By: Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
Ventura County is on the map for visitors to the Reagan Library in Simi, but many Southern Californians would be hard put to think of other reasons to spend a few days there. In truth, it is one of the most underrated places in the entire state (and visitors will be impressed by the nearly 300 days of sunshine). Some cities like Oxnard have visitor sites, while you can search smaller ones such as Ojai on TripAdvisor for things to do.
We started with what should be its most famous destination, but which few have actually set foot on, Channel Islands National Park https://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/island-transportation.htm. It is the least-visited of all the national parks, even though the nearest of its five islands, Anacapa (which is actually three islets), is just off the coast of Ventura (the others are in Santa Barbara County). You can only get there with Island Packers (see the link for reservations and things you can do on each island). We went to 5-mile-long East Anacapa just before it was to be closed for renovations February-June 2022. You need to be in good condition because the landing site is at a cliff, there is no beach, and have to climb 157 steep steps to get to the top. Boots or rugged shoes are best because the moderately inclined trails are somewhat rocky and sometimes wet. We had to check in at Island Packers in Ventura by 9 a.m. for a 9:30 departure. You can camp for multiple nights, snorkel to a sunken steamship, go kayaking, or swim (you will see lots of fish in this marine preserve, but there is no fishing).
A good place to start is the island’s small visitors center, which has exhibits about its flora and fauna (hundreds unique to the island), as well as its history (the one on the mainland is often not open before tours leave or after they return). The self-guided paths are marked at significant points, such as to view of some of the archipelago’s 25,000 sea lions and an archaeological site marked by bits of shells left by the Chumash Indians (who lived there starting at least 5,000 years ago and their descendents still visit to celebrate their culture). On the way back, we were delighted when 1,000 dolphins (there are an estimated 25,000 in the preserve) accompanied us on all sides.
Back on the mainland for another day, we consulted the City of Ventura’s visitor site https://visitventuraca.com/. We had planned to go to the Ventura Museum, which covers everything from the science to the arts of the region, but it was unexpectedly closed. That gave us more time walking along many blocks of E. Main St., where cars are banned (one could easily get lost here browsing for a week).
The downtown is packed with specialty retailers and just along Main you’ll find three surfboard shops and four independent bookstores, three of them specializing in used and rare volumes(Bank of Books, Calico Cat, Abednego), while the recently opened Timbre Books offers the best of the new.
Ecugreen has one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly jewelry pieces and clothing handcrafted in Ecuador. On a side street, we discovered House of Stone http://www.houseofstoneinc.us/, one of the world’s leading suppliers of custom sculptures, including one of an angel that was about to be shipped to a top Paris hotel, and other fine art originals (see photo).
Most notable is the astonishing number of thrift stores, many benefiting nonprofits. There are also many consignment, vintage, and antique retailers, such as Treasure Hunters, which had a full suit of armor in the window. Times Remembered has a modest storefront, but is a virtual warehouse of collectibles, including classic toys, records, posters, and dolls (such as the handmade Native American figures, all of whom are looking to the side, since staring was considered disrespectful).
Mission Basilica San Buenaventura https://sanbuenaventuramission.org/visitors/mission-tours, also on Main, was founded in 1782 by Father Junipero Serra, the ninth and last of his missions in California. He was a remarkable individual who walked 21,000 miles from Vera Cruz, Mexico, and throughout California, despite an injured leg. A video about his life uses experts to counter the claims that he mistreated Native Americans: in fact, he was far ahead of his time in drawing up a bill of rights to protect them (Serra was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015). The museum has artifacts from its history, there are daily services in the basilica, and there is a self-guided tour of the complex, which features a beautiful garden with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by flowers. On a wall along the sidewalk in front of the mission is the history of the city that grew around it depicted in hand-painted tiles.
The Mullin Automotive Museum https://mullinautomotivemuseum.com/ in Oxnard is an internationally-renowned museum that is far beyond your usual collection of classic cars. The Art Deco styling and craftsmanship of luxury vehicles in the 1920s and 30s is on display from legendary makers like Renault, Citroen , Bugatti, and Peugot (the photo is of the 1937 Delahaye Type 135M Cabriolet, with a streamlined handmade body by master coachbuilders Figoni and Falaschi). Accompanying the vehicles are furniture, sculptures, and art from the period. Upstairs are winners of the 24-hour Le Mans races. Reviewers on TripAdvisor give Mullin a rare 5-star rating, even for those who are not auto buffs. Sign up for a guided tour by a docent who will provide details beyond the signs.
The Stagecoach Inn Museum https://stagecoachinnmuseum.com/ in Newbury Park is a five-acre complex centered on a former grand hotel that was a stop on the stagecoach route. Costumed docents can lead you on a guided tour of the inn as it might have been in 1876. In the basement is a collection of Chumash artifacts, while the main floor is a recreation of the way the hotel originally was, and upstairs are hand-cranked gramophones and other items from the early history of recorded music. Most surprising to young visitors is the exhibit about how difficult the process of keeping clothes clean and neat was. Elsewhere, there is a blacksmith, a replica of a one-room schoolhouse from 1888, and typical dwellings from the Indian, Spanish, and pioneer periods. There is also a stagecoach that could be driven in the shallow water along the beach where the coastal highway from Santa Barbara was too narrow.
There is, of course, much more to do in Ventura County, including paying to fly in World War II aircraft on display at Camarillo Airport and the 40-acre Rancho Camulos in Piru, the best remaining example of a Mexican-Spanish ranchero and the setting for the Helen Jackson’s famous novel “Ramona.”