Greetings, travel aficionados! Get ready for a little city that packs big adventure. Located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles is sparkling Ventura, California. Steeped in both agricultural and maritime history, this town has something for everyone: romantic time alone with your sweetie, family adventures, or a weekend with your friends is all within reach. I found the city friendly, exciting, and accessible–all at a great price point!
Los Angeles to Ventura
If you can manage to leave Los Angeles before the evening rush hour, you can make it to Ventura in about an hour and a half (It’s about 60 miles). I found the drive delightful in that you get spectacular views of farmland as you leave urban life behind. I loved the sight of rolling hills and strawberry fields as I made my way up US Highway 101. The best news is that if you own a small- or mid-sized car, you can easily make it to Ventura on half a tank of gas. Make sure to have cash handy, because you’ll want to stop at the roadside stands and purchase fresh fruit and produce. Ventura is world famous for its citrus, especially lemons.
For those wishing to hop a direct flight to Ventura, no such luck: Ventura doesn’t have an airport. Your best airport options are Oxnard (Tel.: 805-382-3022; website) and Camarillo (Tel.: 805-388-4372). FYI: Oxnard Airport is about 10 miles away and Camarillo is about 15 miles away. Once you’re on the ground, there are several shuttle services you can take from the airport to your hotel. Just make sure to book in advance: Roadrunner Shuttle (Tel.: 805-389-8196) and Ventura County Airporter (Tel.: 805-650-6600).
Where to Stay
Since Ventura has a beautiful harbor, I wanted to stay as close to the harbor as I could. I must have been a sailor in a previous life, because I love boats! I couldn’t wait to sit out on my hotel room balcony and watch the yachts glide gracefully in and out of the harbor. I was in luck with the location of the Four Points by Sheraton, Ventura Harbor. It offers amazing views of the harbor and fresh sea air. The Four Points offers 106 guest rooms and 13 Marina View Junior Suites. Rates vary by season but are generally around $115 to $175. (Tel.: 805-658-1212)
The rooms are nautically themed and cozy. The mattresses are firm but comfortable, and I had no problem sleeping. Oddly, I was most impressed by the bathroom! It looked like something off a Kohler showroom floor that had been plopped into my room. The sink, mirror, and fixtures were sleek and modern, and honestly, they looked much nicer than the rest of the suite in comparison.
The flat-screen television came with a single gaming controller–heaven help the parents that find themselves in a two kids, one controller debacle. The minifridge wasn’t stocked, nor was it even plugged in. I could see this being an issue for travelers carrying medicine that requires refrigeration. However, the Mr. Coffee machine worked, so I was a happy camper. Overall I was impressed with the Four Points’ effort to keep the rooms, and in this case especially, the bathroom, looking new and fresh.
Ventura has no shortage of lodging options. If you’re not a Sheraton fan, have no fear. Ventura boasts several of the major hotel chains, including Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and Marriott. There are also a few bed-and-breakfast locations to be explored, including the newly renovated Victorian Rose (Tel.: 805-641-1888).
An absolute must for Ventura visitors is a trip with Island Packers. Since 1968 they have been providing transportation to the Channel Islands and unforgettable whale-watching encounters. I highly recommend a day trip to East Santa Cruz Island. It’s a hidden gem among California’s many natural splendors. As you stand on the cliffs of Santa Cruz you could almost swear you were in New Zealand! The views are stunning, and the many trails throughout the island offer hours of hiking.
Camping and Kayaking
Camping and kayaking are popular attractions on the island. Campsites are $15 per site, and all proceeds go directly to keeping Santa Cruz beautiful. It’s about a half-mile trek up a dirt road from the pier to the campgrounds. Outhouse-style restrooms and potable water are available. The park rangers tell me the best seasons for camping are in the spring and early summer when it’s still cool.
Kayaking in the caves around Santa Cruz is very popular. You can bring your own kayak or rent from several outfitters. Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara offers a day trip from $195 per person. According to the park rangers, the kayaking is best here September through early November when the waters are calm and cool. But be prepared: temperatures can soar around that time of year, and they are the hottest months for campers! (Tel.: 805-899-4925, ext. 1; website).
If sailing is more your style, Island Packers offer several trips that simply cruise. December through March is gray whale season; June through September is blue and humpback whale season. Although I didn’t see any whales on my trip, I was treated to dolphins and sea lions. Sea legs are required–you’ll be on the open water going at least 20 knots (30 mph) for over an hour, and the waters can be choppy. I might have a sailing spirit, but even I got seasick. Be prepared by purchasing some Bonine at the harbor before your trip.
Fares and Discounts
Day-trip fares vary by the season and book up quickly on the weekends. Don’t just show up; check in advance and make reservations. Generally, for a day trip to Santa Cruz (3-6 hours on the island) fares are about $56 for adults and $39 for children ages 3-12. Adults ages 55+ receive a $5 discount.
Campers to the island can expect transportation to run around $75 for adults and $54 for kids. Keep in mind that no bag can weigh over 45 pounds, and there is an additional fee for kayaks and surfboards ($18-26). Also, I saw several campers hauling their own cases of beer at no additional charge. Good times will be had by all!
Island Packers is located in the Ventura Harbor Village, where there is plenty of FREE PARKING! (Tel.: 805-642-1393.)
If you’re looking for an adventure on dry land, head over to Limoneira. Since 1893 Limoneira has been a Ventura agricultural landmark. To this day Limoneira is the largest lemon provider in the United States and a leading producer of avocados and other citrus fruits. Lemons grow year-round here, so whenever you choose to stop by there will be something going on. Kids love the Packing House Tour, which is an hour long and includes an up-close look at the massive lemon conveyor belt ($20 adults, $5 children, $10 seniors). Another tour available is the Ranch Tour, which includes a trolley ride through the orchards and a look into Limoneira’s sustainable practices such as solar farming.
My favorite part of Limoneira is its open door policy on bocce ball! Free bocce ball courts are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is plenty of gorgeous green grass around, so bring a picnic, relax under the shade of lemon trees, and get hooked on bocce! (Tel.: 866-321-9995; website.)
Where to Eat
Ventura is like one giant gastro-pub. Everywhere you go there is something yummy to eat and drink. Plus, music is a huge component of Ventura nightlife. If you step out on a Saturday evening, just about every restaurant, wine bar, and coffee shop in town will have some type of live music performance going on. My favorite “out on the town” dining spots are Watermark on Main and the Side Car Restaurant. They’re not peanut-shells-on-the-floor, T-shirt-and-jeans places, but I’d highly recommend them to anyone looking for a memorable evening.
Watermark on Main
If a wild sushi bar and a plush steak house got together, the Watermark would be the product. The menu’s contemporary swagger and refined sensibility mingle seamlessly to make the Watermark the go-to destination in Ventura for fine dining. Inventive raw sushi dishes are on one menu page, and the perfect traditional steak is on the next. Main courses range in price from $21 for the seafood risotto to $44 for the lobster pot pie. I’m pretty allergic to lobster–a few bites equals a nasty rash for me. But the lobster pot pie looked so good I seriously considered abandoning all regard for my personal safety–I just wanted to dig in!
After dinner, make sure to head up to W20, the rooftop bar and lounge. There you’ll find an entirely different scene. It’s like going from Italian leather loafers to sexy stilettos in one flight of stairs! Make sure to try the lemon-drop martini. It’s a house specialty made with locally grown lemons and a special liquor, Ventura Limoncello, produced by a local family. (Tel.: 805-643-6800; website).
Side Car Restaurant
Opened in 2003 by owner-chef Tim Kilcoyne, the Side Car made its mark on Ventura’s heart by locally sourcing menu ingredients. Remember the fresh lemons and produce I talked about being for sale along the roadside? Chef Kilcoyne changes his menus seasonally to make sure his dishes are always fresh and in season and include locally harvested produce.
Menu prices range from $15 for the signature Side Car burger to $28 for the pepper-crusted filet mignon. I tasted both, and they were delish! However, the star of Chef Kilcoyne’s menu had to be the Ventura blood orangacello[Is this spelling correct? Orangecello, the menu had it with an “a” but I checked the website. Good catch!] BBQ brushed pork ribs. The makers of Ventura Limoncello whipped up a special blood-orange liqueur that gives the pork ribs a sweet, juicy citrus flavor.
Reservations are required, and like most places in Ventura, there is live music on Saturday nights. The Side Car isn’t a huge restaurant, thus the tables are a little close to the music speakers for my taste. If you like your personal space and don’t want to shout over the music, ask for a table away from the performance area. (Tel.: 805-653-7433).
Uptown Style in Downtown Ventura
A great way to round out any Ventura vacation is with an afternoon spent strolling around downtown. Ventura has earned a reputation for top-notch thrift stores as well as trendy boutiques. Plus you’ll get swept up in the history of the Mission San Buenaventura, California’s oldest continuously operating church. And you’ll get a kick out of the quirky Museum of Ventura County. (Tel.: 805-653-0323).
Don’t miss B on Main, with beach-themed gifts from cheeky to chic. (Tel.: 805-643-9309; website) Another spot to check out is Aphrodite’s; like the name suggests, it’s a lingerie and gift store. They carry Felina bras, which were featured on Oprah! Men shouldn’t miss the chance to pick up something special for their sweeties. Women can’t miss the complimentary bra fittings. Did you know that over 80 percent of women wear the wrong size bra? Once you get in the right size you’ll feel like a whole new woman! (Tel.: 805-652-0082)
If you really like a good deal, stop by Great Pacific Iron Works. It’s the first Patagonia store location and won’t disappoint. Patagonia has created a culture of “work hard, play hard,” with an overriding theme of environmental consciousness. Most of their items feature organic materials, and they’re always striving for even greater sustainability. The thing that impressed me most was the way employees genuinely enjoyed engaging with customers; swapping personal stories about mountain climbing and surfing, it makes you feel like you’re part of a very cool outdoorsy family!
So what’s the good deal? Patagonia has a lifetime guarantee on everything they sell. That means these will be the last jeans you ever need to buy. Five, even ten years from now, if you bust a zipper or tear a pocket, you can return them–or if they’re your favorites, Patagonia will repair them! (Tel.: 805-643-6074).
Anacapa Brewing Company
After a big afternoon of shopping, hit up Anancapa Brewing Company. Located on Main Street, this microbrewery is putting Ventura on the beer lover’s map. They have four to five house brews on tap at all times and three guest taps that feature other local brewers. It’s nice to see that Anacapa isn’t afraid to share the love!
When you stop in, I’d recommend ordering a flight so you can try a taste of everything. I loved the Two Tree Double IPA: it’s deliciously hoppy, not overly bitter, and smoother than the other IPA in the flight, Green Flash West Coast. I also really dug the Mirage Rye Ale and the Pinniped Porter, which is so yummy, you could blast through it like candy.
If you’re feeling more like a glass of wine than a pint of beer, you can’t miss with Paradise Pantry. Owners Kim and Tina are on hand to answer your questions and offer up free taste tests of anything that catches your eye. The menu changes from day to day, but you can expect inventive sandwiches and of course, wine and cheese! (Tel.: 805-641-9440).
For More Info
The best way to discover Ventura is to go see it for yourself! For more information, stop by the Ventura Visitor’s Center at 101 South California Street. (Tel.: 800-333-2989).