Talking Travel Rediscovering America Colleen Fliedner Oxnard California

Oxnard, California: Gateway to the Channel Islands National Park
by Colleen Fliedner

Ever since the movie Sideways took Hollywood by storm, vacationers have flocked to California’s central coast to visit wineries, spend time at one of the area's pristine beaches, and enjoy the great regional cuisine. And at the heart of this great getaway destination is Oxnard.


Oxnard is located in an unexpected and geographically unique agricultural area; a flat and fertile plain bordered on the east by a low coastal range and on the west by the glorious Pacific Ocean.

As a native Californian, I have driven through the state’s central coastal valley countless times. In fact, I’ve vacationed at several of the area’s most famous resort destinations, including the charming “Danish” village of Solvang, and the ever-popular Santa Barbara.

Until recently, I’ve always bypassed Oxnard and Ventura completely, even though I have often read that Oxnard is the “Gateway to the Channel Islands,” and a renowned U.S. National Park. However, when I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Oxnard, I decided to see what I had been missing all those years.


First of all, let’s clear up the name issue. Although the Spanish- and Mexican- era ranchos of old California raised oxen, Oxnard wasn’t named for these beasts of burden (as many people have assumed.) The settlement was actually named for Henry T. Oxnard, one of the brothers who built the world’s second largest sugar beet factory in the area in 1898.

Today, one of Oxnard’s most famous crops is its over-sized strawberries. Oxnard’s strawberries are so sought-after that the region has earned the nickname “The Strawberry Coast.” Each May, a Strawberry Fest is held celebrating every possible food item and anything else you can think of that relates to these luscious, juicy berries. Imagine life without strawberries. If you live in northern latitudes, savor in your memory the first Strawberry Shortcake of the season and how these “June berries” can be the real official start of summer. And consider a cold morning in deep winter, a cup of good strong coffee, and strawberry jam on toast. Some of the simplest foods can be sustaining on so many levels.

Oxnard’s downtown has the cozy feel of a small Midwest town. The revitalization process has been underway for many years, and a new shopping and entertainment complex, Centennial Plaza, recently opened in the heart of town. To service Oxnard’s suburban residents, large shopping malls have sprung up in areas once occupied by vegetable fields. But it’s the Plaza Park area that remains the city’s heart. This is where you’ll find terrific restaurants, museums, and Heritage Square.


A short walk from Oxnard's Plaza Park is the Gull Wings Children’s Museum, a little museum with a surprising number of wonderfully creative displays — called imagination exhibits — which appeals to kids of all ages (including adults), and which demonstrate the nature of human play, its role in the development of fundamental physical and intellectual skills, and as a cohesive socialization process. Imagination and exploration are always at the heart of the exhibits: there’s a child-sized rock climbing wall, an interactive space shuttle, and much more.

A few blocks from the children’s museum is Heritage Square. As the name suggests, a collection of 11 historic houses, a church, a pump house, and even a water tower. All were rescued from the wrecker’s ball and moved to this location for restoration — clear evidence of the foresight and vision of this community. The structures have been beautifully refurbished and are now used as offices and shops. They are still an integrated and functioning part of the town. One particular heritage home has been converted into a wonderful family Italian restaurant, thus adding a collaborative ambiance that enhances the dining experience. There is also a community theater, The Petit Playhouse, which was constructed in the basement of another large Victorian home. It is known for its quality theatrical performances throughout the year. For tickets and to find out what's playing at the Petit Playhouse, telephone (805) 483-7960 or (805) 385-7545.


While our friends were enjoying themselves golfing at River Ridge Golf Course (805) 983-4653 a stunning PGA championship course covering over 300 acres, my husband spent the morning at Jim Hall Kart Racing School (805) 654-1329. He had raced go karts years ago and couldn’t resist the opportunity to give it another try. You guessed it. My husband is an adrenaline junkie, and the time he spent speeding around the track was just what he needed to decompress from urban stress. Although he was exhausted after the go-kart training session, he was in high octane heaven the entire time.

Enjoying the contemplative nature of the place, I lingered over a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, then lounged artfully around the pool for a while. And finally when I had allowed myself to enter a rather serene frame of mind, I headed into town to visit the Carnegie Art Museum. Built in 1906 as one of millionaire industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s libraries, the neo-classic structure has been transformed into the perfect setting for displays of modern art, photography, and decorative arts. I spent nearly two hours perusing the more than 600 exhibits in an architectural setting very conducive to art appreciation.

After picking up my husband from his playground, we headed to Herzog Wine Cellars at its new location just a few miles away. While Oxnard isn’t known for its wineries like its sister cities to the north, the city is now home to Herzog Wine Cellars, the West Coast’s largest kosher winery. Besides the tasting rooms, there’s a visitor’s center, gift shop, and a lovely little restaurant, Tierra Sur. After taking a tour of the winery, we indulged ourselves by sharing a very pleasant bottle of Herzog’s Central Coast Merlot over lunch.

For our post-lunch mental stimulation we then proceeded to the Murphy Automotive Museum. This is a museum where one man’s personal passion for the automobile— a subculture in the U.S. of considerable significance — was fully realized in a 14,000 square. foot showroom. The museum's displays take the visitor through over 100 years of automotive history, including a collection of 50 vintage automobiles. The founder, Dan Murphy, is a retired surgeon whose love of restoring old Packards was the impetus for the museum. This also is the kind of creative community activity for which Oxnard is known.


People come from the four corners of the globe to visit California’s own “Galapagos Islands.” The Channel Islands are an ecological preserve, a rare pristine chain made up of eight small islands stretching along the southern and central California coastline. These islands are home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which aren’t found anywhere else on the planet. Because of their relative isolation over the centuries, many of the species found here have achieved a similar unique adaptation and have evolved into unique species.

Anacapa is the island closest to the mainland, only an hour’s journey from Oxnard by boat. Getting there was an enjoyable trip; the sea can be capricious in the area, but the day we visited there was only the smallest bit of chop. On the other hand, disembarking at the island’s tiny landing was somewhat daunting. I stood at the aft part of the deck, staring up, up, up, at the rusting, but sturdy metal staircase that ascends the side of a sheer cliff – 153 steps in all. Once at the top (panting), I noted that the tiny island is fairly flat on top and is covered by dark green shrubs and sprinkles of bright yellow wildflowers. There’s no natural water source and no trees. And yet, there’s a serene beauty about the place. The views are nothing less than spectacular. Waves crash into the huge rocks that border the island’s rim, shooting frothy white eruptions into the air. A Scottish woman who visited the island with us commented that it reminded her of her homeland: “So much quiet, and so close to nature,” she said with a thick accent. “It’s almost a spiritual experience.”

“With the exception of a few plants,” the volunteer park ranger said, “Anacapa is almost completely in its natural state.” She wasn’t kidding. An unmanned lighthouse, a tiny Visitors’ Center, and a couple of abandoned Spanish-style structures built by the Coast Guard when they had a small base on Anacapa, are the only structures. The only permanent residents are the indigenous animals. Thousands of seagulls make up the bulk of the population.

We were fortunate to be there while the gulls were still nesting. From a distance, the gulls looked like countless white dots set against the waxy dark green ice plants. The males had flown off for the day to gather food for their mates on the mainland.

As we walked along the narrow trail that snaked its way through the thick ground cover, the female gulls squawked their objections. Had we come to steal their eggs? The ranger explained that the chicks would be born within the next week or two. I was surprised to learn that something like 90 per cent of all central and southern California’s seagulls are born on this tiny island. Friends of mine later visited Anacapa and were warned to give the little ones the right of way on the trail. Otherwise, if the momma gull became frightened for the chicks’ safety, the gulls take flight and swoop down at the “offender’s” head, hoping to ward off the “enemy.”

Anacapa is a great travel experience for children. When I was there, two families had brought their little tykes in backpack carriers. Another couple with several young children meandered along the trail, stopping every few feet, while the kids squatted down to look at flowers, bugs, rocks, and anything else that caught their attention. Of course, the parents and ranger kept them a respectable distance from the nesting gulls.


No trip to Oxnard would be complete without spending time at the Channel Islands Harbor. Don’t be confused by the name. The harbor isn’t located on any of the actual Channel Islands, but is on Oxnard’s coast. Situated 10 to15 minutes southwest of Plaza Park, the harbor contains nine marinas, 2600 boat slips, four public docks, a museum, three shopping centers, an artists’ studio, and waterside dining.

The most popular place at which to spend time is Fisherman’s Wharf, a picturesque village resembling an East Coast whaling seaport. The Ventura County Maritime Museum is a must-see for those who love the sea and ships. The focus of the museum, however, is coastal California’s maritime history.

Oxnard’s proximity to the sea makes it a perfect destination for some extra special ocean-themed festivals. There’s the Celebration of the Whales, Channel Islands Harbor Seafood Festival, visits from Tall Ships, Fine Arts & Crafts Shows, Concerts by the Sea, Fourth of July Fireworks by the Sea, the Ventura County Boat Show, Ventura County Vintage Rods Harbor Run, and the Holiday Parade of Lights.

On our second night in Oxnard, we took The Water Taxi to three restaurants. No, we didn’t have three complete meals! Each participating bay front restaurant served a separate course: appetizers, entrée, and dessert. Everything was delicious, particularly the seafood. Most of the fish is caught in local waters and prepared in any number of creative ways. I recommend this “progressive dinner” for several reasons. First and foremost, it gives you an opportunity to sample cuisine at the best waterfront eateries in the region. What better way to see the harbor with your friends or family? You can sit back and relax, while the skipper motors you to your next destination.

Marine Emporium Landing is the harbor’s main launching point for harbor cruises, sports fishing, and whale watching trips. This is also where you board an Island Packer boat heading to Anacapa Island. Call Island Packers at (805) 642-1779 or visit for information about the trips to and from Anacapa or other islands. They can also answer questions about overnight camping, kayak rentals, and other topics relating to the islands.

For information for things relating to the Channel Islands Harbor, including boat rentals, concerts, festivals, the Progressive Dinner, and cruises, call (805)985-4852 or visit

(The Water Taxi at Channel Islands Harbor: (805) 985-4677- travels from point to point around the harbor. )


Although Oxnard’s weather is generally mild, the Salsa Festival was hot in more ways than one. Held each year at the end of July, you will find the festival in the heart of the downtown district in and around Plaza Park. A large concert stage dominated one portion of the grass-covered grounds. Besides numerous food vendors serving margaritas, tacos, taquitos, freshly made tortillas, and other great south of the border dishes, there’s a big salsa tasting tent. After consuming what was likely several cups of various salsas – from zesty to sweet – and maybe a gallon of water to cool the fire ignited on my tongue, I asked several of the vendors who had made the concoctions what kind of chilies they used. Most said they use regionally grown chilies, onions, cilantro, and so forth.

Besides the competition for the best commercially sold salsa, there’s an amateur cook-off. Anyone can enter, though I heard the competition is red-hot.

Dance contests are open to everyone willing to gyrate to the pounding Latin music. This wasn’t mariachi music. It was rumba, Latin soul, Latin jazz, and the sizzling rhythms of live performances by some of the state’s best salsa bands. We took a free salsa dance lesson, but decided not to enter the amateur dance contest after watching the quality of couples who had entered. They were young and old, and of every ethnicity imaginable. As if that wasn’t intimating enough, there was pro-dance salsa contest. The quality of performers made “Dancing with the Stars” look like child’s play.

We plan to return to Oxnard this October to take a ghost tour in the downtown district. This time, we’ll take the boat trip across the channel to Santa Cruz Island. Those excursions leave from Ventura Harbor Marina, about 10 minutes north of Oxnard’s harbor.

One thing is for certain, this California girl is glad she “discovered” Oxnard and all of its great offerings. We’ve barely scraped the multi-layered surface of the Strawberry Coast and will never again simply drive by without stopping.




Most people living in or visiting Southern California drive to Oxnard, a short hour-plus (depending on traffic) trip from Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway. But there are other options. For instance, while most out-of-state travelers fly into Los Angeles and rent a car, a far easier way to get to the Central Coast is by flying into Burbank, a less congested airport with an AMTRAK Train station a few minutes away. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner takes you through some of California’s prettiest remaining undeveloped countryside, including boulder-strewn hills and long stretches of some of California’s finest farmland. Oxnard’s Transport Station is a central point for catching a cab, bus, or renting a car.

There’s an airport in Santa Barbara, which is about 30 minutes north of Oxnard, and a smaller airport in Oxnard used by commuter planes with daily service to LAX. Rental cars are available.


Because many of the things we wanted to see and do involved the harbor, we checked into the Mandalay Beach Resort on our first visit. The Mandalay is a beautiful Mediterranean-styled hotel situated at the edge of the ocean, complete with fountains, colorful tiles and painted murals. In spite of its upscale appearance, it’s a perfect hotel for the entire family. Besides the swimming pool, there are several large outdoor spas and waterfalls. A paved meandering bike path parallels the beach for miles is great for renting inline skates, wheeled surreys, and kayaks.

This is one of the few beach-front properties I’ve visited where you can open your patio door and listen to the waves. There’s no traffic noise as there is in Waikiki, no partying as in Cancun.

Here’s the deal. The rooms are all suites equipped with small kitchens. There’s a microwave, refrigerator, utensils, and coffee makers, as well as a table and chairs in the dining area. The bedroom has two large beds, plus there’s a hide-a-bed in the living room. Two complete bathrooms are standard, plus (and this is a big plus) the view from the large patio is spectacular. The three-level resort was built in a semi-circle, so that most of the rooms have an ocean view. The Mandalay Beach Resort is so beautiful, so peaceful you could easily spend a few days there without feeling the need to leave.

Although the water is cold much of the year, it’s clean, clear, and is a popular place for surfers, boogie boarders, and swimmers. A few hiking trails wend through the undulating, plant-covered dunes.

We spent our final two nights last spring at the Hilton Garden Inn, popular with business travelers and people who just need a one or two night stay. Though the Hilton Garden is considered a budget price hotel, it contains everything you need, such as a complimentary business center, workout facility, pool and Jacuzzi.

The Courtyard by Marriott is a very nice hotel with plenty of Marriott’s usual amenities. We stayed there on our second, briefer stay in Oxnard to attend the annual Salsa Festival. It’s the perfect place for those who don’t want to spend much time in your room and want to be conveniently close to the 101 Freeway.


From fresh seafood dishes to authentic Mexican cuisine, local restaurants offer visitors and residents a wide selection of delicious food, incorporating newly picked produce from nearby farms in their menu selections.

There’s a large Hispanic population throughout the Central Valley region, descendants of families who moved there from Mexico to work in the fields. The fact that Oxnard has some of the best Mexican food restaurants anywhere is no coincidence. From the corner taco stand, to beautifully adorned, hacienda-style restaurants, I felt it my duty to try as many as possible.

Here are some personal recommendations:

Cabo Seafood Grill & Cantina, 1041 South Oxnard Blvd. (805) 487-6933. This is a very classy restaurant that features a wide selection of entrees. We tried the table side guacamole, which was as good as any we’ve had anywhere. My husband ordered the chicken tacos, and I had cheese enchiladas. But it was the dessert that was the most outstanding part of the meal. We’ve had plenty of flan in our lives, but never any better than the thick, butter-smooth slice of heaven we had at Cabo Seafood. In a word…wow.

Capriccio Italian Restaurant, 221 W. Fifth St., (805) 486-1100, located in the new theater complex adjacent to Plaza Park. Capriccio’s menu offers far more than the typical Italian fair. Try the salmon with bowtie paste in a creamy tomato sauce and a small walnut salad with caramelized pears. Delicious!

Ruby’s Café, 348 Oxnard Blvd. (805) 486-2169 was a happening place in the evenings after the Salsa Festival in July. There was more salsa music, great food and drinks. The Pepitas Crusted Halibut was superb. The menu is diverse, with plenty of non-Mexican food selections.

Sabor Mexican and Seafood (805- 486-6138) on East Sixth Street has delicious Cocktel de Camaron (a short of soupy shrimp cocktail with chopped onions, tomatoes, and avocados.) Delicious salsa, which we tasted at the festival. Oh, yes. The salsa lured us to the restaurant.

Yolanda’s is one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in Ventura County. The food was great, and the margaritas were definitely the best I’ve tasted this side of Baja.

For complete information on Oxnard, visit the town's Convention and Visitors Bureau