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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 (877/778-8322; 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 it'll give you a lift from the pier.

Everyone eats at the Harbor Reef Restaurant (310/510-4215) on the beach—not like there's much choice in Two Harbors. 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 cocktail is Buffalo Milk, a sweet-but-potent concoction of vodka, crème de cacao, banana liqueur, milk, whipped cream, and nutmeg.

What to See & Do in Avalon

In addition to the long list of outdoor activities (click Active Pursuits for those), Catalina is rich with human history, too. Walk along horseshoe-shaped Crescent Avenue, past private yachting and fishing clubs, toward the landmark Casino building. You can see the Art Deco Avalon Theatre for the price of a movie ticket any night, and Tuesday nights are half-price.

A few blocks inland on Metropole Avenue, the newly constructed Catalina Island Museum (310/510-2414; www.catalinamuseum.org; 10am–5pm daily), which explores 7,000 years of island history, including fascinating exhibits of archaeology, steamships, big bands, natural history, and the many celebrities who have romped around the island. Start with the well-produced, 5-minute introductory video found to the right upon entry; it recaps the history of the island in a tongue-and-cheek newsreel style. Admission is $17 for adults, $15 for seniors and kids. it's included in the price of Discovery's Casino Tours. There's usually a fun temporary exhibition, too. Past ones have included glass sculptor Dale Chihuly and the legacy of the movie Jaws.

Around the point from the Casino is the Descanso Beach Club (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 lounge 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 (it's tacked onto your first drink order; technically, it makes you a "member" so you can legally drink booze on the beach.)

About 1 1/2 miles from downtown Avalon is Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden (310/510-2595). The specialized gardens, a project of Ada Wrigley, showcase plants endemic to California's coastal islands. William Wrigley built it as his resting place and he was indeed buried here for a few years, but in the end, his family decided they didn't want his grave to be a tourist attraction or on a military base, so two years after World War Two ended, they moved him into a private area of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, just north of L.A.. The Garden, tranquil and snuggled in the canyon behind the town, is open daily from 8am to 5pm (booth closes at 4:30pm; entry is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for kids 5–12. 

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 (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.