Plan a day trip or weekend getaway filled with beaches, music, museums and sports the kids will love.
by Mimi Slawoff
Situated between sultry Malibu and posh Santa Barbara, Ventura County is a rather underrated coastal and cultural destination. But sandy beaches, a plethora of recreational activities, year-round festivals and historic districts make Oxnard and Ventura an ideal family day trip or weekend getaway. Ventura is also the gateway to Channel Islands National Park, accessible from Channel Islands Harbor via Island Packers.
Once a retreat for actors such as Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, Oxnard today is popular for the California Strawberry Festival in May. This unique coastal city is steeped in agricultural roots and home to a diverse ethnic population. That translates to an array of culinary options, bountiful farmers’ markets, multicultural festivals and seasonal events.
Perhaps it’s because the ocean is not visible from the freeway here, but Oxnard’s seven miles of pristine, white sand beaches are surprisingly un-crowded. Don’t spread the word, but locals favor Hollywood Beach, a former celebrity playground. Lifeguards are on duty in summer, and amenities include free street parking, volleyball courts and restrooms. Locals claim Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut (117 Los Altos St.) serves the best breakfast potatoes, pumpkin pancakes and crab cakes in town.
Football fans can cheer on players and get tips at the annual Dallas Cowboys Training Camp (www.visitoxnard.com/cowboys) through mid-August. Admission for practice sessions, Kids Zone and activities is free. Parking costs $5.
Other rocking activities include free Concerts by the Sea from 4-6 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 31 at Channel Islands Harbor. Bring a picnic, chairs and blanket. Find more free music at The Heritage Square Summer Concerts (lawn seating is free). Arrive early to stroll through Heritage Square’s early 20th century homes now repurposed into thriving businesses.
Worth a visit is the nearby Carnegie Art Museum (www.carnegieam.org), established in 1906 as the city’s first library by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. A short walk away is the Gull Wings Children’s Museum (www.gullwings.org), which presents storytelling, art, music and science programs for kids ages 2-12.
Looking for something more active? Be a trendsetter with FootGolf, a sport new to the U.S. and available at the River Ridge Golf Club (www.riverridge-golfclub.com; $10 adults, $5 children), where players kick a soccer ball around a nine- or 18-hole course. Or explore protected coastal wetlands and dunes on bi-monthly hikes with the Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org).
Stay at Embassy Suites Mandalay Bay on Oxnard Beach (805-984-2500), where two-room suites include free breakfast, and you can rent bikes or surreys to ride along a pathway. Or try The Residence Inn Oxnard River Ridge (www.marriott.com/hotels), with full kitchens and complimentary breakfast and afternoon snacks.
While Ventura is a laid-back beach community, it’s also a historic city with cozy shops and a vibrant arts and cultural center. Dining options range from flip-flop-friendly eateries to elegant restaurants. There’s something for every palate and wallet. Getting around town is easier than ever with the free Downtown-Harbor Trolley (www.venturatrolley.com), which began running earlier this summer and travels between the historic downtown and the Ventura Harbor Village, making stops along the way. Catch the trolley from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday during summer. The trolley also transports visitors to the Ventura County Fair in Seaside Park (www.venturacountyfair.org; $11 adults, $8 ages 12 and younger and seniors), an annual event since 1875. This year’s event, themed “Boots, Barns & Banjos,” features carnival rides, entertainment and food through Aug. 11.
For a Ventura day trip, park your car at Ventura Harbor Village (www.venturaharborvillage.com), the hub of beachside fun with boutiques, restaurants, a carousel and paddle boats. Swim, play and watch boats sail by from Harbor Cove Beach, a scenic spot with small waves and windblown sand dunes. At the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center, kids can look through a telescope, examine tide pools and learn about the islands’ natural and cultural resources.
Next, hop on the trolley to downtown for a walking tour of Mission San Buenaventura, California’s ninth mission, founded in 1782. Across the street, check out art and artifacts at the Museum of Ventura County (www.venturamuseum.org), where admission is free the first Sunday of each month.
With hungry kids in tow, grab a bite to eat at the downtown Busy Bee Café-Diner (www.busybeecafe.biz), a 1950s-style diner serving burgers, shakes and other kid-pleasing items. Or cap off the day by watching a spectacular California sunset from the 1,620-foot Ventura Pier, built in 1872. A snack bar and full-service seafood restaurant are located there.
If you’re staying over, try the Ventura Beach Marriott (www.marriott.com/hotels), steps from the beach and a coastal walking path.
Let’s Go columnist Mimi Slawoff is a mother of three who writes about family fun.