Adventure in Ventura

Historical sites, farm bounty and coastal attractions awaken the senses

The historic Watermark contains the W2O watering hole.

Anacapa Brewing Co.

Ventura County offers one of the more diverse weekend getaways in California, thanks to a restored downtown Ventura, excellent dining and accommodations in the town of Ojai, and the opportunity to experience unspoiled nature at Channel Islands National Park.

Since it lies directly between flashy L.A. County and glamorous Santa Barbara, it’s easy to overlook. That’s a mistake. Ventura bills itself as “the real California,” and it has the Old World ambience to prove it.

My wife and I arrived on a Friday afternoon and stopped off for a glass of handcrafted ale at the Anacapa Brewing Co. (472 E. Main St.), adding a Cuban sandwich to stave off our hunger from the five-hour drive from Las Vegas.

Then we strolled past the shops and antique stores on Main Street until we came to San Buenaventura Mission, which Father Junípero Serra founded in 1782. The Spanish Colonial architecture and lush gardens are just two reasons it’s a must-visit. The history is palpable.

Directly across the street, the recently expanded Museum of Ventura County (100 E. Main St.) offers glimpses of life here during the past two centuries. Highlights include new landscaping, a spacious Front Plaza with a water feature and a mosaic by artist Larissa Strauss that she made from more than 45,000 pieces of cut glass.

We had reservations for dinner at the Sidecar, where a chef named Tim Kilcoyne does farm-to-table dishes such as the Niman Ranch pork chop, corn, bacon, Swiss chard and thyme with a blackberry barbecue jus, and showcases the bounty of the farm stands that dot the county. But first we stopped for a cocktail at the beautifully restored Watermark W20 (598 E. Main St.), whose walls are emblazoned with stunning murals.

The following day was reserved for hiking in Channel Islands National Park, a 90-minute boat journey from Ventura Harbor. We weren’t lucky enough to see whales in the channel, but it’s not unusual to spot humpback whales there through September, and then again in December through March. Even more spectacular is the Pacific gray whale, which migrates from Mexico to the Bering Sea and often can be seen in transit.

The weather was clear and cool on the ocean, and we spotted sea lions, seals and marine birds as we came across the East Anacapa Island’s North Shore. Each of the five islands that make up the national park is unique, and three are open year-round. If you can’t make the trip, at least stop in at the Channel Islands Visitor Center (1901 Spinnaker Dr.) to see wildlife displays, and eyeball the interactive maps.

The following morning, we drove up a twisty, 11-mile road to Ojai, a sacred place with the Chumash because of its unique geology (the mountains here runs east to west, rather than north to south), and it’s a New Age Mecca and art colony as well.

Ojai is almost tropical, with the climate a good 20 degrees warmer than the coast, a short distance away. The downtown is quaint, and there are more art galleries than we could count.

We had two amazing meals here, a lunch at The Feast, where the chef prepared a salmon cake salad so fresh and colorful I wanted to paint it instead of eat it, and dinner at Azu, a Mediterranean restaurant and tapas bar that serves terrific lamb kababs and paella.

On the drive home to the desert, you’ll pass dozens of farm stands, where you can stock up on whatever is in season in this mostly agricultural county.

If You Go …

Getting There: Ventura is 320 miles from Las Vegas. It is best reached by car: I-15 south to I-210 east, then U.S. 101 north. If you fly, the best airport connection is Burbank, 60 miles away. Amtrak serves it from downtown Los Angeles as well.

Getting to the Channel Islands: Reservations are a must. Contact Island Packers, 805-642-1393, for more information.

Where to Stay: In Ventura, the Four Points Sheraton (1050 Schooner Dr., 805-658-1212) offers spectacular coastal views near Ventura Harbor. Rooms from $129. In Ojai, the Emerald Iguana Inn (110 Pauline St., 805-646-5277), which has lovely cottages in a peaceful country setting.

Where to Eat: In Ventura, The Sidecar, 3029 E. Main St., 805-653-7433. In Ojai, Feast Bistro, 254 E. Ojai Ave., 805-640-9260, or Azu, 457 E. Ojai Ave., 805-640-7987.

Optional Activity: Wine Trail Tours, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, visit tasting rooms, winemakers and farm markets. Call 805-648-2075 (24 hours advance notice required).

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