Channel Islands 4. Santa Catalina, Two Harbors & Avalon

By Charleen - December 16, 2023

Just off the coast of southern California lies a series of 8 small islands, five of which form the Channel Islands National Park. Santa Catalina Island is that often misty, but always present land mass framed so beautifully by the arching pines of Rancho Palos Verdes. On the 4th day of our Lindblad/NatGeo Channel Island cruise, we hiked past a bison and kayaked in a crystal clear cove in the Two Harbors area. After lunch, we visited Avalon, a town nestled in a bowl-shaped depression tipped towards the harbor, with ever higher tiers of houses. At the Catalina Museum, we were surprised to discover connections of island history with both of our childhoods. We walked the shops and enjoyed ice cream cones before exploring the steps of Avalon for amazing views.

Sunrise near misty Catalina - we are headed for Two Harbors in the dip between hills.
Looking down on Isthmus Cove (Banning Harbor), beach and kayak area.
Crystal clear waters in Isthmus Bay
Ships in bottle at the Catalina Museum
Avalon's South Beach looking towards Lovers Cove
Avalon Harbor bounded by red roofed buildings: Catalina Casino and Holly House
One of many staircases in Avalon, Hermosa Hotel on Metropole Ave.

Click here for Los Angeles Area Eats and Hikes.
Click here for Day 1. Embarkation, Dolphins & Moonrise
Click here for Day 2a.  Anacapa Island Cliffs & Wildlife
Click here for Day 2b. Santa Cruz Island Fox & Hike
Click here for Day 3. Santa Rosa Pines & Landscapes

Two Harbors

With the sunrise to our left, we cruised forward into a mist, passing a tiny atoll iced white with bird droppings and a larger island, strangely bare except for a focal patch of dense trees.
Bird Island as sun rises over part of Catalina
In many ways, we should have been headed for Avalon, the mythical version of which inspired book titles like The Mists of Avalon. But instead, we were headed for the little community of Two Harbors. This region is located on the narrowest and lowest part of the island, pinched in at the knot of a very assymetric bow tie.
Mist shrouds Two Harbors on Catalina Island
As we had for each island landing, we had a choice of hikes. The longest was a 4-mile hike, 1000 ft up to a scenic viewpoint looking down at both Isthmus Cove to the northeast and Cat Harbor to the southwest. This hike was scheduled to take up most of the morning with no time for other activities, and would be an out and back hike as the descent down towards Cat Harbor was deemed too dangerous. 

The shortest option involved walking across the less than half-mile isthmus from our landing in Ishtmus Cove to Cat Harbor. The medium hike was a 2.5 mile hike ascending the hills overlooking the cove, which could be combined with kayaking and beach time.
Bringing the kayaks out to the beach
Although my husband wanted to do the long hike, I wanted to kayak in the Channel Islands (I had already bought a souvenir pin with a kayak instead of a zodiac raft). So we signed up for the medium hike at breakfast.
Watermelon breakfast drink, over-easy egg on toast, bacon, hashbrowns and roast veggies.

Hike to view the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center

By the time they called for the medium hikers, the sun had burned off the fog revealing a colorful waterfront. 
This was our easiest transition from Zodiac to dock, involving just a step up onto the dock. We headed off to the left, passing a display of aloe vera. 
As we ascended the hills, we got some nice view of the harbor with all the moored boats, passing the Two Harbors Campground.
Isthmus Cove
As the trail curved back around overlooking a grassy area, we saw a rapter in flight -- possibly a juvenile bald eagle. And suddenly, one of the naturalists pointed out a large solitary bison lying in the grass, exclaiming "there's a buffalo!" She was quickly corrected by the other naturalist -- leading to an evening lecture on the differences.
One of the women whistled at it to try to get it to look at us, and was quickly shushed. He told her that we do not want to irritate a bison. They can run 35 miles per hour, and we did not want him to come charging up the hill at us. 
The islands we had passed in the mist, identified as Ship Rock and Bird Island.
Presently we came to a viewpoint over Fishermans Cove and the Catalina hyperbaric chamber located in a marine lab. 
Fishermans Cove with the Wrigley Research Station
Then it was time to turn around so we would have time to kayak. On the way back, I took advantage of a pretty deluxe outhouse at the campground.

Kayaking Isthmus Cove (aka Banning Harbor)

While the sit-on-top kayaks were fairly comfortable, they provided us with really short paddles. When our friends saw a photo that I posted on FB of my husband kayaking in the crystal clear waters, one of them commented "Beautiful water. But that kayak(?)…does not look particularly seaworthy." 
Nevertheless, we greatly enjoyed paddling over the crystal clear waters. As we passed clumps of giant kelp, each one was guarded by a bright orange garibaldi.
A garabaldi
There were lots of fishes to look at, and seabirds perched atop rock pillars.
Birds on a rock pillar
After about 45 minutes, the fog started to roll in again, and it got a bit cold out on the water.

So we came back in and walked through the town and across the isthmus to view Cat Harbor on the other side. 
Crossing the isthmus
Large prickly pear cactus in the isthmus
Cat Harbor on the other side of Two Harbors

Teriyaki chicken and key lime pie

Back on the ship. we enjoyed one of my favorite meals - teriyaki roasted chicken legs served over ginger black rice with edamane and broccolini. 
It was preceded by a delicious minestrone soup, and followed by key lime pie.


The city of Avalon is the most frequently visited site on Catalina Island. As a teenager, all I recall was the boat ride, the hot weather, and eating ice cream on the dock. On this trip, I might have been paying a bit more attention, but you can't beat eating ice cream on the waterfront!

The coast of Santa Catalina on the larger southern lobe of the island drops pretty steeply to the sea. We boated past a newer community that reminded me of a teacup pouring out to the sea. 
Catalina Casino and Hamilton Cove condos
Avalon itself is nestled in a tilted bowl-shaped depression in the cliff-side. Orderly rows of colorful houses ascend the sides of the bowl, and the central area is flat. We were ferried to the dock in our Zodiac rafts, and had an easy step from raft onto dock.
Approaching the Catalina dock

Catalina Museum for Art & History 

One of the first things we decided to do was to visit the Catalina Museum for Art & History, as we got free admission with our Lindblad/Nat Geo expedition name tags. On the walk over there, we passed a grocery store and noticed the tiny parking spots for these golf cart sized vehicles. 
I had to go in and get a sense of grocery prices.  While they might have been more expensive than prices in the California mainland with its proximity to agriculture, the prices did not seem too different from what we had at Giant Eagle and Whole Foods in Pennsylvania.  (Of course for the freshest and most inexpensive produce, we always head to one of the Chinese groceries rather than the supermarket).
We thoroughly enjoyed all the levels of this little museum. I had attended Phineas Banning High School in Wilmington, CA, but had no idea that the two sons of Banning played a key role in early development of Catalina as a tourist destination. Indeed you can still stay at the Banning House Lodge in the Two Harbors area. They offered stage coach rides, carved in beach access to several areas, and built Pleasure Pier, where we ate our ice cream, in 1909.

After a fire destroyed much of their holdings, the Banning brothers sold to William Wrigley Jr. in 1919. Interestingly, he envisioned Catalina Island as a "playground for all" -- not just for the rich and famous. Not only is he the same guy that we can thank for Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, but also Wrigley Field of the Chicago Cubs is named for him.
My husband delighted in the discovery that his Cubbies used to have spring training on Catalina Island. More interestingly, we discovered why the Cubs went for so long without even getting to play in another World Series after 1945. It was a curse from insulting a goat at that game, which was not broken until 2016.

The exhibits on artifacts from the indigenous inhabitants of  Catalina were also very interesting. There was a flute made from the femur of an deer and decorated with abalone mother-of-pearl.
The carved patterns on these rocks appealed to me.
Unfortunately for Wrigley's vision, the difficult access to the island pretty much made Catalina the playground of the rich and famous -- whose faces were also plastered across the exhibits. Norma Jeane Mortenson, later Marilyn Monroe, was one of them.

There was a miscellaneous gallery filled with the whimsical items and a formal art gallery.
As we wound around to the upper floors of the exhibit, we passed a sculpture garden, outdoor theater, and special exhibit for the Day of the Dead, but we did not see the Chihuly Yellow Spire Chandelier on the first pass. 

After using the restroom facilities up there, we tried again. It turns out you have to actually walk into the steep roofed gazebo like area with the view out to the harbor to see the chandelier hanging above.
Chihuly Yellow Spire Chandelier

Ice Cream, Waterfront and Steps of Avalon

As we walked back down the street towards the waterfront, we passed many sets of stairs that awakened our newly discovered love of exploring city steps. Since moving to Pittsburgh, we have embarked on so many urban hikes centered around the famous Pittsburgh steps. 
Golf carts traveling Metropole Ave past Hotel St. Lauren
Some of these were private steps going up to hotel rooms, and some were public steps.

Upon reaching the strip of beachfront shops along Crescent St., we window shopped. We passed Lloyd's of Avalon, which was certainly there when I visited before (and might even be where we got ice cream last time). Lloyd's was established in 1945.
Crescent Avenue shops
But we were aiming for a different ice cream shop, Scoops Catalina Creamery makes all of their frozen treats and cakes in house. We ran into both staff and passengers from the NatGeo Venture, as our name badge also got us a free, generously-sized, scoop of ice cream.

But this is where those in the know (e.g. the staff) were at an advantage. While I enjoyed my Rose Petal Raspberry gelato, and my husband liked his gelato, we drooled over the decadent chocolate ice cream enjoyed by our divemaster.
Scoops Creamery
We did not even see these options. He said you had to read the menu to get the ice cream flavors. It turns out, as highlighted in this interview with the Scoops owners, that their ice cream, which has 14% butterfat, is stored in stainless steel cylinders to protect it from temperature fluctuations, light and air. Like silly tourists, we went straight for the colorful open display of 8% butterfat gelato.

Sad thing is that I did notice a Banana Pudding flavor on the wall, made with fresh bananas and bits of vanilla wafers, but when I did not see it in the gelato display, I did not ask, but ordered something else. We'll just have to make another trip to Catalina...
Of course my husband had to check out this shop for his souvenir Cubs shirt
With a just a bit more time left on Santa Catalina, we debated if we wanted to walk to the north side of the harbor to see the famous Casino. This is not a gambling hall, but a venue for big band concerts, nighttime films and entertainment. 

Or, did we want to try to ascend to the level of a cool building on the southern lip, which looked like it would have a great view of the entire harbor including the distant Casino?

Given our love for urban staircases, of course we set off to find a way uphill for the views. We found the driveway of the house with the conical roofed tower, but could not get any closer. Later I used google to determine it was called the Holly Hill House. 
So we decided to ascend further to the next terraced road, finding several public staircases to aid us.  
There were many beautiful rental properties along Middle Terrace Road, and we walked to the end of it for a fantastic view.
View from the end of Middle Terrace Road
With no time or readily evident method to ascend to Upper Terrace Road, we headed back down to the pier. The public restroom stall doors were really secure.
Locks for the ladies restroom stalls
We learned from the staff that they had found a great example of a bull kelp near the dock where we would be picked up for the trip back to the ship. We looked around, but did not see it. 
Monkey and aloe at one of many vacation rentals on Middle Terrace Rd.

Our last evening on the Venture

During the cocktail hours, we enjoyed A Sunny Spritz accompanied by an informative lecture on the difference between buffalo and bison. 

It turns out we did not see the bull kelp because the doctor had wrapped it up in a towel and brought it on board so we could all see it up close.

We enjoyed the video compiled from photos that we had all submitted at lunch time.

Dinner consisted of a nice Cesar salad followed by a flavorful fillet of fish (looked like salmon, but I do not believe that is what it was), over mashed potatoes with green beans. 
For dessert, I had the flourless chocolate cake while my husband enjoyed a snickerdoodle ice cream sandwich, which he constructed using two cookies that he had saved from our welcome back aboard cookie tray.

Click here for Los Angeles Area Eats and Hikes.
Click here for Day 1. Embarkation, Dolphins & Moonrise
Click here for Day 2a.  Anacapa Island Cliffs & Wildlife
Click here for Day 2b. Santa Cruz Island Fox & Hike
Click here for Day 3. Santa Rosa Pines & Landscapes

🐾 In addition to returning for the full Scoops ice cream experience, we learned about some snorkeling sites on the other side of the harbor where you get swarmed by fish. Checking the internet, it seems that these access points are described here.  Water will be colder so wetsuits or shorties would be recommended. 


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