Two Harbors, California

Photo: Santa Catalina Island Company
Photo: Santa Catalina Island Company

If there’s one holiday that should be spent on an island, it’s Labor Day. The weather for Memorial Day was just too iffy, while barbecues and fireworks kept you close to home on the Fourth of July. But right now, the weather is perfect, and most people are too busy with the beginning of the school year to make plans. Now’s your time to escape. Yet all the islands associated with summer—Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, Fire Island, and even the Outer Banks farther south—are on the East Coast. What’s your West Coast island if you don’t have time to go all the way to Hawaii?

Catalina Island, of course! Catalina Island is part of the rocky Channel Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. The island was once known for otter hunting and gold digging. Then Hollywood stars started using it as a vacation destination in the 1930s. It has remained one ever since.

You arrive in Avalon on a ferry from Newport Beach. The island’s largest town is full of golf carts—there’s a many year waiting list for cars on the island—a casino, and glass-bottomed boats. Shops, restaurants, and fountains line Crescent Avenue, a pedestrian-only mall. Mount Orizaba, the island’s highest point, stands in the background. And yachts of every size fill the busy harbor. You could definitely have fun here, but this isn’t what you were expecting for a relaxing long weekend.

Photo: Weedwhacker128 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Weedwhacker128 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
For that, you need to head north to rustic Two Harbors. The island’s much smaller, second village sits on an isthmus with a harbor on either side. It has a general store, a one-room schoolhouse, a couple of restaurants, and gorgeous views of the chaparral-filled hills surrounded by azure water. Grab an ice cream cone at the general store and then head up the hill to your hotel.

The Banning House Lodge was built in 1910 as a summer home, and it hasn’t lost that homey feeling. Rooms have harbor views, Catalina Orangetip butterflies fly around the deck during breakfast, and the sun room has a fireplace just in case it gets chilly when the wind picks up. There are two options for exploring the island: a kayak or a mountain bike. You start with a kayak, passing silvery sand beaches, hidden coves, and green kelp beds. A teem of bright orange Garibaldi swim under the kayak. California sea lions sleep in the sun on the rocks. And a pod of dolphins swims offshore. Bike to the other side of the island, stopping at Lobster Bay and Ribbon Rock. You might see American bison in the distance—the animals were brought to the island for a 1924 movie.

Return to the Banning House for a shower and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at the social mixer. Everyone seems to have a different favorite spot on the island today. Eat ahi poke and swordfish on the pier at the Harbor Reef Restaurant as the sun sets. Then stay for a Buffalo Milk cocktail when the music starts to play. You may not be on the East Coast, but you found the perfect island getaway for Labor Day.

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