Those of us who choose our getaways carefully often pay nearly as much attention to the town as the beach - in other words, a scenic stretch of coastline is the main attraction, but it's nearly as important to spend our precious days off in a place with its own ambience or cultural flair.
We found all we needed in Ventura, one of those places that we always wondered about as we drove through this area on our way up to other scenic destinations on the Central California Coast. For us, this was drive-by country - scenic, yes, but always someplace we just passed on the way to someplace else.
Ventura's location is really quite an advantage for travelers. For Southern California residents, it's an easy drive that takes you just beyond the megalopolis where back-to-back cities finally give way to a coastline that is less overwhelmed by development. If time's short, no need to drive the extra couple hours each way to enjoy the beaches of the Central Coast.
For Northern Californians, Ventura is a just close enough to the "Big City" to be a reasonable base of operations for visits to many L.A. tourist attractions, most within an hour's drive. Yet, you're staying in the quintessential California beach community that is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Don't want to go into the city for a day? Just chill out on some of the state's most scenic beaches.
The one reminder of the city was our hotel - the Crowne Plaza, a former Holiday Inn that is being converted to the more upscale brand name. At 15 floors, it's the only high-rise in the area and could not be built again with today's stringent coastal regulations. The hotel offers incredible views of the ocean, the Channel Islands and the verdant hillsides at Ventura's northeastern edge. The Crowne Plaza is situated so that every room above the second floor offers guests spectacular coastal views.
There will be major changes in the lobby and dining areas before construction is completed in June 2006. But the unusually spacious rooms have already been completed and they have been thoughtfully decorated in pastel greens and gold, and updated furnishings. Our room had a sitting area with a couch that rolled out into a bed and included two balconies overlooking the coastline. We noticed the cheerful hotel staff members were getting into the spirit of the renovation by wearing overalls to make light of the construction. It seemed that, generally, the impact of the construction on guests is still somewhat minimal.
Within minutes of arrival we were walking the promenade that stretches far from the hotel in both directions along the shore. A more-than-adequate beach, complete with childrens' play equipment, is just footsteps from the hotel, as is the Ventura Pier with its seafood restaurants, strolling visitors and die-hard anglers just hoping to reel in some dinner. Bikes and other contraptions are available for rent and, on this Sunday, vendors offered a variety of wares in the plaza just between the beach and our hotel.
Just up California Street from our hotel was a colorful small-town shopping district with shops of all kinds, restaurants and a high concentration of antique stores that are fun to browse. Several surf shops are nearby and, like other California beach towns, the feel is more retro than trendy. The historic City Hall sits majestically on a slight hill at the edge of the downtown district, serving to remind us that Ventura really is a town and not just a stretch of uncoordinated beach development.
Intersecting with California Street is Main Street and, if you walk just a few blocks, you come upon the Mission San Buenaventura. This mission was established on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782 and became the ninth California mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. Fires and earthquakes have taken their toll on the mission but, over the years, local residents have restored the building to much of its former glory. In any event, the mission "feels" original and is worth a stop when you're downtown.
Just across the street from the mission is the Museum of History and Art, which offers a broad range of exhibits tucked into a relatively small space. Historical artifacts, farm implements, 18th Century figurines - the museum offers quite a variety.
One thing you notice after spending a few hours in Venturais that, everyplace you go, you'll hear '60's music. It's probably not unrelated to the fact that many surfer and beach types from that era continue to hang out in this popular beach town. But no doubt about it - whether it's the hot dog vendor on the promenade, the antique store on Main Street or even the downtown sushi restaurant, they're all playing music from the '60's.
The aforementioned sushi restaurant is the Sushi Marina, a local hot spot where we stopped by for dinner. But a word to wise here - the restaurant apparently is quite popular with locals, yet it has relatively few tables and no real space to wait for your table to be called. The food was good but we definitely will time our future visits to avoid the rush.
There are about two miles of beach in the Ventura area that are considered to be part of the local State Park, and visitors are enthralled by the wide, relatively unpopulated beach where one can look out on the Channel Islands and also get a spectacular view of the coastline stretching west and north to Santa Barbara. At sunset, we made a point to stop by Surfer's Knoll where you can walk through the sand dunes to find an ideal place to view the sun going down in the western sky. Folks around here treat the sunset much as they do in Key West - it's an event, and people make a point to amble down to the beach each night to celebrate the area's scenic beauty.
If the beach and a vibrant local shopping district aren't enough to get your attention, here are a few other visitor attractions from the Ventura area:
The Ventura Harbor Village and Marina - If you like boats -- or just being close to them -- the harbor area has hundreds of them along with a 33-acre shopping and entertainment complex, Harbor Village. There are lots of boat rentals, fishing charters and an assortment of restaurants. Be sure to check out the "almost" antique Carousel with its 36 animals that was built in 1955. This arcade also offers home-made fudge, fresh popcorn and enough games to keep your youngsters occupied for hours.
Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center - Located in the Ventura harbor area, the center offers exhibits on the flora and fauna of the island as well as a graphic relief map that gives visitors some idea of the islands' size. The islands are visible from the Ventura area and are a favorite for daytrips, diving, snorkeling, swimming, and bird watching. It's also possible for visitors to camp, hike and picnic on the islands, with tours leaving from the harbor area.
A.J. Comstock Museum - a look at early firefighters and their methods. It's a free museum and open all the time.
The Albinger Archeological Museum - Located near the mission, this free museum features artifacts dating back 3,500 years and several different cultures. You can also see the original mission foundation in the dig area.
WHERE: Ventura is located about 65 miles north and west of Los Angeles on one of the state's major north-south freeways, Highway 101. If you don't want to drive, it's easily accessible by Amtrak and the Ventura stop is only two-tenths of a mile from the Crowne Plaza.
WHAT: Ventura is the quintessential California beach community with miles of broad beaches and an eclectic shopping district that blends the surf subculture with a touristy downtown. It's Small Town, yet close to the Big City.
WHEN: Anytime. Ventura enjoys a sunny climate, although its location can make it breezy at times, especially on the beach.
WHY: Ventura truly has its own character and charm. Geographically, Ventura is located in one of California's most scenic coastal areas.
HOW: For more information on Ventura, contact the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau at 800-483-6214 or visit www.ventura-usa.com. For information on the Crowne Plaza Hotel, phone 1-800-980-6429 or visit http://www.cpventura.com.