Tourists know about the treasures found around Los Angeles, but just 65 miles north lies one of the best kept secrets on the West Coast. The little seaside town of Oxnard offers almost everything that you can find in its southern neighbor, but none of the crowds.
The area boasts two harbors located just five miles apart, offering every water recreation you can imagine: boating, jet skiing, whale watching, gondola gliding, kayaking, sports fishing. All of that is skirted with seven miles of pristine beaches, picturesque sand dunes and an historic downtown.
It’s duly championed for what it doesn’t have: traffic, long lines, weeks-in-advance reservations, swarming beachcombers and wallet-busting prices.
But the truly unique thing about Oxnard is its proximity to the uninhabited Channel Islands, located just an hour off the coast.
Eight islands, sculptured by faulting and volcanism, were once tethered to the land. Five of them are part of the National Park system. The nearest, Anacapa Island, features some of the best diving with its deep sea caves, kelp forests and crystalline water. The sea life is so abundant it’s not unusual for a diver to spy a cormorant diving past him on its way to breakfast. More than 145 species of plants and animals thrive on these islands that are not found anywhere else.
The islands permit camping for up to 14 days, but equipment (including water) must be carried in — except for Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands, where water is available.
Pygmy mammoths once roamed the rocky terrain as did the Chumash Indians. For years pirates commandeered Santa Cruz Island (the largest) for lucrative smuggling, and it was the site of one of California’s first wineries.
Crossing the channel you can spot bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins skipping along the wake of the ship, seals bobbing in the briny, and whales blowing geysers of water through their blowholes. These waters host the world’s largest congregation of blue whales, sighted June through September; the grey whales predominate December through May.
Cruises may be arranged through Island Packers. 805-642-1393. There are all-day, half-day, evening, dinner and harbor tours, all at various prices. A half-day cruise to Anacapa runs $37 for adults, $27 for kids. An all-day trek to Santa Cruz costs $59 for grown-ups and $41 for children.
For bicep-building kayak trips, tours, lessons or rentals try Channel Islands Kayak Center (805) 984-5995, www.cikayak.com.
The Channel Islands Maritime Museum provides a dandy little visit to our seafaring past. It’s open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in the harbor. 805-984-6260, adults $5.
Downtown Oxnard is singular in several ways. For one, it offers free parking all over town. Try THAT in Los Angeles. Sequestered on South A Street is Heritage Square where 15 historic structures have been relocated to a city block and restored. Since the area was settled because of its abundant agriculture, most of the dwellings are historic farmhouses. Guided tours are available Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Adults $5. 805-483-7960.
The one-time Andrew Carnegie Library looks like a miniature Parthenon plopped in the middle of downtown. Donated to the city in 1906 it’s seen a variety of uses, but today it houses Oxnard’s Carnegie Art Museum.
Specializing in California artists, the museum changes collections quarterly, but one small room is dedicated to local artists. Located at Plaza and Centennial parks, admission is free.
Just 31 miles northeast sits Simi Valley, which houses the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, well worth the trek. Adults $16, youths $9. Daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 800-410-8354.
The loamy soil of the Oxnard Plain proved perfect for sugar beets, and in the 1900s the Oxford Brothers built the largest sugar-beet processing plant in the nation. The area is still rich with produce — strawberries, leafy vegetables and the explosive lima bean. Eleven percent of the lima beans consumed in the U.S. still come from Oxnard. To celebrate their agricultural heritage Oxnard holds a Strawberry Festival in May and a muy picante Salsa Festival in July.
There’s a bountiful choice of inns and hotels in the area. The Residence Inn by Marriott features a scrumptious complimentary breakfast and a golf course next door. 800-331-3131. Prices range between $129-$149.
Embassy Suites is the only Southern California suite-hotel situated smack on the beach. Prices range $159-$264. 805-984-2500. The Vagabond Inn, near downtown, welcomes furry little tourists — and dogs too, $74-$129. 800-522-1555.
There are great places to eat and most of the restaurants feature farm-to-table victuals. Moqueca Brazilian Cuisine, in Channel Islands Harbor, specializes in seafood stewed in a tangy tomato sauce, simmered in handmade clay pots.
The Kitchen downtown is deceiving. It looks like a brew pub, and proffers beers and ales, but it serves some delicious grub, too. It’s located at the corner of Fifth and A streets.
If you’re game for breakfast or lunch, you’re in luck. BG’s Cafe, favored by locals, sports some of the best food in town, and so reasonably priced. Try the Chinese chicken salad — the best ever. 428 S. A St.
La Dolce Vita, located in Heritage Square, brings a touch of Italy to these Pacific shores. The Waterside Restaurant in Channel Island Harbor offers entertainment every night but Tuesdays. For nightlife try the Lookout Bar and Grill, The Shores, Pirates Grub ‘n Grog or the Beachcomber Tavern.
There are 22 award-winning wineries in the area, though the grapes are not generally grown here.
Herzog Wine Cellars, located in an industrial park, is the nation’s largest kosher winery, adjacent to its Tierra Sur restaurant. Tastings every afternoon but Saturday.
You’ll find Rancho Ventavo Cellars housed in an elegant Victorian in Heritage Square. Tastings Fridays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Strey Cellars presents what they call “edgy” tastings Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Most wineries charge $12 for tastings.
If you go
Information: www.visitoxnard.com, 800-269-6273.
Farmers markets: Thursday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Plaza Park C and Fifth streets; 805-247-0197. Channel Island Harbor Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 805-985-4852
Oxnard Historic District: infooxnardhistoricdistric.com 805-483-7960
Moonlight or daytime gondola rides: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Gondola Paradiso, $90 for first two passengers. gondoliergondolaparadiso.com
Heritage Square: 715 S. A St., www.heritagesquareoxnard.com
Carnegie Art Museum: 424 S. C St. Thursdays-Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. 805-385-8157
Airports: nearest airports are Los Angeles, the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and Santa Barbara. Car rentals run around $40 per day for midsize cars. Airport shuttle (800) 247-7919
Wine tours: Explore Wines, local door-to-door service $105 per person. 805-364-2397, lisaexplorewines.com
The Gull Wings Children’s Museum: 418 W. Fourth St., 805-483-3005. Adults $6, kids $5, closed on Mondays
Herzog Wine Cellars: kosher, 3201 Camino del Sol, 805-983-1560
Tall ship cruise: three-hour sail aboard a tall ship. 805-436-7805
Amtrak hub: in Oxnard 800-872-7245
Weather: Warm season, July 2 to Oct. 20 with an average daily high above 71 degrees. Cold season lasts from Dec. 6 to April 2 with an average daily high below 65 degrees.