Beach, Boats and Adventure Await in the Channel Islands

Inspiration Point  on Anacapa Island. | Photo by Joseph Sohm

Inspiration Point
on Anacapa Island. | Photo by Joseph Sohm

For longtime Las Vegans, the luster of the California getaway can start to tarnish after hours in heavy traffic or one too many visits to even the most delightful popular vacation spots. Enter: Channel Islands.

They’re a heartbeat away from Ventura and Oxnard and a short drive south of Santa Barbara. If you don’t mind a slightly longer drive, you’ll wind through beautiful green mountains before you hit the scenic part of the 101, with ocean views on one side and farms on the other.

The slow pace of the mainland Channel Islands, largely filled with snowbirds and second-home vacationers, is a breath of fresh sea air compared to the 24/7 heartbeat of Las Vegas. There are lighthouses and a huge series of marinas in Channel Harbor.

Pick a hotel with beach access and you’ll get a nice view of some of the eight islands—two each off the coast of Los Angeles and Ventura and four off of Santa Barbara—as well as passing sailboats and the twilight glow of L.A. off to the south. If the sand and the crashing waves aren’t enough to clear your head of casinos and Interstate 15 traffic, the raspberry swirl sunsets will remind you that you are, indeed, not in Sin City anymore.

Local parks, including Oxnard Beach Park, have fantastic views of the ocean as well as access to the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route and pirate ship-themed equipment. A farmers market is set up most weekends in the parking lot by the Channel Harbor Marina, where you can also rent boats.

If you are more adventurous, there are amazing excursions to the five islands, which are part of the Channel Islands National Conservation Area, home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species, 145 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The National Park Service allows day trips to the islands, most available by a ferry and some by air. Each island offers unique experiences, such as the breathtaking views at Inspiration Point and snorkeling, diving and kayaking on Anacapa Island; camping and hiking on Santa Cruz Island; and whale watching in Santa Barbara Channel.

How to get there

The most direct route, which takes about five hours, is to take Interstate 15 to California State Highway 210 to Pacific Coast Highway 101.

A more scenic route that is only slightly longer and completely avoids L.A. is to drive south on Interstate 15. Take California 18 in Victorville to California State Highway 14, then west on California 126 to the 101.

And if you don’t want to drive at all, there are flights into Oxnard that start at about $71, one-way, on Spirit Airlines.

Where to stay

Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel and Resort, on Mandalay Beach Road (off Harbor Road) has rooms starting at $160 a night, swimming pools and beach access. And Hamptons Inn Channel Islands Harbor is actually situated on the peninsula in the harbor on Peninsula Road, starting at $125 a night.

Where to dine

Breakfast places are particularly popular, including Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut—don’t let the name fool you; it is a sit-down restaurant with a line out the door—and a mere two blocks off of the beach. (117 Los Altos St.)

A short drive to Ventura yields more nice breakfast spots, two of them within a couple of blocks of Ventura High School on the corner of Main Street and Catalina Street. The quaint Golden Egg Café (2009 E. Main St.) has freshly made cinnamon rolls and authentic huevos rancheros. The younger-skewing Pete’s Breakfast House (2055 E. Main St.) has plenty of vegetarian and healthy fare. It generally has a longer wait but has outdoor seating.

What to do

If kicking back and watching the sailboats go by is not your thing, activities in the Channel Islands National Conservation Area include boat rentals at Channel Island Harbor Marina and a visit to the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, which is full of art and history.

Don’t miss

The Pirate Boat Ride, where you ride out into the harbor on a pirate boat, is good, campy fun. There are also Christmas-themed holiday cruises and sunset cruises. Board the ride at the Whale’s Tail Landing, in front of the Whale’s Tail Restaurant, off South Harbor Boulevard.