Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Beach town blends
nature, sports and arts

NEWS


Kayakers explore caves on the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura. Photo: Jim Provenzano
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For a vacation that combines outdoor thrills, ecological hipness and an arts community beyond the usual beach scene, cruise an hour north of Los Angeles to Ventura, California. A recent renaissance in the small downtown main street of the seaside city has made it a picture-perfect pleasure for shopping, dining and a lively music scene.

With only one gay bar, located directly across the street from one of the country's oldest missions, Ventura is gay-friendly. Several LGBT social groups hold regular events and meetings in the town, many at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Ventura.

But think of this as more of an escape to indulge in many other things that are truly Californian. They can also be enjoyed within walking or cycling distance. This keeps in tune with Ventura's progressive ultra-green community focus.

The main event of my recent trip to Ventura was to join a press group on a guided kayaking tour of the mysterious and beautiful caves and coastline of the Channel Islands National Park. Alluring and distant along the ocean horizon under a moonlit night, the Islands, visible from my balcony at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, lured like a much more convenient Bali H'ai.

By the way, every room at the Crowne Plaza has a balcony view of the ocean. And with 258 rooms, you're almost guaranteed a reservation year-round.

Island Life

The next morning, our trip to the islands began with a one-hour ferry ride to the main island, Santa Cruz. The ferry ride gave us views of a nearby outrigger canoe race springing from the mainland, and on the way, a small school of dolphins speedily swimming alongside and under the boat. Sea lions slumped on a buoy, and (not on our visit) whales are also frequently seen spouting off the coast, in between the occasional gargantuan freighter. Whale migration passes the islands in greatest numbers in December, January, and February through April.

The amazing natural habitats on these four islands have a fascinating history going back thousands of years. Chumash Indians lived there and traded with Caucasian mainlanders and Spanish settlers centuries ago, and in the 1800s, Italian farmers developed some areas before eventually abandoning the islands. Archeological digs have uncovered such oddities as pygmy mammoths. A small free museum near the bay of Santa Cruz Island tells the story of the inhabitants and wildlife.

Initially, the islands' flora resembled that of the Bay Area's Marin Headlands. But due to its isolation from the mainland for centuries, and some unusual cases of wildlife imported by humans and natural means, a number of unique species of lizards, miniature foxes, and even wild deer (originally brought in by rich hunters for sport) add to the islands' natural mystery.

Since 1980, the islands and a one-mile aquatic radius have been established as protected state parks. Human intrusion is kept to a minimum, and trails are limited but still afford fantastic views. Several areas on the islands allow overnight camping, from shady tree-filled areas in valleys to mountaintop campsites with no facilities but incredible coastal views. Summers can get rather dry, so fires are not permitted. And even in the summer, nights can get rather cold, so for campers extra clothing is recommended.

Our one-day trip gave us a taste of the pristine beauty and solitude offered by the islands. Led in groups by experienced kayakers, several with marine biology degrees and other relevant backgrounds, our four-hour journey halfway around Santa Cruz Island, led by Johnny "J.D." Dresser, combined adventure (some of the caves are quite compact!) and nature details that added to our fascinated appreciation. Whether paddling over underwater kelp forests, or being barked at by a curious sea lion, the salty splashes and mildly risky fun made for a great workout.

Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara, one of the resident kayak tour guides (www.kayaksb.com), provides everything you need for a day's fun, from wetsuits to training. Also recommended is Island Packers, (www.islandppackers.com); they will get you to all the scenic spots.

Energized by the kayak ride, after lunch a few people in our group grabbed complimentary snorkel masks and explored the undersea coastal life for a while. Kelp and starfish dominate, while occasional aquatic creatures pop up now and then.

Back on the mainland, athletic adventures abound. Bicycle rentals of all types are available right off the boardwalk, with seaside trails winding along parks and residential areas. Further inland from Ventura, a diverse array of trails up and down the nearby mountain range rewards the hardy cyclist or hiker with fantastic views. You can also join a group that drives uphill and lets you ride down. To rent a mountain bike or hybrid cross trainer, Ventura Bike Depot delivers for about $50 for three days (www.venturabikedepot.com).

Other sporty activities include surfing and boogie boarding. Summer sees more flat waves, with better surfing conditions and 75-degree temperatures in the winter. Autumn is also good for surfing and snorkeling. Further out of Ventura, there are winery trips, nearby horseback riding and hot air balloon rides. Check with listings at the county tourist board to make reservations.

Dining out

After a day of sunny exercise, relax at one of the many historic and gorgeously renovated restaurants and bars in downtown Ventura. Our first night, we dined at our hotel, the Crowne Plaza's C Street, and were treated to a sumptuous dinner.

Being a coastal town, seafood is a specialty. The calamari appetizer was astounding; delicious squid chunks with a mere light dusting of breading. The lightly cooked salmon entree melded with the side vegetables and whipped potatoes. Other entrees we shared included a savory chicken sausage paella, and penne with a pink cream marinara sauce.

The variety of rich desserts, from locally baked chocolate cake to hand-whipped lemoncello, brought a few guests to moans of pleasure. The impressive wine list included local Sanfords, Santa Barbara and Ojai vintages.

Over dinner conversation, our hosts explained the real and fictional variations in the ABC show Brothers and Sisters and their Ojai Foods winery. Mention of the gay characters in the show led to a hearty (if not favorably one-sided) conversation about gay marriage, whereupon I was told that the results of the recent Prop 8 ballot fight proved that while Ventura County may be conservative, the city is liberal.

Another upscale enjoyable dining experience took place at Peirano's. With soothing dark-wood Mission-style interiors, and steeped in the history and culture of Ventura, Peirano's is also known for its innovative martini menu. Choose from a Cucumber Melon, a Vodka Midori or any of more than 30 others recipes. I chose a Smarty Pants (Absolut vodka, gin, Tabasco sauce and a little dill pickle juice).

Not every eatery is upscale chic. For a quick hearty lunch, Rookies Sports Bar (419 East Main St.) served up a quick and tasty turkey sandwich. Grilled sandwiches, generous salads and gourmet pizzas may fill you up at Anacapa Brewery Co. (472 E. Main St.), but save room for one or more of their delicious handcrafted ales.

Wherever you dine, if your dinner tastes especially fresh, that's because most restaurants maintain a local trade with farmers, fishers and wineries.

Nightlife

With a relaxed and safe nightlife scene only walking distance from the best restaurants, Ventura can spoil a visitor used to more risky urban streets. Mere blocks away, we observed a pleasant group of high school graduation parties at The Candlelight, a unique mostly outdoor nightclub partially housed in a renovated Victorian. Latino young men in formal white shirts and young ladies in a

Santa Cruz Island's hillsides provide breathtaking views. Photo: Jim Provenzano
variety of skirts - The Candlelight maintains a slightly upscale dress code - flirted cautiously around the immense tree sprouting up in the middle of the club's vast back porch and its adjoining sofas and semi-private tented booths. With yet another extra-creative martini menu, we chose from mixes like Egyptian Silk and Sensual Ecstasy.

Paddy's (2 W. Main St.), Ventura's sole gay bar (www.paddysventura.com), is set in yet another historic restored building. With two dance floors, drink specials, karaoke nights, and beer bust fundraisers, it attracts local gays and their straight friends who enjoy a casual good time.

If Tequila's more your style, stop by the fun and casual El Rey (294 E. Main St.) for one of their 100 brands while you enjoy the over-the-top decor, including Elvis Presley black velvet paintings and a wall of B-movie lobby cards.

Arts Scene

After a leisurely afternoon swim under a trio of palm trees at the hotel's pool, an early evening walk led to a series of "First Friday" art openings at more than a dozen galleries (www.FirstFridaysVentura.com).

If you're thinking "beach art" with its requisite seagulls and oceanside sunsets, there are a few of those. But local galleries exhibit some fascinating work by local and regional artists that would make some of San Francisco's more controversial artists seem quaint by comparison. Of special note is the Museum of Ventura County, which featured original paintings and drawings of notable children's book illustrator-authors.

Because Ventura is such a convenient getaway only an hour north of Los Angeles, it gets its share of celebrities (Joan Jett and Drew Barrymore are among recent guests) looking to relax. Literature fans may know that the county court house and other buildings are the setting of the Perry Mason series of mystery novels.

Decidedly photogenic, Ventura has been featured in countless photo essays, TV shows and films, including the Crown Plaza's exterior, which features in the comedy Little Miss Sunshine. Once a frumpy Holiday Inn, the hotel, located right on the beach, was recently given a $15 million makeover, and now includes a stylish lobby, bar and restaurant. The weekend we visited, several AIDS Life/Cycle riders, located half a mile away in a tent city, decided to splurge and check in for the night.

With bars, nightclubs and even a few converted movie theaters hosting live music nearly every night, it's no wonder that some of nearby Los Angeles' best bands and other regional touring bands stop by Ventura for a gig. The weekend we visited, marqueed acts at the Majestic Ventura Theatre (www.venturatheater.net) included Third Eye Blind, Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, and the "Godfather of Surf Music" Dick Dale.

Cultural events include local and visiting theatre and dance companies. Seasonal events bring a rural flavor to Ventura. The nearby county fair building hosts rodeos, horse shows, flea markets, surf competitions, and the annual county fair.

Downtown Santa Cruz is only blocks from the beach. Photo: Gary W. Talbot

History

The various snippets of stories I heard, all about the fascinating history of Ventura, could fill books, and have. Local stores and museums sell theme-specific photo-filled books in a wide variety of topics.

Founded more than 1,500 years ago as the Chumash village of Shisolop, Ventura's modern name comes from the 1782 establishment of Mission Buenaventura by Franciscan friars. That mission still stands today, so stop in to see the simple yet beautiful interior (for mass, or in between services), and its adjoining lovely garden. Just across the street, a mural depicts the struggle of Chinese immigrants who helped build the town and its railroad during the area's agricultural boom. The Museum of Ventura County (89 S. California St.; www.venturamuseum.org) exhibits items from the area's recent history, while the Albinger Archeological Museum (113 E. Main St.; www.albingermuseum.org) exhibits artifacts going back centuries.

For a little live-action history, stop by the cute Dudley House (www.dudleyhouse.org), where docents dressed as the original family members of the local 1890s architect show the daily life of family members in one of the city's few remaining Victorian homes. Although only open a few Sundays a month, it's worth an hour's visit for the history buffs. See if you can guess which family member remained a "confirmed bachelor."

Shop

What's a vacation without souvenirs? Whether you're inspired to do more camping, forgot a few weatherproof jackets, or just want some great clothes made with ecologically sound fibers (how about a pair of vegan shoes?), the flagship outlet for Patagonia, only a few blocks west of the city center (259 W. Santa Clara), has everything from casual wear to serious outdoors gear.

Tchotchkes galore abound at the several collectible and antique stores. For a cool surfing T-shirt, (I passed on the array of actual surfboards, ranging from $300-$2,000), I stopped by Wet Sands Surf Shop (www.wetsand.com ). For an amazing array of Hollywood trinkets and toys, including an entire shelf of Smurf toys, Main Street Antique Mall (384 Main St.) is a must. Ventura Harbor Village, where you'll stop to catch any ferries going to the Channel Islands, resembles Sausalito in its touristy charm. See a complete list at www.ventura.com/activities/shopping/antiques/.

For an even greener vacation, consider leaving a car behind, fly into Los Angeles or Santa Barbara and take AmTrak to Ventura. The city's train stop is a four-minute walk from the town center. Shuttle buses also take tourists around the city and on tours to regional wineries and scenic areas. Check out a map at www.ventura-usa.com/dm.

Local newspapers and magazines provide updates on events and give a perspective on the combination of small-town friendliness and progressive politics of the city. Among them are the Ventura Breeze (www.venturabreeze.com) and The VC Reporter, a small free weekly that veers left of the SF Bay Guardian in its editorials and content, and includes ads and listings for all relevant events (www.vcreporter.com).

Ventura Life, a glossy monthly found online at www.VenturaLifeMag.com, includes arts, architecture and landscape features. The issue I picked up happened to include a feature on a few local lesbian couples that paint residential homes. Thinking of moving? Ventana Magazine (www.VentanaMonthly.com) focuses on real estate and fitness.

For more information

The Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau: www.ventura-usa.com.

The Channel Islands National Park: www.nps.gov/chis/.






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