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A World Away, Close to Home:

Two Harbors, Catalina Island

Mere minutes after boarding the Catalina Express from San Pedro, a whale breached to remind us of life below the surface. Not even whale season, the majestic creature gave us a show with five more sprays through its blowhole. Enlivened is an understatement, as the pandemic has taught me to appreciate nature even more and the ability to move safely during a pandemic seems like the new luxury.

After an hour riding along with the glistening spray in the outdoor back corner of the boat with our masks on, it seemed we had arrived in a new land or even a new country – Catalina Island to be exact, but not the major harbor of Avalon that feels like entering a small town on the Amalfi coast. Our Catalina Express boat slid into the quieter Two Harbors, dotted with sailboats and aquamarine water so clear it seemed pointless to even snorkel. Visibility can be almost 40 feet. Off to the left of the harbor, cabins and camping dot the rugged hillside while kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders glide around the coastline. Teens proudly show off their catch on the docks while visitors relax under shaded cabanas and aqua umbrellas in the sand. Palm trees sway in the breeze, invoking South Pacific vibes. Arriving in Two Harbors feels like a real summer day.

Greeted by the hotel’s shuttle upon arrival, we are whisked up the hillside to the 100+ year old Banning House Lodge that overlooks the isthmus and the two harbors. It quickly becomes apparent that there may not be anywhere else as wonderful to stay on the west coast during a pandemic than this 12 room Craftsman-style lodge. My ears are delighted with the property’s silence and birdsong. Just 22 miles away from the mainland, the fresh air and constant breeze is beyond welcome.

Surrounded by nature on all sides, Banning House Lodge is the only hotel in Two Harbors. Built in 1910 by the Banning brothers, the Lodge has served many purposes - as the U.S. Coast Guard officers’ quarters during WWII, as a private girls camp in the late 1950s, a hunting lodge, and as employee housing.

Each morning our pre-ordered breakfast is delivered to our room at a specified time due to the pandemic and, surprisingly, we have the entire terrace overlooking one of the harbors all to ourselves. Dining with my husband here feels like we own the place and have been transported to a cacti-laden New England home of my childhood memories.

The hotel’s charm becomes clear. Banning House Lodge is not trying to be something it’s not. No major upgrades for vanity or Instagram, the hotel is unapologetically original. Inside the main lodge with sweeping views, a fireplace, and local taxidermy (even the island’s buffalo), I imagine this area was most likely a social gathering place for guests prior to a virus invasion. Like an old hunting lodge, flashbacks of the hotel El Tovar at the Grand Canyon come to mind.  

After checking in, we immediately stroll the dirt path down to the other sparkling turquoise harbor where white sailboats deeply contrast Mediterranean-like water. Coastal sage scrub, manzanita and eucalyptus trees abound. Cacti with desert flowers of yellow and pink align our path, even cacti ears that look like Mickey Mouse. The sunlight casts shadows across the mountains and at the rocky beach, the steep terrain crumbles toward the ocean. Birds swoon in every direction and I feel free.

Due to the times, a bottle of wine is delivered with a cheese plate in the evening at Banning House Lodge, leaving the days of communal wine and cheese happy hour camaraderie in the distant past. It feels like the ultimate pleasure to watch the sunset on the terrace at the end of a satisfying day. Just us and the birds, and the occasional walker who hikes up to see the delicious views. One evening my brain is so soothed by the location I fell asleep reading a book in a chair, something that has never once happened to me in L.A.

At dusk, the island’s largest endemic mammal makes an appearance, to our delight. Four petite foxes with little black noses prance around the terrace. Almost cat-like, the cute foxes appear tame. To my surprise I find one prancing in broad daylight while walking near the beach - just as curious of me as I of it.

The second day on my path to the main harbor I pass a red one-room schoolhouse (that educates nine children of all ages) while the hummingbirds and butterflies buzz around me. At the Dive and Recreation Center, a kayak awaits as I am eager to explore the world’s healthiest and most diverse ecosystems. The calm water with a sandy bottom makes it easy to hop in and maneuver to the coast. As I flow in and out of the coves with names like Fourth of July Cove and Cherry Cove, kelp forests shimmer and bright orange Garibaldi swim below me.

People spearfishing on paddle boards stroke past me like they are on a mission. Snorkelers and scuba divers hop off small inflatable boats as grandiose yachts and sailboats bob in the harbor nearby. With over 40 dive sites and over 800 species in the water, the region caters to all levels of divers. And with COVID, it appears the best place to be right now is on a boat or a quiet island.

The aquamarine water tempts me to jump in as I cruise around cascading red rock cliff coves, a private beach, a teeny lighthouse, and a heron in its cliffside nest. Pale blue spots that might be sea anemones glisten in the translucent water. The setting conjures up a recent pre-pandemic trip to Isla Espiritu Santo off the coast of La Paz, Mexico. As I brave the seas to paddle around Lion’s Head to view crashing waves inside caves, I quickly realize it’s probably best to turn around from this rocky point since I’m solo.

The adventures on Catalina are not only at sea, but on land. Filled with hikes in and around the harbors, we chose to hike 2 miles straight up from Banning House Lodge to the top of the island to Cat Harbor overlook, 950 feet above Two Harbors. Dazzled the entire way up and down a dirt road with astonishing aerial views, we were rewarded at the summit with a 360-view wraparound vista of the island - like a visionary high dive.

Back at the hotel, guests share stories of catching barracuda, skate, yellowtail, halibut and white sea bass. Boat rentals and fishing charters are popular since many coves and reefs offer an incredible array of habitats. Schools of mackerel, sardines and smelt are abundant around the island and attract larger sport fish. After sunset, we linger to appreciate the night sky filled with flickering stars and free from light pollution.

Our last day we save for rest and beachfront lounge chairs at the Harbor Reef Restaurant where visitors must try the island’s signature drink – Buffalo Milk – an elevated interpretation of a White Russian. Staying relaxed is easy in your cabana or lounger with fresh fish, clam chowder and Mexican-style shrimp cocktail delivered right to you.

Our time and especially the stillness in Two Harbors I will hold dear, as the best part of the whole summer. It felt safe, peaceful and inspiring. Consider Two Harbors in Catalina Island, where social distancing comes naturally, for your next getaway.

Is it safe to travel to Catalina Island?

Consider traveling mid-week to Catalina Island for an even quieter pace. Masks are required on the Catalina Express and rules are reinforced on the loudspeaker. We arrived early and sat in the corner outside with a breeze. The boat felt only half full because Catalina Express has reduced capacity for more distance between passengers. Physical distance markings are on the floor at the terminal and while waiting in line to board the vessel. Extra cleaning has been enacted between departures. High-touch surfaces are wiped down throughout the journey. High-grade disinfectants and multi-purpose cleaning are used in restrooms and surfaces while each evening a third-party cleaning service uses electrostatic spraying or “fogging” on the vessels that is EPA-registered. Learn more on and  

Also, my kayak was super sanitized by the company when I returned to shore. Masks are required in common areas at Banning House Lodge. Breakfast and wine and cheese are now delivered to your room but almost the entire time we had the terrace to ourselves, probably because many rooms come with their own terrace/porch. If you want to travel and be outdoors, this is the place!