Discovering the Underrated Pleasures of Oxnard On and Off the Water

Those of us that call the desert home seem to naturally pine for water. Lots of us stream into San Diego all summer long; odds are if you are stretched out on a sandy beach and converse with the folks near you, you'll find they are also from the Valley. No doubt, San Diego is great, but let me propose a California beach town less traveled: Oxnard.

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Oxnard takes its share of ribbing. Maybe it's the name which lacks linguistic romance. The town still has strong agricultural roots, named for the brothers who founded a sugar beet factory here more than 100 years ago. It's also more working class than some tonier California coastal towns; you won't see "Brown Pride" bumper stickers on cars in Carlsbad. Its residents will poke fun at themselves calling their town "Ven-Tucky," as in "Ventura Kentucky," or "Bakersfield by the Sea."

But I'll gladly make a case for Oxnard after spending a recent weekend there.

I've driven 60 miles up from Los Angeles on Pacific Coast Highway. Crossing into Ventura County, the land makes a dramatic change from rugged oceanside cliffs to shaded strawberry fields. An extravagant sunset tints the whole sky soft lavender, then an exultant mango. I pull over to snap a few pictures, trying to capture the fleeting beauty.

I make my way to the Channel Islands Harbor and settle into the Hampton Inn for the next three days. My room is clean and comfortable, the staff is cheerful. My balcony overlooks the picturesque harbor -- an enviable view for a landlocked Arizonan who plans to spend as much time on the water as possible.

Oxnard has a friendly, small town feel and its beaches are un-crowded. Hollywood Beach takes its name from the glamorous stars like Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable who once walked the sands. The waves are thundering today and I can count the people and dogs on two hands -- everyone has room to roam. Shells and kelp stalks decorate the shoreline in poetic shapes. I find myself once again taking pictures in an attempt to memorialize the natural beauty.

Exploring Oxnard

I've been advised to seek out Mrs. Olson's Coffee Hut. Just a block from the beach, it's a local favorite for hearty breakfasts. Wait times can be lengthy on weekends, but though the place is hopping, I've lucked out on a table. The seafood omelet is enormous, generously studded with shrimp and crab, and the java is a strong dark roast. I'm fueled and ready to burn off some calories kayaking.

The Channel Island Kayak Center offers guided tours for all ages and skill levels. Leaving from the marina and weaving around the parked boats, my guide Dawn and I explore the fantastical sea life that calls the harbor home: brilliant red and orange sea stars, sea hares that squirt purple ink, patterned sea slugs. Marine birds circle overhead; sea lions play hide and seek with us. Two hours paddling under sunny skies flies by.

Anacapa is the nearest island, 12 miles from the mainland and an hour boat ride away. I've packed a lunch for the full-day excursion offered by an outfitter called Island Packers. The boat is big and comfortable and the sea today is relatively calm. The captains points out the dolphins cavorting starboard and gray whales in the distance off the bow. Everyone reaches for their camera, but many of us manage to capture only the mammals' splashes. No matter: it's thrilling as the delighted shrieks of both kids and seniors attest.

Read more about visiting Oxnard at Soon a dark five-mile ribbon of rock emerges from the deep blue ocean. The captain negotiates the landing and we file off the boat and make like ants, climbing up the metal staircase that hugs the rocks. The last permanent lighthouse built on the west coast comes into view as we scatter to seek our own solitude on the island. Some visitors are sketching, some are scuba diving. I'm hiking the figure-eight shaped trail that meanders over gentle slopes and provides dramatic overlooks. Bright yellow coreopsis is in bloom, but it's the pelicans that take center stage here. Because they have few predators, Anacapa boasts the largest rookery of brown pelicans in the U.S. Their tightly spaced nests cover the scrubby ground. At the far end of the island is the splendid Inspiration Point with its ravishing views. More photographs are snapped amid the raucous barking of sea lions on the beaches below.

Food and Wine in Oxnard

After being in such close proximity to the water, I've naturally got a taste for seafood. Walking distance from the hotel in the same complex as the kayaking and boating outfitters is an attractive restaurant called Waterside. The chef recently took second place in diner popularity during Oxnard Restaurant Week and it's easy to taste why. The beet and goat cheese salad with chive vinaigrette is deliciously refreshing and the local-caught pan-seared halibut topped with leeks and zucchini butter is perfectly paired with a local wine, a 2011 Herzog chenin blanc.

Though my Oxnard days have been happily spent in walking distance of the hotel, I hop in the car and head for Herzog Wine Cellars. Herzog is in an unlikely location: an industrial office park across town. I'm curious to taste more of these kosher wines and sample the menu at Tierra Sur, their Zagat five star rated restaurant.

It's Friday, the Jewish Sabbath, and the server explains that the kitchen will close early as many of the kitchen staff commute from Los Angeles. So do many epicureans. I admit I was skeptical, thinking dietary limitations would inhibit creativity. But I am wrong. Because Oxnard has so many local farms, the chefs seem emboldened and the thoughtfully crafted cuisine is exquisite.

Picking up on my enthusiasm, the waitress has agreed to pair three courses with wine. First is a silky butternut squash soup with Aleppo pepper and a 2011 Central Coast pinot grigio with soft mineral notes. The house made maltagliata, flat pasta sauteed with garlic and Swiss chard in a roasted pepper sauce, is topped with pine nuts and house-cured lamb bacon that very nearly replicates the texture and flavor of pork. The rustic dish is dynamite with the special reserve cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley. For desert, there's zeppoli, puffy cinnamon doughnuts served with hot chocolate, and a rich, raisin-y 2009 late harvest zinfandel.

It's mid-afternoon when I return to Hollywood Beach. They'll be another memorable meal later tonight at Moqueca, which serves Brazilian seafood cooked in a clay pot with garlic, onions, cilantro, lime juice and a splash of coconut milk and served with rice.

But first, there's sand my toes need to sink into and a sunset over the Pacific that needs to be preserved on my camera phone. The truth is, those that scoff at Oxnard, haven't been here.

To plan your trip log onto the Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau at VisitOxnard

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Suzanne Wright is a travel writer based in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert in Cave Creek, Arizona. She has written for such publications as American Way, Arizona Highways, National Geographic Traveler, Men's Journal and Wine & Spirits. To date, she has visited all 50 states and 50 countries.

Photos courtesy of Visit Oxnard

Published: May 28th, 2014

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