Healthy, Happy Oxnard: Three Days to a New Perspective
By Kathy Chin Leong
The ocean waves called out to me along a long stretch of sandy beach during a lazy weekend in August. Earlier this year, my friend Jamie who lives in Pasadena, suggested we meet to celebrate our summer birthdays. We decided to meet in Oxnard to see a new city together for the first time and to catch up on what had happened in our lives after many months of being apart.
The ocean was definitely the perfect place where we could enjoy God's creation, smell the clean air, and recharge from the stresses of our jobs and home responsibilities. Staying at the Oxnard Embassy Suites Resort was definitely a positive anchor spot full of amenities that contributed to our getaway. The hotel, right on the ocean's edge, is the largest of the Embassy Suites that I ever stayed at, and offers a full cooked to order egg breakfast daily, complimentary Happy Hour with snacks and drinks for adults and children, and lounge chairs and umbrellas on the beach for its guests. As I write this, I wish I were there now.
Oxnard, located in Ventura County, is located on the California coastline, approximately sixty miles northwest of Los Angeles. Known for its abundant fields of strawberries and produce, the city hosts the California Strawberry Festival and free summer concerts. The county itself features at least fifteen wineries, and prints a free wine map, so you can enjoy sipping various vintages in wine rooms during your weekend. Other than wine, the city is notable for the Channel Islands, part of the National Park Service, only accessible from the Oxnard Harbor where you will find restaurants, shops, and cafes. Families can also visit the giant shopping mall called The Collection which has both high-end and affordable stores, a movie cineplex, and a pantheon of restaurants under one roof.
For the most part, Oxnard is a bedroom community that is relatively quiet, and people like me who discover Oxnard will definitely return to this oasis of calm. It is no surprise that visitors from the film industry and hectic Los Angeles flee here for a slice of serenity. Beaches are uncrowded, extremely clean, and have sand that is so fine that you could pick it up and use it to exfoliate your skin. Another reason I found Oxnard enchanting is that it is easy to get a table at good restaurants on weekends. In other words, Oxnard is a no-hassle city, and that is what you need if you are on vacation. Little traffic, free and abundant parking are also benefits to coming here.
DAY ONE-Getting Acclimated
On Friday, our first day, we drove to see Heritage Square, an adorable enclave of restored Victorians in downtown Oxnard. The most lively business is the La Dolce Vita Restaurant owned by chef and author Michelle Kenney. A menu of wonderful Italian dishes, plus the charming ambiance of the architecture made our lunch at La Dolce very memorable. If you go, be ready to study the menu, for it has an assortment of mouth-watering traditional favorites such as risotto, farfalle pasta, fettuccine alfredo, gnocchi, lasagna, and ravioli - all homemade. La Dolce Vita, Italian for "the sweet life" is truly, aptly named.
Sitting by the window overlooking the rest of the houses and green lawn, I felt absolutely relaxed after we cut through a swath of freeway traffic on the way to get there. After we arrived and ordered, I dove right into my grilled salmon salad, a generous portion that I split into two halves. (Tasted even better the next day!) I did not feel any guilt pangs upon licking my plate clean after the owner served us tiramisu, a recipe so delectable I must say that it was better than some of San Francisco's North Beach Italian pastry shops.
Post lunch, our day called for checking into the luxurious Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel and Resort. Our large room in 2304 featured two queen beds with a full bathroom and a separate sitting area with couch, television, and full shower and bathroom, plus microwave and small refrigerator. The icing on the cake was the open air patio balcony that had a view of the ocean on the right side. The generous size of the balcony afforded room for a table and chairs to enjoy morning coffee.
We spent the afternoon exploring the lush grounds, full of meandering pathways, flowers and waterfalls, tropical trees, palms, and gardens throughout. The focal point of the hotel is the vast, curvy swimming pool bordered by greenery where families congregated in droves. I spoke to one mom who spent three days here and never left the premises because her kids were having such a great time between the pool and the beach.
Next to the pool is a game room filled with couches and tables, a ping-pong table, a fooz-ball table, and board games in one corner. Several flat-screen TVs are constanly on showing the latest news and sports activity. This is also the place where drinks are served during the nightly Happy Hour.
By nightfall, we circled to the Channel Islands Harbor to get dinner. And what a great spot we found! Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar is found at the Marine Emporium Landing. Owner Steve Buenger has created a divine spot where local bands can entertain guests eating outdoors. Indoor guests have great views of the harbor as well and can choose from a delectable seafood menu of local and regional fish, crab, and lobster as well as chicken and meat. The ahi tuna appetizer drizzled with sesame seeds atop a secret sauce was comprable to a Hawaiian islands treat. Jamie's fettucine pasta was teeming with fresh, giant prawns so inviting I almost stole one off her plate. My beef filet with fresh beets and roasted carrots and potatoes was moist, fork tender. Both of us diners were more than satisfied. The slight letdown as the peach cobbler where it arrived all mushy like pudding topped with vanilla ice cream that was so melted that we almost had to drink it. It had the taste, but not the texture that was expected.
Day Two-Channel Islands
This was the day of our epic trip to the Channel Islands. You must book a boat ride in advance through Island Packers. We had pre-ordered lunches at Seafresh Restaurant, which is a casual and popular eatery also on the Channel Islands Harbor. We picked up our shrimp salads and bottled waters, early enough. By the time we got on the boat, we were able to sit either on the second level or the first.
The ride does get rocky, so I recommend you take your seasick pills ahead of time and bring a can of Coke or lime soda to settle your tummy. And worst case, bring a sick bag. The ship captain will narrate part of the time so you get to understand a bit of the history of the area.
The Channel Islands are part of a chain, but the boat only goes to the East Anacapa island. The area is not shaded at all, for it has no trees. While barren, it is lovely for its coastal scenery, and the daily guided hikes are worth the time. They are also free. Be forewarned that this is a sensitive ecological spawning ground for seagulls. No plastic bags are allowed on the island. You must take out your own trash. There are restrooms, but no places to buy food whatsoever, not even water.
The day we went was quite hot and bright. Do bring sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Jamie stayed at the visitor center to relax while I took the hiking tour of the island. This was once home to Native Americans, then became a military outpost, and now a national landmark. The varous scenic highlights such as Arch Rock, Cathedral Cove, and Inspiration Point are worth the boat ride out, and the myriad of turquoise and aquamarine and jade waters are a visual circus. All the hikes are quite flat and easy to do. Plus, the bathrooms that are pit toilets are very clean with hand sanitizer so you are not grossed out all day long!
Coming back on the boat by 3:30 in the afternoon was just the right time to leave. You can see all of the island in one day. You can also spend the night and camp if you book well ahead of time. By evening, we were ready to try our third Oxnard restaurant. This one was The Kitchen, a brewpub owned by Michelle's sister Cathie Moreno. Casual and fun, The Kitchen is small but has a large group facility next door. When we came, a family was celebrating a child's birthday, and the music was being played at full force! However, in the restaurant behind closed doors, we were apart from the tunes and able to carry on conversation. The Kitchen was featured in the Food Network Diners and Dives, and so I wanted to try one of the special gourmet hamburgers the restaurant is known for. Filled with a giant onion ring, and smothered with bacon, the fresh beef burger was indeed large, and again, I had to cut my meal in half. Tasty, fresh, and oozing with flavor, the burger more than satisfied my meat craving that night. Jamie dialed her appetite into a tilapia fish dish that was so hearty she also had to cut it in half as well.
Day Three-Farm Stands
Embassy Suites pioneered the cook-to-order breakfast way back when it started its hotel chain. Every one in your room gets a free breakfast each day of your stay. At this resort, I was giddy with delight to see the variety of hot domed dishes and the freshness of the fruit each day. Omelettes were cooked to perfection by friendly staff. The support staff of bus boys and bus ladies quickly took our dirty plates and wiped tables clean, clean, clean throughout the morning. They greeted and assisted people with finding tables, and pointed out where to find the coffee when guests seemed confused. The eating area with high ceilings and plenty of sunlight was cheery, and there were plenty of choices for seating, both inside and out.
Upon checkout, we asked about the farms, for I wanted to pick a few fresh fruits before going home. First, we drive to Lil Red Barn, not Little Red Barn. This is literally a red barn on the side of the road filled with bouquets of flowers and a well organized and clean slate of fruits and veggies. We purchased a $3 box of strawberries that were juicy and bright red.
Next, we drove to the A & F Country Market, an outdoor market that has certified organic produce with presticde free respeberries and peaches, and watermelons. We spent a long time here looking at the many fruists and veggies. In particular, I spent even more time grazing in the store's honey corner, where local honeys were sold in various quantities at reasonable prices. There were more farmstands, but we ran out of time and were heading back home to meet our obligations.
If you are looking for a beach getaway free of crowds and full of farm fresh restaurants and an assortment of activities, consider Oxnard, home of the Channel Islands and the hidden treasure that lets you enjoy "la dolce vita."
Embassy Suites by Hilton Manadlay Beach - www. mandalayembassysuites.com
La Dolce Vita Restaurant - www.ladolcevitadimare.com
Waterside Restaurant & Wine Bar - www.thewatersiderestaurantandwinebar.com
The Kitchen Restaurant - www.visitoxnard.com
Sea Fresh Restaurant - www. visitoxnard.com
Island Packers: Channel Islands excursion - www.islandpackers.com
The Collection: shopping and movies - www.thecollectionrp.com
Lil' Red Barn Produce: www.venturycountynow.com/lil red barn
A & F Country Market: www.funin-ventura.com/produce-stands.html
Kathy Chin Leong, editor of Bay Area Family Travel.com, is a lover of all things fresh and yummy.