Ventura is a quintessential beach town and gateway to the Channel Islands

Meet the City of San Buenaventura, or Ventura for short. This quintessential California beach town is more than surfers and palm trees, for Ventura, less than two hours from Los Angeles, also serves as gateway to America’s own Galapagos, the Channel Islands National Park.

A trip to Ventura is a voyage to two very different worlds. The town revels in its surfer culture and laidback lifestyle, but also cherishes the unparalleled natural wonders found in one of America’s least visited national parks.

The park includes pristine Santa Cruz, at 98 square miles the largest of the tiny archipelago that includes San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and tiny one-square-mile Anacapa. Although just an hour by boat from the mainland, Santa Cruz is a world apart.

Although only an hour from the mainland by boat, Santa Cruz is a world apart.

Although only an hour from the mainland by boat, Santa Cruz is a world apart.

The park’s official concessionaire, Island Packers Cruises, ferries day trippers and campers from Ventura Harbor to all five of the Channel Islands. A private boat can get you there, too. However, the trips rarely arrive on the islands as scheduled, because frequent sightings of whales and huge pods of dolphins make for memorable diversions along the way.

The recent rains that plagued the rest of California bestowed upon Santa Cruz an emerald mantle reminiscent of Ireland’s Aran Islands, undoubtedly to the delight of the more than 2,000 plant and animal species that thrive there.

Like the Galapagos, the Channel Islands are home to diverse plants and animals that can be found nowhere else on earth. For example, the island fox, at a whopping four pounds, is one of the smallest canids in the world, and super cute, to boot.

Low intensity, limited entry visitation makes for solitude from the time the boat arrives at Scorpion Anchorage or Prisoners Harbor. The bustle of southern California sloughs off immediately, as guests meander through a network of trails that reward the effort with unparalleled vistas tailor made for contemplating the wonders of the universe.

Tour boats often run behind schedule on trips to the Channel Islands National Park, thanks to diversions like huge pods of dolphins that demand attention.

Tour boats often run behind schedule on trips to the Channel Islands National Park, thanks to diversions like huge pods of dolphins that demand attention.

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Kayaks are the transportation of choice for exploring the nooks and crannies at the bottom of the cliffs. Kelp forests attract snorkelers and scuba divers. Volcanic sand beaches reveal tidepools overflowing with tiny treasures of nature and entice with the promise of an afternoon where the rhythmic sounds of waves is the musical accompaniment.

Services are minimal on the island. Do not expect the gifts shops and cafeterias of the typical national park, because there are none. Potable water is available, but visitors are encouraged to bring their own. As for sanitary facilities, it’s all about porta-potties.

Savvy campers know to bring the accoutrements they will need for the duration, for camping here is definitely not glamping.

Always too soon, it is time to go back to the mainland, but another and very different adventure awaits, beginning at Ventura Harbor Village, where the boat will dock. The park’s visitor center is here at this huge waterfront hub, as are a host of restaurants, shopping and boat rentals.

Paddle boats in the shape of dragons, ducks, swans and flamingoes ply Ventura Harbor.

Paddle boats in the shape of dragons, ducks, swans and flamingoes ply Ventura Harbor.

Hop aboard Ventura Boat Rentals paddleboats, shaped like swans, ducks, dragons, and the newest in the fleet, flamingoes. Tiny lights add a magical touch to these creature boats during evening cruises. Family-friendly electric boats are also available to toodle around the harbor, as are kayaks and SUPs. Across the street, Harbor Cove Beach, with gentle waves, is ideal for families.

Visit Deep Sea Wine Tasting Room to toast to your good fortune while enjoying the harbor goings-on from the outdoor patio before heading to Brophy Bros., Andria’s Seafood and On the Alley, Brophy Bros.’ sister establishment, for outstanding seafood.

About 15 minutes from Ventura Harbor Village, historic Ventura Pier offers a primo vantage point from which to watch the surfers catching the waves. Ventura’s reputation for consistent waves has drawn surfers for decades. Famed California Street, or C Street, as the locals know it, is a popular coastal road hangout for surfers.

The California Coastal Trail, a four-mile beachfront bike road, passes by C Street, Surfers Point and the Pier, built in 1872, making it one of the oldest wooden piers in the state.

Car-free and pedestrian friendly, downtown Ventura brims with eclectic boutiques, breweries and restaurants the likes of gastropub Rumfish Y Vino, sibling to the original Belize restaurant. Under a canopy of lemon trees, savor dishes such as Peruvian ceviche and Caribbean fish stew.

A spate of museums are steps from each other, including the little − and free − gem that is the Museum of Ventura County. Polished and breezy, the Museum traces area history through several well-crafted galleries.

Music and theater are never far, with venues such as the Rubicon Theatre Company for outstanding musical theater productions and the 1,200-seat Majestic Ventura Theater for all genres of music from visiting artists.

Planes, trains and automobiles can get you to Ventura. Unlike Los Angeles, the city is easy to navigate with a car. A leisurely drive along Ventura Highway, with its uninterrupted views of the sea, is hard to beat. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner stops downtown on its route from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Santa Barbara Airport is just 30 miles north, while Los Angeles Airport is 60 miles south. Hollywood Burbank Airport, 70 miles south, avoids the aerial drama of LAX.

At Waypoint Ventura, the land yachts of yore---the Airstreams, Spartans and Avions---have been transformed into luxury accommodations by the sea.

At Waypoint Ventura, the land yachts of yore—the Airstreams, Spartans and Avions—have been transformed into luxury accommodations by the sea.

Lodgings are as unique as the city itself and rates are often half the price of other Southern California destinations. Yes, the city has plenty of the chain hotels, but for something completely different, check into Waypoint Ventura, a vintage trailer hotel by the sea. Here, the land yachts of yore − the Airstreams, Spartans and Avions − have been transformed into luxury accommodations. The resort is within walking distance to downtown, the Pier and the beach. The complimentary colorful beach cruisers make it breezy to visit equally unusual eating spots such as Australia-inspired Frontside Café, where locals flock to grab an Aussie meat pie for breakfast.

Unforgettable natural beauty, cool places to see, eat and sleep and easygoing beach culture: that’s Ventura.

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Maria Sonnenberg is a Melbourne-based freelance lifestyles and travel writer.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: California’s Ventura offers surfing, shopping, dining, rare nature

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