A world away from the teeming crowds of Avalon is the "Other Catalina," a narrow isthmus separating the mountainous eastern and western ends of the island, only half a mile across and barely 50 feet above sea level.
Known in recent years as Two Harbors, the Isthmus has a fascinating history whose protagonists include Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the discoverer of California; Sir Francis Drake; Abraham Lincoln, plus pirates, smugglers, land barons, bootleggers and, in more recent times, the great names of Hollywood.
Two Harbors, which lies six miles from the western tip of the 21-mile-long island, is a diverse and fascinating vacation locale for campers, backpackers, naturalists, divers and other water-sports enthusiasts.
Two Harbors also presents a startling contrast to Avalon, which has scores of hotels, shops and restaurants about 14 miles to the east. Two Harbors has only one of each, and the "hotel" has just 11 rooms.
Avalon has miles of streets and sidewalks. Two Harbors has only dirt roads. Avalon has costly homes and condominiums covering its hillsides. Two Harbors' hillside inhabitants are buffalo, wild pigs, goats and deer. Avalon has golf. Two Harbors has horseshoe-pitching.
Although the Isthmus is much quieter than Avalon most months of the year, it, too, has its invasion of day-trippers during the summer.
We prefer the winter months. On a recent weekend, the only other visitors we saw were a visiting horseshoe-pitching team and yachting couples unwilling to risk a return voyage to the mainland because of high winds and seas.
The Isthmus has the appearance of a small village on a remote atoll, complete with coconut palms and a crescent of sandy beach. Only a 10-minute walk from the dock at Isthmus Cove, one enters primitive country--now under the protection of the Catalina Conservancy--that teems with native plants and wildlife, including bald eagles and species of fox and quail.
But the best way to orient oneself to both the terrain and history of Two Harbors is to take the half a mile walk from Isthmus Cove, the village center, to Catalina Harbor on the opposite side of the Isthmus.
On the way, you'll pass a small red schoolhouse where grades kindergarten through six are taught in a single room by a single teacher.
However, be warned. Wherever you walk on the Isthmus when the pasturage is green, you are likely to encounter grazing buffalo, either in herds or small numbers, and it is wise to keep your distance. The buffalo have been known to charge humans who come too close or who appear to threaten their calves.
But the islanders appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship with the animals. Even the schoolchildren walk past the herd as if its presence was nothing extraordinary.
The forebears of the buffalo, which now number about 450 and 500, were brought to the island in 1924 for the filming of "The Vanishing American," one of the first of many classic motion pictures to be shot at the Isthmus.
At the top of a gentle rise between the two harbors, one comes to a barracks that was built on orders of President Lincoln during the Civil War.
At that time, the coves and valleys on either side of the Isthmus were the center of intense (but never too successful) prospecting for gold, silver and galena (lead ore). Many of the 1,200 claim-holders were Southerners who made no secret of their support for the Confederacy.
Lincoln, who said that he could not finance the Union cause without gold shipments from California, was said to be afraid that the pro-Secessionist miners might try to seize one of the ships carrying ingots from San Francisco when its passage south brought it near the island or into one of its coves.
A barracks was built in January, 1864. An infantry company of 80 men and three officers took up station, and cannons were put in place on the high ground to defend the harbors. The troops, however, were withdrawn after less than a year.
During World War II, the Isthmus became a training center for the Coast Guard. Many hundreds of recruits slept in the old barracks after spending their days learning seamanship aboard a flotilla of eight schooners and four small whaling ships.
The original well from which the Union soldiers drew water still stands outside the building, which is now the headquarters of the Isthmus Yacht Club.
The road then leads down to Catalina Harbor, which is known to be the safest anchorage on all of the Channel Islands. It has been a haven for mariners since its discovery by Cabrillo in 1542.
One of Catalina's most authoritative historians--Charles Frederick Holder--believes that Drake spent the winter of 1579 in Catalina Harbor, overhauling the Golden Hind after plundering Spanish towns and ships on his way up the west coast of Mexico.
There is no doubt at all, however, that Catalina Harbor and other coves on the seaward side of the island have been favorite haunts of smugglers, pirates and bootleggers over the centuries.