California – hmmmm – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Napa Valley…?
Right, most of us have never heard of a surprisingly appealing region just an hour’s drive up the coast from the madness of LA. VenturaCountyWest encompasses rich farmland, rugged mountains, miles of sandy beaches and the unique Channel Islands. This is a destination brimming with possibilities from wine tasting to whale watching, sun bathing to super shopping, heritage touring to heavenly dining.
Three main communities present the different faces of the region. Ventura showcases its close relationship with the sea, fanning out from the lively Ventura Harbor Village with its waterfront promenade, shops and restaurants and embracing the beaches, surf culture and gateway to the natural wonders of Channel Islands National Park.
Oxnard also stands by the sea and its busy Channel Islands Harbor offers water sports of every kind. But the feeling here is more stately, with a remarkable display of Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, many gathered in the lush gardens of Heritage Square. Hub of the Ventura County Wine Trail, Oxnard blends the flavours of many cultures and styles.
Inland, Camarillo shows the influence of its agricultural surroundings and a rich colonial history. A dream destination for golfers, who enjoy year-round play at welcoming public courses, and shoppers, who enjoy year-round play at the farmers market and premium outlet shops.
VenturaCountyWest is the other California.
By The Sea
Winter weary Canadians, families travelling with kids and active singles share a common bond when it comes to sun, sand and waves. VenturaCountyWest provides all the surfing, paddling, shelling and fishing anyone could hope for on a California vacation.
Many activities centre on the area’s wonderful beaches and waterfronts. If you’re looking to kick back, head to Oxnard Beach Park or McGrath State Beach Park. But if you’re itching to ride the waves, Ventura is your destination, with beach access from Ventura Harbor to Surfer’s Point.
In Channel Islands Harbor (Oxnard) you’ll find sailing, including adventures aboard the tall ship Bill of Rights, kayaking, boat tours and sport fishing. Ventura Harbor offers both land and sea discoveries like exploring Ventura Harbor Village or paddling around the harbour, while anglers enjoy casting a line from the beautifully un-commercial Ventura Pier.
Even in Camarillo you’re only 15 minutes from the beach and you don’t have to get wet to appreciate the dramatic view of the Pacific you’ll find at Point Mugu State Park on Pacific Coast Highway 1.
Being so close to LA, you’d be forgiven for picturing VenturaCountyWest as little more than an extension of urban sprawl and maybe slightly less packed freeways. But proximity to the sea coupled with a number of local, state and national parks, makes this a surprisingly great destination for getting back to nature.
Bird watchers can take an easy ride past a bird sanctuary along the Ventura Bike Trail; hike from McGrath State Beach to McGrath Lake, trying to spot some of the more than 245 species that make the park one of the best bird watching areas in California, or join an excursion to the Channel Islands and add sea birds to their life lists.
The isolated Channel Islands offer a host of wild discoveries for hikers and kayakers as well, including wildflowers, inhabitants of intertidal pools and seals and sea lions hauled out on the rocks. Transportation to the islands is available from both Ventura Harbor and Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor.
Another option is to join a wildlife tour in Channel Islands Harbor and paddle close to starfish, crabs, sea lions, dolphins, seals and a multitude of marine birds. Or head out to sea for a close encounter with gray whales from mid-December through mid-March, blue and humpback whales during the summer and dolphins year-round.
Culture & Cuisine
A region set in fertile farm country with the Pacific lapping its shores and a richly multicultural population is bound to attract top chefs who work magic with abundant local produce and seafood. The restaurants of VenturaCountyWest present the flavours of California, Mexico, South America, the Mediterranean and the Far East in surroundings that fit every mood and budget.
Pairing culture and cuisine is as easy as winding up a leisurely browse among the renovated Victorian and Craftsman-style homes-turned-businesses collected in Oxnard’s Heritage Square with a four-star meal in one of those spectacular former dwellings.
Or fly in the face of convention and head to the Camarillo Airport for a whopping great breakfast at the Waypoint Café to gear up for a tour of the Commemorative Air Force Museum.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, take the opportunity for a glimpse into the early days of Mexican land grants in the beautifully restored Victorian Queen Anne-style Camarillo Ranch House, authentic right down to the period wallpaper.
You could fill whole days with the heritage theme, stopping by the San Buenaventura Mission, the last California mission founded by Junipero Serra; the 160-year-old Monterey-style adobe home in Olivas Adobe Historical Park, both Ventura landmarks; or the Mullin Automotive Museum that celebrates the Art Deco era.
But you’ll need to save time for other cultural icons like the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura and the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard; and the Carnegie Art Museum and the New West Symphony, both in Oxnard. Wrap up the evening with appies and a beer at a brew pub or tapas and a glass of California red at one of Camarillo’s destination wine bars.
Browse and Buy
Even shop-o-phobics can’t resist the call of something new when they’re on vacation. VenturaCountyWest provides so much scope, from watching artists at work and shopping for original works to cruising the outlet stores for, well, everything.
Oxnard presents great variety with national name brands in the Esplanade Center offset by an array of interesting small boutiques and specialty shops. This is the place to check out hand-made items at the crafter co-op and authentic Mexican wares at La Gloria’s Mexican market.
Outlet shoppers rejoice – and get ready for a marathon. In Camarillo, the Camarillo Premium Outlets® complex is so expansive that it actually takes up three centers.
Ventura is the choice for a more intimate and specialized shopping experience. If you’re looking to add the mystique of time to your décor or collection, the many antique shops clustered in the Main Street area are the place for one-of-a-kind finds at less than breathtaking prices.
Harbor Village in Ventura offers a more picturesque outing. Between popping into small shops to browse for souvenirs, books, gifts, artisan wares, art and beach gear, you can watch the complicated dance of the boats moving in and out of the marina.
Four days a week, VenturaCountyWest connects with its agricultural roots at Farmers’ Markets in Midtown and Downtown Ventura, Downtown Oxnard, Old Town Camarillo and Channel Islands Harbor. Shop for bountiful seasonal produce, artisan cheeses, gourmet sauces, craft items and flowers.
Golf Ventura County West
Affordable fees and hassle-free tee times welcome golfers to the public courses of VenturaCountyWest. With signature California mountain and ocean views, these outstanding courses lay out a challenge for every skill level.
Step into classic 1930s-style on the 5,826-yard Buenaventura course in Ventura where stately trees line the parkland fairways and shot makers delight in aiming for design features of a bygone era. Nearby, tee up for a round on the 18-hole championship Olivas Links. Designed by Forrest Richardson, this 6,818-yard course has repeatedly been named Best Municipal Course in the Nation by Golf Week magazine.
River Ridge in Oxnard provides two unique golfing experiences. Distracting ocean views feature large among the hazards on the 6,777-yard Vineyard Course, known for its wide fairways, five lakes spanning the back nine and a highlight par-3 “island” hole. The 7,120-yard Victoria Lakes Course presents its own test with three hectares of water and an Amen Corner on holes 12, 13 and 14.
Surrounded by lush avocado and citrus groves, the 6,813-yard Sterling Hills course in Camarillo takes full advantage of the area’s strong natural features. At Camarillo Springs, the fairways and greens are laid out around the towering rock formations of Conejo Mountain and the water features that give the 6,921-yard course its name.
Ventura County Wine Trail
Discover premium California wines on a leisurely drive along the Ventura County Wine Trail. Linking the wineries of Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura, this route is ideal for daytrips or extended tours that let you fully indulge in the cuisine and accommodations of wine country.
Plan a self-guided tour or, if you just can’t bear to spit, leave the driving to the professionals. Daily wine tours depart from the Ventura Visitors Centre and the California Visitors Centre in Oxnard, or book an outing through a private company like Ventura Wine Tours. One-night, weekend and weeklong deals are available through the Ventura County Wine Trail.
Whatever your travel arrangements, you’re sure to meet interesting winemakers in surroundings that range from ranch-style to high Victorian. You’ll also sip a remarkable number of varietals. Originating from countries like France, Italy, Spain and Austria, these Old World grapes are transformed into unmistakably New World wines, especially the big California reds.
Many of Ventura County’s award-winning wineries are family-owned and operated. Grapes are estate or locally grown, some are certified organic and many are handpicked before being lovingly crafted into unique wines.
Sample these vintages in modest on-site or elegant city-centre tasting rooms. Then pair your favourites with a picnic lunch on the winery grounds or a gourmet meal at one of Ventura County’s fine restaurants. www.venturacountywinetrail.com
Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries
Channel Islands National Park
Explore nature like you’ve never seen it before – coastal California as it once was. Located 17 kilometres off shore, the Channel Islands, like the Galapagos, exist in isolation, allowing species of plants and animals to develop as they have nowhere else on Earth.
Start your discoveries at the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura. Along with a bookstore and exhibits that showcase the individual character of each of the five islands, the 25-minute movie A Treasure in the Sea provides a good overview to help plan your park visit.
Hikers find trails on all of the islands. Some require a steep ascent from the landing area (steps provided on Anacapa), others take serious stamina, but then reward the hiker with hidden treasures like an elephant seal rookery. In season the sights include carpets of wildflowers and there are always stunning views.
Guided interpretive tours include walks to undisturbed tide pools where the lush intertidal algal and plant growth provides habitat for many marine animals and strange and wonderful invertebrate creatures lie beneath. Kayakers enjoy a completely different perspective.
Wildlife abounds on and around the islands. Go whale watching or book a three-hour wildlife cruise through Island Packers and get a close look at sea lions, seals, dolphins and ocean birds.
For those who want to extend their visit, camping is available year round on all five islands. www.nps.gov/chis
Ronald Reagan Library & Museum
Regardless of your political views, the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum opens a unique window on momentous events of the 20th century.
The invaluable documents contained in the presidential library are not for everyone, but few can resist the opportunity to walk around the 2,875-kilogram, three-metre tall section of the Berlin Wall, with its butterfly graffiti on the “West” side and the stark grey concrete of the “East” side, that Reagan stood beside on April 12, 1990, as he declared, “Tear down this wall!”
And the curious kid in all of us has to peek inside a real Air Force One – the plane that carried six U.S. presidents including Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes. Also contained in the Air Force One pavilion are vehicles used in presidential motorcades, a Marine One helicopter and the actual Irish pub from Ballyporeen, Ireland, that Reagan visited on a diplomatic trip in 1984. It now serves as the museum’s snack shop.
Using the most up to date technology, the museum encourages interaction through hands-on exhibits and a unique device that not only provides audio commentary, but also allows you to take photos and video that you can email to yourself and share on FaceBook, YouTube and Twitter.
Located in Simi Valley, just a half-hour drive east of Camarillo, the must-visit complex commands a hilltop with sweeping panoramas of the southland. www.reaganfoundation.org
Whale watching, January - April
Celebration of the Whales Festival (Oxnard), March
Ventura Music Festival (Ventura), May
California Strawberry Festival (Oxnard), May
Camarillo Fiesta & Street Fair (Camarillo), July
Old Town MusicFest (Camarillo), September
California Beer Festival (Ventura), September
Autumn Historic Homes Tours (Oxnard), September
Tamale Festival & Christmas Parade (Oxnard), December
Ventura Winter Wine Walk (Ventura), December