The Perfect Summer Getaway
by Susan Montgomery
What do you look for in the perfect summer getaway? Do you want beautiful beaches, water activities, great food, and maybe even a few wineries? Ventura County West has it all—and much more.
Ventura County West, which includes the charmingly unique cities of Ventura, Oxnard, and Camarillo, is also easily accessible. If you live in LA or fly into LA, it’s only about an hour’s drive north. If you are traveling from almost anywhere in San Diego, Riverside or Orange Counties, the drive won’t be more than two or three hours.
Once you arrive, you will find a thriving agricultural region where just about anything grows. You will also find a pristine coastal location with excellent farm-to-table restaurants, a beautiful harbor village, fascinating museums, a world-class symphony, a wide variety of comfortable accommodations, an enticing wine trail, hiking trails, and five public golf courses. And then, for the more adventuresome nature-lovers, there is beautiful Channel Islands National Park, consisting of five uninhabited islands full of wildlife, just 11 miles offshore. What else could you want in a travel destination? There is bound to be something appealing for everyone in the family.
Let’s say you have a limited amount of time for a mini-vacation—perhaps a long weekend or maybe two or three days during the week. My plan for you includes our activities during the two days my husband and I recently spent in the area; although keep in mind that there is much more to do than what we were able to cover in a short time. (Maybe you’ll decide to stay a week. We already have made plans to return this summer with our family.)
The Embassy Suites Hotel and Resort on Mandalay Bay is a wonderful place to stay, especially if you are traveling with a group or with children. The lush property is tropically landscaped and sits on eight acres of the gorgeous Mandalay Beach. The pool is huge and inviting. Two-room suites are spacious and comfortable, and many have balconies with ocean views. We were all set with two full baths, two TVs, and a relaxing living room and bar set-up. Then there is a full complimentary breakfast each morning (with delicious, made-to-order omelets) and complimentary cocktails each afternoon, featuring made-from-scratch Margaritas. With the beach, the pool, bikes to ride, and a top-notch restaurant and bar, there is really no need to go anywhere else. But it’s hard to stay put when there is so much going on in Ventura County West.
On our first evening, we had our cultural fix when we attended an inspiring performance by the exceptional New West Symphony Orchestra. We were so thrilled to see the orchestra’s world-class conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, conduct performances of Jean Sibelius’ “Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” The featured violinist, Jennifer Frautschi, was exquisite.
We were also enthralled by an innovative approach to art and music that enhanced this performance. Through the “All of the Planets Project,” area artists had each been assigned a planet to represent through their own works of art. We were able to view these works in the lobby of the Oxnard Performing Arts Center and a video of the artwork was shown during the performance as each planet’s movement was played. This imaginative approach to performance reflects the creativity and excellence of this orchestra, which also performs in Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica.
When you plan your trip to the Ventura area, I suggest that you look at the New West Symphony’s schedule on its website and consider planning your trip around one of the superb performances coming up. The new season, beginning next October, features works by Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mendelssohn and many other classical composers. In November, you can even attend a unique “Scottish Fantasy” performance.
The next morning we headed out to the Mullin Automotive Museum, established by car collector Peter Mullin as a tribute to French automotive styling and decorative arts. We were in awe as we toured the Buggati exhibit of early 20th century French automobiles known for their design and beauty. This particular exhibit was closing the day we visited, but the museum’s own extensive collection is also fascinating. I knew my husband, the car aficionado, would love this museum, but I didn’t expect to find it so appealing myself. Yet, I was captivated, too, mainly because of its focus on design and style as an art form. I would highly recommend this museum as a very special visual and historical experience that you will not want to miss, but reservations must be made in advance.
There are quite a few other worthwhile museums to see in the area, including the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Museum at the Camarillo Airport. Featuring beautifully preserved vintage World War II aircraft that still fly, members of the CAF Southern California Wing were our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides to the museum’s collection.
For lunch we visited the Anacapa Brewing Company on Ventura’s bustling Main Street. The owner, Danny Saldana, greeted us and described his commitment to providing tasty, original dishes along with handcrafted ales and lagers, all served with a smile. We enjoyed hearing Danny’s story about how he began as a server in 2000 and worked his way up to becoming the owner of the restaurant in 2007. We started our lunch with a tempting array of appetizers and beer samplers. Then our group ordered a variety of dishes, including Golden Ale Battered Fish and Chips, Teriyaki Salmon Salad, BBQ Chicken Pizza, Fish Tacos, and the famous Brewhouse Burger. We all enjoyed our meals and agreed the food was excellent—definitely many steps above typical pub food.
There are at least fifteen wineries that comprise the Ventura Wine Trail. The warm days, cool evenings, and coastal breezes make the area ideal for vineyards. Wines are also produced with grapes from Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma, and other California wine regions. Some of the wineries are small and provide intimate wine tasting experiences while others, such as the well-known Herzog Wine Cellars, have impressive, spacious tasting rooms.
For a personalized wine tasting experience, we visited the tasting room of Rancho Ventavo Cellars, located in an old Victorian home in the charming Heritage Square in Oxnard. We were greeted by owners George Kilpatrick, who is also the winemaker, and Faye Hawes, who served us a variety of lovely red wines. We tasted a nicely balanced 2005 Merlot made with grapes from Paso Robles and a pleasantly fruity 2007 Merlot with grapes from Santa Barbara. We also enjoyed a Cab/Syrah blend and a Syrah. Some wine tasters in our group savored a Cabernet Sauvignon vertical tasting of five rich red wines.
Tasting these red wines primed our palates for a special dinner at La Dolce Vita Ristorante, a popular Italian/Mediterranean restaurant located just a few steps away in Heritage Square. The personable Executive Chef and Owner, Michelle Kenney, welcomed us and recommended some tempting dishes from her ever-changing, creative menu. We enjoyed the restaurant’s signature Focccia Bread and Bruschetta followed by a choice of crisp greens or tangy minestrone soup. Our menu options included Spinach and Gorgonzola Ravioli in a fresh tomato, basil and white wine vegetable sauce; Chicken Marsala over capellini with vegetables di giorno; Cocoa Rubbed Pork over pappardelle pasta topped with bacon onion jam and sautéed Italian vegetables; and a simply delicious Linguini with white clam sauce. These inventive dishes reflect the chef’s focus on offering guests unique combinations of flavors and fresh ingredients.
Our whale watching adventure the next morning was a highlight of our Ventura experience. We met at the busy Ventura Harbor Village and Marina where the Island Packers offer a variety of exciting cruises, including a trip to Channel Islands National Park and the thrilling whale watching trip we took. We learned that every year Pacific Gray Whales migrate more than 6,000 miles to secluded lagoons in Mexico to breed and then return to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, passing through the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel off the Ventura coastline. From the end of December through March, you can go on a whale-sighting excursion to view these gray whales. During June through September, Blue and Humpback Whales frequently return to feed near the Channel Islands and trips are also available during that time period. The Island Packers’ website will give you all the details you need about schedules and getting tickets for these trips.
Our group of travel writers came well prepared for our four-hour cruise with packed lunches, cameras, rain gear, rubber-soled shoes, and layers of clothes. It was warm when we departed, but we were happy to don our jackets as the trip progressed. We had the option of standing on the top deck, feeling the tingling spray of seawater in our faces, or sitting down below at tables that overlooked the dramatic churning ocean waves as we cruised far out to sea. We were rewarded with glorious sightings of several magnificent gray whales. The excitement aboard our ship was palpable. This is what we came to see. The views are breathtaking and we saw many other sea mammals, including seagulls, pelicans, and dophins that seemed to be performing just for us as they jumped and dipped into the water right off the edge of our boat. A trip to Ventura County would not be complete without a sea excursion through the rich marine habitat of these coastal waters.
The Ventura Harbor Village is also well worth a visit with more than 1300 boat slips, unique shops, dockside restaurants, waterfront hotels, and beautiful beaches.
There are numerous festivals and events held throughout the year in Ventura County West. In the coming summer alone, you can go to a Father’s Day Car Show, Summer Concerts, Ventura Wine Trail Celebration, Fireworks by the Sea, Tequila and Taco Music Festival, Salsa Festival, Greek Festival, and the Ventura County Fair. During the spring, you can even visit the Dallas Cowboys Training Camp. Gourmet Food Trucks and Farmers' Markets are also special ongoing happenings. Details about all that’s going on can be found on the Ventura County West website.
As a final farewell stop at the end of your whirlwind trip, you might want to stop by Camarillo Premium Outlets on your way out of town for some of the best buys around. Then on the way home, you can plan your next trip back to Ventura County West.
Photos by Todd Montgomery. Whale photo by Kevin L. Bailey.