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10 Quick Winter Getaways

5 Channel Islands, California

By Bonnie Tsui

These eight rocky outcrops off the southern California coast are the Galápagos of North America: isolated, pristine, and home to some of the world's most diverse ecosystems. Winter brings migrating gray whales and clear seas perfect for diving (and gaping at) the kelp forests. Back on the surface, you can kayak through dramatic sea caves with Aquasports (800/773-2309; www.islandkayaking.com), hike, sail, and go deep-sea fishing. The five northernmost islands—San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara—make up Channel Islands National Park (805/658-5711; www.nps.gov/chis), where overnighting means pitching a tent; most visitors make day trips by ferry from Ventura or Santa Barbara. Farther south, on Santa Catalina, the cobblestoned town of Avalon will put you in a Mediterranean mood—until you tackle the craggy interior on a mountain bike (for permits, contact Catalina Island Conservancy, 310/510-2595; www.catalinaconservancy.org). The southernmost islands, San Nicolas and San Clemente, both under Navy jurisdiction, have the region's most challenging, and rewarding, dive sites.

Don't Miss

Catching your own lobster dinner off Santa Barbara Island with Horizon Charters (858/277-7823; www.horizoncharters.com).

Island Guide: Natural Wonders

Santa Cruz
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Kayaking through sea caves
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Endangered island fox, found nowhere else in the world
SWEET SPOT: Trail between Prisoner's Harbor and Pelican Bay

San Miguel
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Beachcombing the white sands and rocky coves
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Five species of seal and sea lion
SWEET SPOT: Seal breeding grounds at Point Bennett

Anacapa
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Climbing 150 stairs, for views
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Corkscrew-diving pelicans
SWEET SPOT: Arch Rock natural bridge

Santa Catalina
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Mountain biking steep ridges and challenging terrain
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Buffalo (brought here for a 1924 film shoot)
SWEET SPOT: Two Harbors isthmus, for panoramic views

Santa Rosa
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Hiking to the camp on the south side of the island
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Pygmy mammoth fossil (found here in 1924)
SWEET SPOT: Ancient Torrey pine forest from the Pleistocene era

Santa Barbara
CHOICE ACTIVITY: Diving the islands' warmest waters
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: Xantus's murrelet, a tiny, rare bird that nests in crevices
SWEET SPOT: Landing Cove, for spiny sea urchins and purple starfish

The Facts

Boats make the 75-minute run daily to the national park from Ventura and Oxnard (805/642-1393; www.islandpackers.com) and from Santa Barbara (805/962-1127; www.truthaquatics.com). The trip to Catalina from Newport Beach (949/673-5245; www.catalinainfo.com) or Long Beach (800/481-3470; www.catalinaexpress.com) takes about an hour.

WHERE TO STAY

Snug Harbor Inn Enjoy panoramic views of Avalon Bay from any of six rooms, all with king-sized beds, Egyptian-cotton sheets, and whirlpool tubs. Doubles from $140; 108 Sumner Ave., Avalon, Santa Catalina Island; 800/601-3836; www.snugharbor-inn.com
La Mer Bed & Breakfast Five Victorian-style rooms in an 1890 house in Ventura. The hearty Bavarian breakfast will fuel you up for a day of paddling. Doubles from $95; 411 Poli St., Ventura; 805/643-3600; www.lamerbnb.com
Four Seasons Newport Beach Tool around Newport and Catalina on the hotel's mountain bikes. Doubles from $330; 690 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach; 800/332-3442 or 949/759-0808; www.fourseasons.com

WHERE TO EAT

Armstrong's Seafood An island favorite for fresh catches—from steamed lobster tails to sautéed red snapper. Dinner for two $40; 306 Crescent Ave., Avalon, Santa Catalina Island; 310/510-0113
71 Palm Chef Didier Poirier serves rich French-country cooking in a beautifully lit 1910 Craftsman cottage. Dinner for two $90; 71 N. Palm St., Ventura; 805/653-7222

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