Spanish Colonial style hacienda. There’s a nature exhibit and alongside the souvenir shop, a large, casual dining room. Made me wish I had friends with an airplane although I understand there’s a bump on the runway!
We crossed over to the main town and headed uphill to stay at a small hotel. As I love all things retro from the 20’s and 40’s, I was thrilled to finally tour the old Casino building. It was easy to imagine my mother and her sisters taking the ferry over to dance to the big bands. In those days unescorted women were frowned upon, but if you took the ferry to join the ballroom crowds no one minded. It might have had something to do with Mr. Wrigley banning alcohol on the premises. (He couldn’t keep it off the ferry though!)
On the last morning of our trip, we rented Segways for a guided tour up into the hills. I was wary of scooting around those steep grades but soon felt comfortable. The views were wonderful and at one point we even spotted a rare Red Fox.
When you visit Catalina Island there are so many ways to frame your journey. There are popular festivals, dance clubs, restaurants both casual and fine dining, gardens, camps and private beaches.
When you visit Catalina
- Segway Tours of Avalon – Explore the hills and history with a guide
- Safari Bus across the Island – Seasonal schedule
- The Banning House Lodge – Book one of 12 rooms
- Catalina Express – Departures from San Pedro and from Long Beach, note there are seasonal schedules and they don’t depart every day.
- If you enjoyed this post here’s another world-class boat ride in Switzerland.
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