You may be apprehensive to leave home and travel too far during these unsettling times. Catalina Island is the perfect place to dive into nature and distance yourself from others during the pandemic.
Traveling to Catalina Island for a few days was the excitement we needed. It may feel like you are entering the Amalfi coast in Italy, but you are just 22 miles off the southern California shoreline on a boat to Catalina Island.
We adore the more frequented Avalon Harbor but due to the pandemic we were eager to stay on the even quieter side of the island – Two Harbors where there is camping, cabins, and just one hotel – the Banning House Lodge. Traveling midweek is the time to go for an even quieter pace.
I read somewhere that ‘tourists go to Avalon while travelers go to Two Harbors.’
Ride the Catalina Express
The Catalina Express is a modern ferry boat that runs out of Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. The boat from San Pedro is the only one that ventures to Two Harbors from the mainland.
The Catalina Express from San Pedro takes about 1 hour direct to Two Harbors and costs around $75 roundtrip. Book ahead because due to the times, the boat seems to be operating at half the capacity for safe space. We arrived early to wait in a 6 feet spaced-areout line to ensure we found seats at the back of the boat. After embarking a whale surfaced delighting us with its spray several times while the breeze in the back of the boat made us feel even safer.
Masks are required and enforced on the loudspeaker, even reminders to put the mask back on after taking a bite of food. Extra cleaning has been enacted between departures. High-touch surfaces are wiped down throughout the journey. High-grade disinfectants and multi-purpose cleaning are used in restrooms and surfaces while each evening a third-party cleaning service uses electrostatic spraying or “fogging” on the vessels that are EPA-registered.
Our return boat ride was over 2 hours long since we stopped in Avalon to pick up more passengers before returning to the mainland. I highly recommend going direct if a boat is available.
Stay at Banning House Lodge
Staying at Banning House Lodge felt like going home to New England – almost like the better version of Block Island off the coast of Connecticut. The calmness and beauty of the setting felt as if we stepped back in time. The silence and bird song and dramatic night sky were enough to bring tears to my eyes of a happier simpler time – one many of us long for.
Over a hundred years old, the Banning House Lodge sits atop an isthmus and two harbors, thus the name. This 12-room Craftsman-style lodge reminds me of El Tovar in some way, a hotel that people still stay on the edge of the Grand Canyon but once housed Americans when pleasure travel was not common and only trains could whisk you across our wide country.
Twenty-two miles from the mainland, the Banning House Lodge is charming because it is not trying to be what it is not. The simple minimalist decor is not made for Instagram but the sensational views from every angle will stay with you forever. The main lodge with fireplace decked in old hunting taxidermy looks out at the sea dotted with boats while the wraparound terrace and patio provide scintillating views of cacti and white sailboats in sharp contrast to the glittery aquamarine sea. At times, you have to blink twice because it feels like the Mediterranean.
Once the U.S. Coast Guard officers’ quarters during WWII, a private girls camp in the late 1950s, a hunting lodge, and employee housing, today breakfast is delivered to your room along with a bottle of wine and cheese replacing the typical communal social wine and cheese happy hour experience of most hotels.
At sunset, the place felt like our own as we clinked wine glasses on the terrace each evening surrounded by birdsong, woodpeckers, and the occasional mischievous island fox prowling around at dusk.
Explore the island
Besides lounging, you may want to actively explore the island’s beauty. Do not miss kayaking here because it is like being transported to La Paz, Mexico with one of the world’s healthiest and most diverse ecosystems. The calm water with a sandy bottom makes it easy to hop in a kayak and maneuver to the coast. From the harbor facing out to sea, head left where coves with names like Fourth of July Cove and Cherry Cove await and kelp forests shimmer with bright orange Garibaldi below.
It’s hard to resist jumping out of the kayak into the aquamarine water. Visibility can be almost 40 feet which is another reason snorkeling and diving are so popular here. Cruise around cascading red rock cliff coves, a private beach, a teeny lighthouse, and admire a heron in its cliffside nest. With over 40 dive sites and over 800 species in the water, the region caters to all levels of divers. Pale blue spots that look like sea anemones glisten in the translucent water.
As I brave the seas to paddle around jutting Lion’s Head to view crashing waves inside caves, I quickly realize it’s probably best to turn around from this rocky point since I’m solo.
Rent your kayak at the main harbor at the Dive and Recreation Center where I watched them thoroughly spray and disinfect my kayak upon return.
Walk and Hike
From the Banning House Lodge, stroll the dirt path down to the opposite sparkling turquoise harbor. Pass coastal sage scrub, manzanita, and eucalyptus trees along with cacti with desert flowers of yellow and pink with cacti ears that look like Mickey Mouse. Birds swoon in every direction. The sunlight casts shadows across the mountains and at the rocky beach, the steep terrain crumbles towards the ocean.
Hike up and around the beach area for unbelievable ocean views and take a rest at the bench that has a Willie Nelson quote, perfect for 2020 –
“On the road again, Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway, We’re the best of friends, Insisting that the world keep turning our way. And our way, is on the road again…”
Also, from Banning House Lodge you can hike straight up on a dirt road adjacent to the lodge to the top of the island. This hike should not be missed! Two miles straight up brings you through a windy path with dazzling aerial ocean views on both sides. The Cat Harbor overlook at the top is 950 feet above Two Harbors. You are rewarded with a bench to sit at the summit and a gut-wrenching 360 wraparound vista view of the island – like a visionary high dive.
From Two Harbors, there are many more hikes in and around the harbors like one that takes you along the coast by the cabins and tents with majestic free-standing boulders on the beach below and a bird’s eye view of the harbor.
Eat and relax at the Harbor Reef Restaurant
Need a day of rest? Lounge on a beachfront chair at the only restaurant on the island – the Harbor Reef Restaurant. Sip on the island’s signature drink called the Buffalo Milk and not made from the island’s buffaloes. Like a White Russian gone crazy, it’s made from blended vodka, Creme de Cocoa, Kahlua, Creme de Banana, Half & Half, and topped with whipped cream, nutmeg, and sometimes a slice of banana.
Stay relaxed on your lounger or in your cabana with fresh fish, clam chowder, and Mexican-style shrimp cocktail delivered right to you.
And with COVID, it appears the best place to be right now is on a boat or a quiet island.
Stay tuned for a detailed narrative article I wrote on Two Harbors, Catalina Island coming out this October in Malibu Coast Lifestyle Magazine.