Weekend Escape: Santa Catalina : Isthmus Be the Place : At the island's waist, an isolated haven for snorkelers, kayakers and guests of the comfortable old B&B--and; only hotel--there

The ocean was smooth enough for water-skiing early one October morning when my husband, Paul, and I boarded the sleek, 90-foot Catalina Express speedboat in San Pedro. Our destination was Two Harbors, an isolated spot on the isthmus of Catalina, where the two coasts of the island narrow to a mere half-mile apart. We could judge Two Harbors' appeal from what the other passengers aboard were bringing with them: mountain bikes, harpoon guns, scuba tanks, camping equipment; one man had a dog trained for hunting wild boar! Our goal was simply a relaxing getaway at the historic Banning House Lodge.

Eighty minutes later, when we disembarked at Two Harbor's pier, I felt as if we were landing at an old U.S. Navy base somewhere in the South Pacific. Palm trees planted in 1935 for the filming of "Mutiny on the Bounty" sway over the beach. A cluster of drab wooden buildings houses the store, restaurant, saloon, dive shop, public restrooms and offices. Every facility in Two Harbors, I learned, including the Banning House, is owned and operated by one company, Doug Bombard Enterprises.

Shouldering our duffel bags, we made our way through a boater's swap meet, where people from the sailboats and cabin cruisers moored offshore were trading everything from fishing lures to brass lanterns. We walked up a dusty road, past the "Little Red Schoolhouse" (student population: 14) to the Isthmus Yacht Club, a ramshackle building originally constructed during the Civil War as a barracks for Union soldiers. Finally we spotted the Banning House Lodge on top of a hill: a rambling beige clapboard cottage half hidden by palms, eucalyptus and cacti.

Built in 1910 as a home for the Joseph Banning family, which owned Santa Catalina Island before the Wrigleys, over the years the Banning House has been a girls' camp, Coast Guard quarters and hunting lodge. When Catalina was Hollywood's favorite exotic location, movie stars such as Errol Flynn and Dorothy Lamour stayed here while filming. For the past eight years, the Banning House has been a bed and breakfast. I had unsuccessfully tried getting a weekend reservation here during the summer, and a cancellation was the only reason we were able to get a room for a Saturday night in October. (Ordinarily, there is a two-night minimum on weekends, except in winter, Dec.1-March 23.) Because the Banning House Lodge has only 11 rooms--and is the only hotel at Two Harbors--it is crucial to book rooms well in advance.

Karen Staniskis, a lively young woman who introduced herself as the "head housekeeper," spotted us climbing up the steep hill to the lodge, and ran down to help us with our bags. She said that if we had phoned from the pier, she would have fetched us in the lodge van, one of the few vehicles at Two Harbors.

As it was only 10 a.m., and our room was still occupied by last night's guests, Karen invited us to the bagels, muffins and fresh fruit laid out in the lace-curtained dining room. We ate in the trellised courtyard, where birds twittered in two giant palm trees. A few bougainvillea bushes provide the only color here, a clue to a major reason why Catalina has remained virtually undeveloped: lack of water. Our eyes were drawn to the vista below. The early morning clouds had lifted, and the sun illuminated the white boats bobbing in an ocean suddenly as blue as the Mediterranean.

After breakfast, we walked back down to the waterfront, but learned we were too late to rent one of the sea kayaks lined up on the beach. (Sea kayaking is definitely the "in" activity here.) Eager to make the most of Catalina's clear waters, I rented a Body Glove wet suit, and wriggled into it.

I tried out an Aquaview paddleboard, which has a plexiglass window for undersea viewing--sort of a one-man glass-bottom boat without the boat. Unfortunately, the see-through bottom of the paddleboard was badly scratched. I traded in the paddleboard for a mask and snorkel.

Had I felt more ambitious, I could have hitched a ride on one of Two Harbor's shuttle boats to a remote inlet. Instead, I settled for snorkeling in Isthmus Cove. Despite the presence of so many boats, I got lucky: I saw schools of tiny, fluorescent-hued opal fish and mottled-green kingfish. I paddled deeper, following the rocky edge of the cove, hoping for a glimpse of a garibaldi, the California state fish. Just when I had given up all hope, I spotted a big one, as bright orange as a pumpkin.

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In the late afternoon, Banning House manager Jacqueline Ferris hosts a happy hour, serving guests hors d'oeuvres and beverages--along with anecdotes about the island. We were glad to hear that the nonprofit Catalina Conservancy, which has owned 86% of the island for the past 20 years, is dedicated to preserving Santa Catalina in all its pristine starkness. We wandered through the lodge's solarium, with its white wicker furniture, to the wood-paneled, beam-ceilinged lodge room, where the stuffed heads of buffalo, wild boar, mountain goats and other island fauna glower down from the walls. With well-stocked bookshelves, enveloping armchairs positioned near the picture windows and a brick fireplace, it is a perfect room in which to cozy up with a book.

We ended up on the north porch of the lodge, which offers a sweeping view of Isthmus Cove to the east, and Catalina Harbor to the west. Through binoculars, we spotted hikers on distant hilltops and watched giant crows soaring overhead. It was so quiet, we could hear the flapping of their glossy black wings. Three middle-age couples whose sailboat was moored below had hiked up the hill to admire the view. They told us that they had been coming to Two Harbors together for years, and there are two things they never miss: the view from the Banning House Lodge and "buffalo milk." For the latter, we trekked down the hill after sunset, to Doug's Harbor Reef.

Just about every adult on the jam-packed porch of Two Harbor's only saloon/restaurant was drinking buffalo milk: a potent concoction of vodka, creme de cacao, creme de banana, milk and whipped cream. In a sprawling dining room with South Seas motif (fishing nets and Japanese-glass fishing balls, Rangoon-style rattan chairs), we supped on fresh-caught, adequately cooked local swordfish and sea bass, along with run-of-the-mill salad, fresh rolls and baked potatoes. Around 8 p.m., a deejay began playing golden oldies on the porch, and couples--apparently feeling their buffalo milk--started dancing.

Since street lights are as rare at Two Harbors as cars, we had borrowed a flashlight from the lodge for the walk home. We trudged back up the hill under a shimmering canopy of stars and settled into our simple yet cheerfully decorated room (queen-size bed, brick fireplace, private bath and porch).

The next morning, with the sun still struggling to burn away the fog, we set off on a pre-breakfast hike. Heading west, we followed a rocky trail along the shore of Catalina Harbor, where brown pelicans, all business, dive-bombed for fish. The only sign of the fabled Catalina buffalo, descendants of animals brought to the island in the '20s for filming Hollywood Westerns, were a few pasture patties. At Ballast Point we gazed south along the windward coast of the island, its jagged cliffs cascading into the churning Pacific. It's a view that visitors who stick to touristy Avalon will miss.

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Budget for Two

Boat fare, round trip: $70.00

Banning House, one night: $98.00

Lunch, waterfront snack bar: $10.00

Equipment rentals: $28.00

Dinner, Doug's Harbor Reef: $45.30

Parking, Catalina terminal: $13.20

FINAL TAB: $264.50

Banning House Lodge, other facilities at Two Harbors, and the Catalina Express boat, tel. (310) 510-2800.

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