Budget Travel

A Wild & Beautiful California Weekend

Ventura Harbor is the heart of Ventura County Coast. Just up the California coast from Malibu and comprising the cities of Camarillo, Oxnard, Hueneme, and Ventura, plus the five Channel Islands (known as the “American Galapagos” for their natural beauty and rare animal and plant species), Ventura County Coast is an easy weekend escape. Head over to Ventura Harbor for dining on super-fresh seafood and shopping. You can also fish off the historic pier or get out on the water in a rented kayak. Craving a less adrenaline-filled ride? The harbor village is also home to a cute carousel you’ll love.

Ventura’s Main Street mingles small-town charm with Spanish colonial architectural styles, all in a decidedly contemporary scene where you’ll find cool art and the kind of cutting-edge, locally sourced cuisine you’d expect from one of California’s prime wine and food destinations. Downtown Ventura is home to artisan chefs who focus on the region’s incredible seafood and fresh-from-the-farm produce.

You don't have to know how to surf to love Surfers Point Park. The lovely little stretch of sand is a mecca for board surfers and windsurfers, but we've always had a great time watching the fun from a comfy picnic table while feasting on local artisanal bread and cheese.

A short drive down Highway 1 from Ventura, the city of Oxnard’s Seafresh Grill serves up freshly sourced delights like fried oysters and an amazing raw bar, plus outdoor dining on Channel Islands Harbor in good weather. (Insider tip: The weather here, between the Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean in Southern California is almost always perfect.) The harbor also offers the opportunity to go sailing and kayaking (or if your arms aren’t quite up to paddling, rent a paddle boat or electric boat), and when you’re ready for some quiet time in the sun, you can hit Oxnard Beach Park.

Brophy Bros. Restaurant & Clam Bar, in Ventura Harbor, is one of our favorite spots for fresh seafood, clams, signature Bloody Marys, and brimming bowls of New England clam chowder that rival any we’ve tasted on either coast.

Dig into the mezze platter for two at The Greek Mediterranean Steak & Seafood in Ventura Harbor. The restaurant not only serves up traditional Greek fare with an upscale flare (filet mignon souvlaki!), but even showcases belly dancing and Greek folk dancing on weekends.

Camarillo, a short drive down the 101 from Ventura, is home to an excellent Commemorative Air Force WWII Aviation Museum where you’ll find classic aircraft that celebrates the achievements of the Greatest Generation on weekends. Camarillo, best known for its Premium Outlets (160 designer and name-brand shops), is a destination in its own right with great wine bars and brewpubs in its historic Old Town, the opportunity to tour a restored ranch house, and the Channel Islands Art Gallery. When it’s time to rest your head in Camarillo, Bella Capri Inn & Suites is a boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town.

Channel Islands National Park is perhaps Ventura County Coast’s “marquee” attraction, but you can start your exploration of the islands without leaving the mainland, at the park’s visitors center in Ventura. The center includes an excellent bookstore, displays devoted to the marine life of the islands, exhibits that focus on each of the five islands, and a 25-minute film, “A Treasure in the Sea,” that you should definitely make time for (it’s shown throughout the day).

Oxnard is a “gateway” to the Channel Islands, with service from Channel Islands Harbor. The city is also home to the Channel Islands Maritime Museum (featuring great models of sailing ships that the kids will love).

Channel Islands National Park is just 11 miles offshore, but its five distinct islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) have been isolated from the mainland for so many thousands of years (even today the islands are accessible only by ferry, small plane, or a forbiddingly challenging kayak paddle) that they are host to unique species of animals and plants, and even the source of archeological discoveries like nowhere else in the world. Each island offers the opportunity to literally “get away from it all,” with hiking, camping, snorkeling, kayaking, and incredible birdwatching. Two things you can’t do here, though, are ride public transportation (there isn’t any) or ride your bike (they are not allowed on any of the five islands). Book a trip from Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor with Island Packers or Channel Islands Outfitters.

Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Park is an unforgettable sight as you approach it on the water. As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial year in 2016, we are psyched to visit the islands that comprise one of the wildest and most beautiful (not to mention slightly lesser known) parks in the U.S.

Insider tip: You must visit Channel Islands Kayak Center. Ask for Mike (or one of the other knowledgeable staffers) to take you on a tour of Oxnard harbor or, if you're feeling more adventurous and know what you're doing, out to explore the islands themselves. Oh, and that cute critter to the right is just one of the friendly denizens you may find yourself face-to-face with.

Ventura’s downtown packs a diverse cultural scene into a small package, including live theater, the Museum of Ventura County, the charming San Buenaventura Mission, and the 10-day Ventura Music Festival. Overlooking downtown stands a sculpture of Junipero Serra, who was not only the father of the Spanish missions in California but also the first to bring European winemaking to California. Ventura County Coast is now home to several acclaimed wineries, such as Herzog, Four Brix, and Cantara, that are giving their better-known neighbors to the north some tasty competition.

Once you’ve eaten your fill and shopped till you drop in Ventura, the beach trail is a good place to work off the calories. A scenic bike trail can take you to Surfer’s Point, Ventura Pier, and San Buenaventura State Beach. There are ample opportunities to rent cycles in town.

Visitors love dining on Ventura’s fresh seafood, and it can be especially fun to watch the fishing boats depart early in the morning or return in the afternoon with the day’s catch. Little ones will especially love the wharf-side action and the chance to ask fishermen “What’d you catch?”

Thirsty? Anacapa Brewing Company, in Ventura, serves up hand-crafted ales and lagers produced in their 12-tank brewery. Can’t decide which one to sip? The brewery offers tasting flights to give you a variety from light to dark to choose from. Hungry? Tuck into the restaurant’s Two-Story Brewhouse Burger, Szechwan Shrimp Skewers, or their renowned fish & chips.

Sure, the Iron & Resin Garage in Ventura sells cool T-shirts and equipment for motorcycle enthusiasts, surfers, and skateboarders, but the shop’s retro-chic collection of motorcycles and artwork also make it one of the coolest environments in downtown. Downtown Ventura’s boutiques, antique shops, consignment shops, and even the souvenir shops along the Harbor, will keep you entertained and send you home with unique keepsakes.

Moqueca, A Brazilian restaurant on Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, is named for a style of clay-pot cooking popular on Brazil’s east coast. We heartily recommend that you wash down the exquisite entrée with another traditional Brazilian favorite, the Caipirinha cocktail made with sugar-cane brandy and fruit juices.

The Ventura pier has been drawing visitors since 1872. While it was once the center of the region’s commercial activity, it now draws folks for its fishing, gorgeous views, and, of course, an unforgettable Pacific sunset. (The pier is currently closed for repairs and will likely re-open in May.)

We’re guessing that at the end of a packed day of coastal exploration, dining, wine-tasting, and shopping, you’re ready to sink into a comfy pillow at one of Ventura’s stylish lodgings, including Victorian Rose Bed & Breakfast, Inn on the Beach, Bella Maggiore Inn, and many more.

On this easy road trip along California’s iconic Highway 101, a world of farm-fresh cuisine, unforgettable waterfront vistas, and one of America’s wildest and most inspiring National Parks beckons in Ventura County Coast.

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