Shelley Metcalf

Nature enthralls visitors who explore the rustic side of Catalina Island.

Barefoot on the sandy shore of Catalina Island, Kim Francisshades 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 overrolling hills crossed by winding paths. Near the ferry dock, themodest village (a gift shop, an activities booth, and onerestaurant) buzzes with visitors. They come here to Catalina's westend―away from Avalon, the island's much largersettlement―to hike and watch wildlife. Many have their firsttry at snorkeling and paddling, says kayak guide Jason Clarke.Adjusting his colorful mask and snorkel, Jason plunges from the45-foot catamaran Garibaldi into Isthmus Cove and encourages a tourgroup to do the same. "You won't find kelp forests like this justanywhere," Jason says. "And always cross your fingers for adolphin."

Paddlers can experience Catalina from the water's surface, withtours that visit secluded coves and mysterious caves, all open forexploration. A few strokes of the paddle separate kayakers frompelicans, sea lions, and a bison, which watches from land.

"If his tail wags, the buffalo is in a good mood," says RodJackson, who helps run Hummer tours to see bison. "But never gettoo close." The bison have been on the island since the 1920s, whenthey were brought in as film extras. Today, they number nearly 250and are protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. "Sometimes weget a rebel," Rod says, gesturing to a lone bison across from thearea'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 climbs1,800 feet to Silver Peak, the highest point west of Two Harbors.Those who make it to the top will be rewarded with sweeping Pacificviews. And, like Kim, they may not want to leave.

The Best of West End
For comprehensive information about all of the businesseslisted, visit visittwoharbors.com.

Stay: The Banning House Lodge, a rustic 1910bed-and-breakfast with 11 rooms, has no TVs, clocks, or telephones.Some rooms provide views of Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor. (Room11 has spectacular cove vistas.) Winter rates start at $89; call310/510-4228. To camp in the area, call 310/510-8368, or to rent acabin between November and April, call 800/626-0720.

Play: Visitor's Center; 310/510-4205. Dive and RecreationCenter; 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 Saloonserve fresh seafood entrées, steaks, and unique cocktails. Werecommend the signature Two Harbors "Buffalo Milk"―a sweet(and strong) concoction of liqueurs, vodka, and whipped cream;310/510-4215.

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