Barefoot on the sandy shore of Catalina Island, Kim Francis shades her eyes from the sun and peers back to mainland California. "I can't believe we're 22 miles from Los Angeles," she says, grinning. "I may never go back."
Behind her, the rugged terrain of Two Harbors stretches over rolling hills crossed by winding paths. Near the ferry dock, the modest village (a gift shop, an activities booth, and one restaurant) buzzes with visitors. They come here to Catalina's west end―away from Avalon, the island's much larger settlement―to hike and watch wildlife. Many have their first try at snorkeling and paddling, says kayak guide Jason Clarke. Adjusting his colorful mask and snorkel, Jason plunges from the 45-foot catamaran Garibaldi into Isthmus Cove and encourages a tour group to do the same. "You won't find kelp forests like this just anywhere," Jason says. "And always cross your fingers for a dolphin."
Paddlers can experience Catalina from the water's surface, with tours that visit secluded coves and mysterious caves, all open for exploration. A few strokes of the paddle separate kayakers from pelicans, sea lions, and a bison, which watches from land.
"If his tail wags, the buffalo is in a good mood," says Rod Jackson, who helps run Hummer tours to see bison. "But never get too close." The bison have been on the island since the 1920s, when they were brought in as film extras. Today, they number nearly 250 and are protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. "Sometimes we get a rebel," Rod says, gesturing to a lone bison across from the area's only inn, The Banning House Lodge.
Free hiking permits allow visitors to wander the island at will. Adrenaline junkies will want to tackle Boushay Trail, which climbs 1,800 feet to Silver Peak, the highest point west of Two Harbors. Those who make it to the top will be rewarded with sweeping Pacific views. And, like Kim, they may not want to leave.
The Best of West End
For comprehensive information about all of the businesses listed, visit visittwoharbors.com.
Stay: The Banning House Lodge, a rustic 1910 bed-and-breakfast with 11 rooms, has no TVs, clocks, or telephones. Some rooms provide views of Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor. (Room 11 has spectacular cove vistas.) Winter rates start at $89; call 310/510-4228. To camp in the area, call 310/510-8368, or to rent a cabin between November and April, call 800/626-0720.
Play: Visitor's Center; 310/510-4205. Dive and Recreation Center; 310/510-4272. For charter-fishing day trips to Two Harbors, call Afishinado Charters at 323/447-4669 or visit fishcatalina.com.
Dine: The Harbor Reef Restaurant and the Harbor Reef Saloon serve fresh seafood entrées, steaks, and unique cocktails. We recommend the signature Two Harbors "Buffalo Milk"―a sweet (and strong) concoction of liqueurs, vodka, and whipped cream; 310/510-4215.