Ventura, California and Channel Islands National Park combine surfing, shopping and
sea lions for a sublime seaside escape.
The city of Ventura and Channel Islands National Park share a number of cultural similarities, despite one being populated mainly by Californian sea lovers and the other by California sea lions. Both are blessed with fame-worthy attractions – Ventura’s historic Main Street and surfer-studded shore, the Channel Islands’ drippingly atmospheric sea caves – yet they remain relatively unknown to Arizona travelers. Both are in the midst of vigorous efforts to revive and protect regional treasures, including Ventura’s film-starred classic architecture and the Channel Islands’ 145 endemic species. And in both, residents spend most of the time splashing in the ocean and eating well. Together, the destinations make an idyllic weekend getaway: one part The Endless Summer, one part Wild America.
You probably know Ventura from the America song “Ventura Highway.” But in reality, there are no alligator lizards in the air, and the nights are only stronger than moonshine if you indulge in the city’s obsession with limoncello. Situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Ventura manages to escape the former’s chaos and the latter’s chichi. The city serves up a compelling combo of surf and turf: a breezy beach culture fringed by a citrus-centric agricultural paradise (the county provides citrus for Sunkist Growers and Ventura Limoncello).
Base yourself at Crowne Plaza Beach Hotel (450 E. Harbor Blvd., 805-648-7731, cpventura.com), Ventura’s only oceanfront hotel – a seashell’s throw from a 4.5-mile promenade that sweeps past wave-frothed Surfer’s Point. One of the most bodacious boarding spots in So Cal, the point has a Web cam that gets hundreds of hits a day – no surprise in a town where lunchtime surfing privileges are a de facto perk of employee benefits packages.
A short stroll inland past palm trees, murals and gingerbread houses takes you to a Spanish mission that was Ventura’s original raison d’etre and gives the town its official name: San Buenaventura. Founded in 1782, the original mission burned down, but you can still poke around the lovely gardens and 200-year-old church (211 E. Main St., 805-643-4318, sanbuenaventuramission.org).
Past the nearly-as-old Moreton Bay fig tree is the Ventura County Museum (100 E. Main St., 805-653-0323, venturamuseum.org), which houses a visual timeline of objets d’art, from artifacts of the area’s Chumash Indian, Spanish and Mexican-American heritage to contemporary art. This summer, the museum features an equestrian theme, corralling exhibits on workhorses’ historic contributions to Ventura County’s growth and a display of artist Katie Upton’s exuberant equine paintings.
Venturans are fiercely protective of their history and have repeatedly saved local landmarks from destruction and energized them with urban cool. As you stroll along Main Street, the buildings unfold like a pop-up book illustrating Ventura’s eclectic, celebrity-studded history. At the corner of Main Street and California Street (C Street to locals) stands the First National Bank building, once the law offices where Erle Stanley Gardner penned his Perry Mason books. Up the street looms the once condemned city hall, a beaux-arts-style pile with neoclassical columns that got a makeover before landing a role in the Jack Nicholson movie The Two Jakes. Locals spared the nearby Top Hat hot dog stand from being paved into a parking lot, thanks to its tasty franks and its status as the site of a crime that prompted the first use of DNA evidence to obtain a court conviction.
In between (and sometimes in) the historic buildings are a potpourri of coffee shops, wine bars, and ocean-inspired clothing and home boutiques – visit B on Main (337 E. Main St., 805-643-9309, b-onmain.com) for beach-themed tableware, accessories, and retro golf signs.
Many of the restoration projects are the work of Mark Hartley, a local resident who’s managed such music stars as Leann Rimes, Vince Gill and Olivia Newton-John. He turned downtown’s rustic old livery stables into shops, offices and a restaurant, Tutti’s. But his crowning achievement is the Watermark (598 E. Main St. 805-643-6800, watermarkonmain.com), a Spanish Revival-slash-Art Deco former bank where you can brunch beneath 1920s murals and faux-wood plaster ceilings, or sip cocktails made with liquor stored in the original bank vault as you lounge on the roof, gazing seaward.
For another taste of Ventura's history, dine at The Sidecar (3029 E. Main St. 805-653-7433, thesidecarrestaurant.com), housed in a 1910 Pullman railroad car. Don’t be fooled by the vintage decor: The food is farm-fresh, unfussy and fabulous. Seduce your appetite with the house-infused lemon drop cocktail, satisfy it with seared scallops on sweet potato puree, and seal the deal with lemon curd cheesecake.
Channel Islands National Park
A ferry ride from Ventura or Oxnard separates the coast – and the crowds – from the Channel Islands (805-658-5730, nps.gov/chis), one of America’s least visited national parks. Your one-hour cruise with Island Packers (1691 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, 805-642-1393, islandpackers.com) is nigh guaranteed to be escorted by hundreds of dolphins arcing just inches from the boat. During migration season (May to October), you might spot blue or gray whales breaching and spouting.
Known as North America’s Galapagos, the five islands are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, 145 of them found nowhere else on Earth. Though ranching and invasive species historically took their toll on native flora and fauna, conservation efforts are returning the islands to their pristine states. The brown pelican and housecat-sized Island Fox, for example, were both rescued from the brink of extinction through Channel Islands-based programs.
For day trips, visit either of the closest islands, Anacapa or Santa Cruz. At 96 square miles, Santa Cruz is the largest isle and offers several hiking trails, accessible beach access for kayakers, and a plethora of sea caves. Anacapa has just 1.5 miles of hiking trails and less convenient kayak access (read: cliff, staircase, really long rope), but if getting up close with sea lions is your goal, paddling this island is your best bet.
Both Anacapa and Santa Cruz are Swiss-cheesed with one of the world’s largest networks of sea caves, ripe for Pirates of the Caribbean-esque exploration. If you plan on paddling them, book with Aqua Sports (111 Verona Ave., Goleta, 800-773-2309, islandkayaking.com), which offers kayaking guides – wise if you want to know which grottos are navigable and which will trap you inside. Painted Cave, the longest sea cave in the world, slices a quarter mile through Santa Cruz, but most caves are short and so narrow you’ll have to put your paddle in the boat and walk your hands along the black, barnacled walls.
Out in the open ocean, you’ll muscle through the tangled sway of kelp forests, with neuron-like stalks and feather-boa fronds. Sea lions play peek-a-boo, wave their flippers in the air and perch on rocks, stretching toward the sky like yoga instructors. Brown pelicans soar overhead, while sky-blue bat rays flap their slippery wings underwater, past purple starfish and garishly orange Garibaldi fish. Leopard sharks – small, speckled and harmless – slink silently in the aquamarine depths.
For the full island experience, bring camping gear, food, and water and spend the night (to reserve a space, call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov). You’ll be serenaded by the arf of sea lions and the Morse Code-squawking of seagulls spelling sentences as they streak by. Come evening, stand at the cliff’s edge, feel the free wind blowin’ through your hair, and watch the limoncello sunset give way to moonshine.
INFO Ventura Convention & Visitors Bureau 101 S. California St., 800-483-6214, ventura-usa.com Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center: 1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, 805-658-5730, nps.gov/chis Getting there: Non-stop flights are available from Phoenix to Santa Barbara (45-minute drive to Ventura) or to Los Angeles (1.5-hour drive to Ventura).