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Visiting Two Harbors

If you want to get a better look at the rugged natural beauty of Catalina and escape the throngs of beachgoers, head over to Two Harbors, the quarter-mile "neck" at the island's northwest end that gets its name from the "twin harbors" on each side, known as the Isthmus and Catalina Harbor. An excellent starting point for campers and hikers, Two Harbors also offers just enough civilization for the less-intrepid traveler.

The Banning House Lodge (tel. 800/626-1496; www.visitcatalinaisland.com/twoharbors) is a 12-room bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Isthmus. The clapboard house was built in 1910 for Catalina's pre-Wrigley owners and has seen duty as on-location lodging for movie stars like Errol Flynn and Dorothy Lamour. Peaceful and isolated, the simply furnished but comfortable lodge has spectacular views of both harbors. Peak season rates range from $160 to $280, including deluxe continental breakfast,, and they'll even give you a lift from the pier.

Everyone eats at the Harbor Reef Restaurant (tel. 310/510-4215) on the beach. This nautical, tropical-themed saloon/restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the latter consisting of hearty steaks, ribs, swordfish, and buffalo burgers in summer. The house drink is sweet "buffalo milk," a potent concoction of vodka, crème de cacao, banana liqueur, milk, whipped cream, and nutmeg.

What to See & Do in Avalon

Walk along horseshoe-shaped Crescent Avenue, past private yachting and fishing clubs, toward the landmark Casino building. You can see the Art Deco theater for the price of a movie ticket any night. Also on the ground floor is the newly renovated Catalina Island Museum (tel. 310/510-2414; www.catalinamuseum.org), which explores 7,000 years of island history, including fascinating exhibits of archaeology, steamships, big bands, and natural history. The museum has also been updated with more advanced technology, like flatscreen TVs, and more interactive exhibits. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2 for children 5 and over, and free for kids 4 and under; it's included in the price of Discovery's Casino Tours. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm.

Around the point from the Casino is the Descanso Beach Club (tel. 310/510-7410), a mini-Club Med nestled in a private cove just past the famous Casino Building. While you can get on the beach year-round, the club's facilities -- an open-air restaurant and two bars, live music, beach area, volleyball lawns, dance area, fire rings on the beach, private cabana and chaise longue rentals, and thatched beach umbrellas (bring your own towels or be prepared to purchase them) -- are only open from spring to October. The Descanso Beach Club also serves as an activity headquarters, where guests can rent kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, snorkeling and scuba gear, as well as book massage and golf tee times, plus tours. Admission is $2.

About 1 1/2 miles from downtown Avalon is Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden (tel. 310/510-2595). The specialized gardens, a project of Ada Wrigley, showcase plants endemic to California's coastal islands. It's open daily from 8am to 5pm; admission is $5 for adults, free for children 11 and under.

Catalina's Grand Casino -- No trip to Catalina is complete without taking the Casino Tour. The Casino Building, Avalon's world-famous Art Deco landmark, is not -- and never was -- a place to gamble your vacation money away (casino is an Italian word for a place of entertainment or gathering). Rather, the incredibly ornate structure (the craftsmanship inside and out is spectacular) is home to the island's only movie theater and the world's largest circular ballroom. Virtually every big band of the '30s and '40s played in the 158-foot-diameter ballroom, carried over CBS radio beginning with its grand opening in May 1929. Today it's a coveted venue for elaborate weddings, dances, gala dinners, and the Catalina Jazz Festival. The 3-week JazzTrax Festival (tel. 866/872-9849; www.jazztrax.com) takes place every October. To experience the festival, be sure to book your tickets and accommodations as far in advance as possible.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.