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WEEKEND ESCAPE: CATALINA

A Cove of Our Own

Quiet beach, tent pitched under a palm: It's that island feel, not far away

May 09, 1999|ANDREW BAKALAR | Andrew Bakalar is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

TWO HARBORS, Calif. — As the song says, "Give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play"--but I always imagined that to be somewhere in Wyoming. That is, until three years ago, when my buddy Justin Blake organized a group camping trip to Little Harbor Campground on Catalina's west coast. If you didn't know it, this part of the island is home not only to buffalo, but deer and, yes, antelope. I have not seen the deer or antelope, but on three occasions I've gotten a close look at a dozen of the island's 250 free-ranging buffalo.

The story is that they were brought over from the mainland for a movie decades ago and simply left here. A ranger told me they love the grasses growing around Little Harbor's beachy campground. My last sighting was in late March, when I made the pilgrimage back to Little Harbor with two friends.

Buffalo aren't all that Little Harbor has to offer. Picture one of Catalina's most beautiful coves, with sparkling turquoise water, bowl-shaped hills with good hiking trails and a night sky so clear you can't believe you're only 27 miles from L.A. Forget Puerto Vallarta. Paradise for me is a ferry and six-mile van ride away.

Getting to Little Harbor is a cinch, made easier thanks to the Internet (http://www.catalina.com offers ferry schedules and prices, and lets you book van and campgrounds in advance). Catalina Express leaves from San Pedro for the village of Two Harbors ($38 round trip) at the isthmus. Our 9:45 a.m. ferry put in about 11:30, half an hour before the Catalina Safari Shuttle Bus left for Little Harbor.

My friends Kenny and Zoe and I took advantage of that time to rent snorkeling gear from West End Dive Center, located at the end of the Two Harbors pier ($14 a day for mask and fins, $12 for a wetsuit). Opposite them, the Two Harbors Visitor Center is the check-in spot for camping reservations. It's also the place to purchase extra water and wood bundles, which rangers conveniently will drop off later at the campground.

The van ride west, with about six other passengers, was delicious. Spring rains had given the island a vibrant emerald hue; on my previous trips in late September, the land was golden brown. The 12-seater van traversed an unpaved road up and down shrubby hills devoid of any signs of civilization, and dropped us 20 minutes later at Little Harbor Campground.

Half of the 17 available sites are on the land side of the road; the others face the beach. Being a beach lover, I asked for Site No. 12, a grassy space only 15 feet from the sand, complete with a palm tree under which two five-man tents could fit. A tap with running water and an open-air shower pit were within a few yards, and a two-minute walk to the road led to portable johns. Oh, I shouldn't forget to mention the site's well-maintained, enclosed campfire area. Not bad for $12 a night.

After setting up camp, Kenny, Zoe and I could think of but one thing: hitting that beach, where sand of silky white strewn with kelp strands links up with turquoise water. Too bad the water isn't as warm as at Puerto Vallarta. From my previous trips in September I remembered the water to be a fairly warm 72. But this March it was in the low 60s--pretty frigid.

So on went the wetsuits amid our jokes about rubber Michelin men, and into the water we plunged. Head, feet and hands were cold for five minutes, and then it was fine.

We devoted the rest of our Saturday afternoon to sunbathing and reading. As twilight beckoned, we returned to No. 12 and got our campfire going. Half an hour later, we'd cooked up a sumptuous meal from food stored in the ice cooler. Indeed, I'd forgotten how good fire-roasted burgers taste. Then Zoe gathered us to create her favorite Girl Scout-sanctioned dessert--marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers stuffed into bananas, then placed in foil and heated over the fire. It certainly got my vote for Best New Camp-Cooked Treat.

It got cold that night, so after ghost stories and recitations of cowboy poetry, we turned in. I decided to sleep by the fire, and I remember watching an orangy moon and faint satellite specks crossing the heavens. Occasionally some sound would awaken me, and I'd look around half expecting it to have come from approaching buffalo, but it was something else. They must have been dozing in another canyon that night.

By morning, luckily, they had made their grand entrance. We trekked to a nearby field with cameras and got within 40 feet of the imposing creatures before they grunted and moseyed on.

Afterward, we strolled back to our site for oatmeal and o.j., then hiked over a rocky mound into Little Harbor's adjacent cove, Shark Harbor, where we sunbathed and read with a view of the cove's water-splashed rocks. We talked about hiking to the Wrigley Ranch, a mile inland--an arresting place set on a high plateau embraced by mountains--but the dreamy mood of the beach had gotten to us.

We spent the rest of the morning in our quiet cove, then headed back to camp and reluctantly packed. The only van back to Two Harbors leaves at 1:35 p.m. (though they'll add more in summer). If you miss that one, it's a long hike back to civilization or a $1.80 call on the campground's pay phone to inform your boss that you won't be in until Tuesday.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for One

Ferry, round trip: $38.00

Van, round trip: 12.00

Campsite: 12.00

Food and water: 32.00

Snorkeling gear: 28.00

Wetsuit rental: 24.00

Firewood: 12.00

Parking (San Pedro): 18.00

FINAL TAB: $176.00

Santa Catalina Island Co. camping reservations, tel. (310) 510-TENT. Catalina Island Visitors Bureau, tel. (310) 510-1520.

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