Where is this place?
It’s Ventura County, in particular, the three cities of Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura known as VenturaCountyWest. Because of its agricultural roots and open spaces, the area is light on traffic (most days) and heavy on farm-to-table foods, outdoor activities and lots of old-fashioned California sights and sounds that are a throwback to the more casual 1960s and ‘70s.
Ventura County is often thought of as a place you drive through headed toward Santa Barbara and beyond. We decided it was time to stop and check out its outdoor wonders starting with one of the many pick-your-own farms. Depending on the season, McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, for instance, is one of several area working farms that invite guests to pick their own in-season vegetables. In fall, its pumpkin patch opens to the public. There are canned and bottled items, such as locally produced honey, that you can take home and enjoy once your travels are over.
Along the coast, the area boasts miles of uncrowded beaches. A perfect day can be filled with bike rides, hiking, surfing, kayaking or just soaking up the sun on a beach towel. Like Santa Barbara, the weather in VenturaCountyWest is near ideal year- round. Unlike at Santa Barbara and L.A. beaches, beachside parking is free. This is indicative of the prices in the area in general– lower than Santa Barbara, but with the same ambiance and Mediterranean feel.
Channel Islands National Park
For those who want to venture beyond the shoreline, there is the Channel Islands National Park. Made up of five islands 11 miles offshore, visitors can pick up daily excursion boats from harbors in Ventura and Oxnard and cruise around the islands or disembark and spend the day hiking and exploring. The views from the islands are breathtaking. Even foggy days are a wonder to behold. Depending on the season, visitors can whale-watch (gray whales in winter/spring, blue whales and humpbacks in summer/fall). We saw a number of blue whales, seals and dolphins up close, which made for some great photo ops.
VenturaCountyWest isn’t just for outdoor types. Because of its proximity to agriculture, it’s got some surprisingly unique, independent restaurants with a focus on locally grown produce. Plan a walk down Main Street in Ventura and let your taste buds be your guide. Oxnard and Ventura have beachfront and harbor view dining featuring fresh fish while Camarillo’s Old Town section is a secret find with all sorts of cafes.California’s Central Coast is known worldwide for its wineries. Ventura County usually isn’t included in the discussion but that’s changing. The area established the Ventura County Wine Trail a few years back. Visitors can follow the trail leading to 19 tasting rooms or wineries mostly south of the 101 Freeway. The vintners we spoke with are knowledgeable, friendly and their wines were excellent. Particularly tasty were the varieties poured at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard. One of the only kosher wineries in the U.S., it offers free tours of its bottling process on weekdays and serves up delicious dishes such as seared salmon, braised lamb and skirt steak at its restaurant Tierra Sur.
While VenturaCountyWest isn’t L.A. when it comes to the sheer volume of entertainment and cultural venues, there is still something for just about everyone. Camarillo is the home of the 160-store Premium Outlets (if you consider shopping a cultural experience), the Commemorative Air Force Museum at the Camarillo Airport where you can see vintage WWII airplanes and memorabilia and talk with veterans from the era, and the Camarillo Ranch House, which offers tours of the ranch and ranch house once owned by the city’s namesake, Adolfo Camarillo.For car buffs who love automobiles from the 1920s and 30s, the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard is the place to go. The museum has been featured on numerous television car shows and its collection of classic French automobiles is considered the best in the world. It includes Avions Voisins, Bugattis and Delahayes.
Want to go back a little farther in time? Plan to spend an afternoon at Heritage Square with its 14 restored Victorian homes and structures built in Oxnard between 1876 and 1910. Volunteer docents conduct tours through the buildings on weekends.
For a final California historical infusion, we spent a few hours at the San Buenaventura Mission the last California mission founded by Junipero Serra. The mission and museum are open to the public between sunrise and sundown.
To experience a working harbor, head to Ventura Harbor Village and watch commercial fishing boats bring in their daily catch. Seasonal fish include Ahi tuna, Mahi-Mahi and Pacific albacore. We took a relaxing electric boat ride (you drive yourself) around the harbor where we spotted seals lazily sunning themselves. (They’re cute but apparently, their weight and size are wreaking havoc on the docks.) We bought food to go from one of the village’s restaurants and ate on board. In the evening, we headed to the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club where we laughed to a mix of top-named comedians and newcomers.
Camarillo Visitors Center, http://www.visitcamarillo.com
Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau, http://www.visitoxnard.com
Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau, http://www.ventura-usa.com