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Weekend Escape: Visiting Avalon's little sister on Santa Catalina Island

My continuing search for secret hideaways by the sea took me to tiny Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island last month, where I hiked and biked, explored quiet coves and whiled away time gazing at spectacular views of the Pacific. The rustic village, set on Catalina's West End, is Avalon's little sister, home to just 150 residents. Boaters love it, filling the harbors with sloops, catamarans and other craft. But if you're not a yachtie,you must make do with one of 12 rooms in the only hotel, or pitch a tent in a campground. However, a couple of new rental homes have added another option. The tab: Each sleeps eight, so we decided to try the group thing, spending a total of $1,280 for two nights’ rental.  We ate at home, for the most part, saving money on food.

 The bed

Our rental, Casa Santa Cruz, sits on a hill with views of both harbors — one that faces the open Pacific, the other that faces the California mainland. There are three bedrooms, two baths and a giant loft, where you could stash a small army of kids to play games, sleep or hunker down in front of the big-screen TV.  A bar, outdoor grill and a large kitchen make it easy to cook at home. 

A second rental, Casa Santa Rosa, has four bedrooms and three baths; both rentals have an upscale, beachy feel (Catalina Island Vacation Rentals, [855] 305-2487, www.civr.com. $375 per night, low season, to $975 in summer. The casas also are listed at www.visitcatalinaisland.com).

The only other game in town is historic Banning House Lodge, where rates range from $175 to $347 ([877] 778-8322, www.visitcatalinaisland.com). The lodge provides free breakfast for its guests and those in the casas. There's also a wine and cheese happy hour on weekends that's open to Two Harbors visitors. 

The meal

The Harbor Reef Restaurant, which also has a saloon and snack bar, is the village's only restaurant. Luckily the food is good and there's a surprising variety. My fave was calamari piccata ($24.50) with a nice taste of lemon and garlic. Weekday visitors can score savings at the 3 to 5 p.m. happy hour.

The find

Years of drought have dried up the island's vegetation, but nature dealt the shoreline a winning card, with cliffs and coves and beautiful bays. Rent a small boat or jump in a kayak to explore. At Emerald Bay, for instance, the water was so clear that we could see fish swimming below us, and sunlight reflecting on the floor of the sea.

Lesson learned

Unless you have your own boat, you'll probably arrive in Two Harbors on the Catalina Express, which sails there daily from its San Pedro port ([800] 613-1212, www.catalinaexpress.com). There are bike rentals on the island (they're free with a casa rental), but you may want to bring your own. The ferry company will ship it for $7 round trip.

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