In Catalina, beauty off the beaten track

Daniella Thompson

A rainbow over Isthmus Cove, Two Harbors (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

1 December 2008

The island of Santa Catalina receives over a million visitors per year, but the vast majority of them go in summer and never set foot outside the principal town of Avalon.

Twenty-one miles long and eight miles wide at its widest point, the island offers much more than day-tripper cotton candy and kitschy souvenirs. And if you go in winter, the place is all yours—especially if you choose to stay on the western and less frequented side of Catalina, where a half-mile isthmus separates two natural and scenic back-to-back harbors.

Catalina Harbor, on the ocean side of the Isthmus (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

The Isthmus village of Two Harbors, with a population of 200, caters to scuba divers, sport fishermen, and the yachters who anchor at the many picturesque coves lining the island’s West End. In winter, the coves are sparsely anchored, the summer camps closed, and the overall atmosphere even more tranquil than usual.

Now is the best time for hikers to explore the island’s interior. Most of Catalina is mountainous, making the hot summer months less than ideal for tackling the interior on foot (for those not inclined to walk, Hummer tours offer a no-sweat option). In contrast, the island’s mild winter climate is ideal for long hikes, which is a good thing, since there aren’t many short hikes to be had at the West End.

The Catalina Isthmus has been attracting people for over 7,000 years. Its first known inhabitants were the Gabrielino native islanders, who maintained a large village that was also the center of their religious activities. By the mid-19th century, smugglers and miners had replaced the indigenous population, who had been shipped off to the San Gabriel Mission (hence the name Gabrielino).

During the Civil War, the Union Army maintained a small Isthmus garrison for nine months. Its barracks are now being used by the Isthmus Yacht Club.

From 1846 until 1892, at least half a dozen private individuals owned Catalina in succession. With the exception of one hotel and a tent city in Avalon, the island remained undeveloped until the Banning brothers acquired it from the James Lick estate in 1892. The sons of General Phineas Banning, stagecoach king and developer of the Los Angeles harbor, William, Joseph, and Hancock Banning had been running a steamship line to Catalina since 1884. They purchased a controlling interest in the island with the intention of developing it as a resort and quickly introduced many attractions, including two dance pavilions, a bandstand, an aquarium, a Greek amphitheatre, an inclined railway from Avalon to Lover’s Cove, and a golf course.

The Bannings built roads in the Island’s interior and installed the first telephone and wireless telegraph systems. They also offered fishing excursions, sightseeing by stagecoach, and glass-bottomed boat trips.

Joseph Banning built this house, now a bed & breakfast lodge, in 1909. The rear faces Catalina Harbor. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

While Avalon grew, the remote Isthmus—23 miles away by road, 13.4 miles by boat—remained a backwater. In 1909, Joseph Banning built his house on a knoll overlooking the two harbors: Isthmus Cove on the lee side and Catalina Harbor on the ocean side. Originally clad in brown shingles and now painted white, the house retains many Arts & Crafts details. The long structure forms an extended C around three sides of a patio overhung with a pergola and enlivened by many plantings. At one end of the patio, the two-story living room and the adjacent sunroom command sweeping vistas to the north, west, and south. At the other end, a charming dining room faces Isthmus Cove. Between the two, a row of bedrooms opens onto the patio, their rear windows looking out on Catalina Harbor.

The Banning House living room with its hunting trophies (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

When the Bannings traveled to the Isthmus, their stagecoach trips from Avalon lasted two days. Charles Frederick Holder, the naturalist who did more than anyone to turn Catalina into a big-game fishing mecca, described one of those stagecoach rides in his book The Channel Islands of California (1910):

One of the owners of the island, Captain William Banning, is probably the finest amateur six-in-hand driver in the United States; to see him handle his famous team on the island roads, or anywhere in California, is something worth while. I think the one experience at Santa Catalina Island that made the most lasting impression on me was the first ride down the mountain road with Captain Banning and his private six-in-hand when he “let them out.” It was as near an aeroplane as anything could be, and I think we made the run down in about eighteen minutes.

The sunroom connects to the living room and overlooks Isthmus Cove. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

In November 1915, a catastrophic fire devastated Avalon, destroying six hotels, most public amenities, and a good many homes. According to some reports, half the town was reduced to ashes, others say only a third of it burned. The damage amounted to more than $2 million. Determined to rebuild, the Bannings immediately began planning the construction of a new hotel. However, their resources were not up to the task of resurrecting the entire resort, and in 1919 they sold the island to a man with deeper pockets: chewing gum magnate William Wrigley.

A patio overhung with a pergola connects the Banning House living and dining rooms. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

After the Bannings’ departure, their summer house underwent several reincarnations. During World War II, it served as the U.S. Coast Guard officers’ quarters. In the late 1950s, it was a private girls’ camp. Later the house metamorphosed into a hunting lodge, and later still into housing for employees of the Santa Catalina Island Company. Today it is called the Banning House Lodge and operated as a twelve-room bed-and-breakfast inn.

The Banning House dining room (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Summer rates at the Banning House Lodge can be salty, but winter is a bargain, with a room for two going for $91 a night Sunday through Thursday ($141 on Friday & Saturday). No radio, TV, or telephone will disturb your peace unless you bring your own. Two Harbors has one restaurant-bar and one general store. During the winter season, Catalina Express runs five boats weekly from Long Beach via Avalon. A Safari Bus makes a daily run (weather permitting) between Two Harbors and Avalon.

Steps lead down to Isthmus Cove. The Banning House provides guests a free shuttle on demand. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

A variety of hikes is available, from the level West End Road, hugging the coastline, to the steep Silver Peak Trail, which ascends several summits of 1,500 feet or more. The rewards include not only breathtaking views but possible encounters with the beautiful and diminutive Catalina Island fox or with a non-native American bison, not to mention several species of plants endemic to the island, like the gigantic Catalina Island buckwheat (aka St. Catherine’s Lace), the Catalina cherry, or the Catalina Island currant.

And when it comes to sunsets and rainbows, I haven’t seen better. No wonder Catalina has been called “The Jewel in the Ocean” and “Fairyland.”

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 10 December 2008.

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