Gateway to the Channel Islands
By Ann Nelson
When driving into Oxnard, the strawberry fields seem to stretch for miles, offering a sense of tranquility and peace. My husband and I chose Oxnard because it is only a one-hour drive north of L.A., it is a small beachfront community, and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We also wanted to visit the Channel Islands.
Oxnard’s name may not be beautiful, but the surroundings are. Once called the “Land of Everlasting Summers” by Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, the city was named after the Oxnard Brothers who built a sugar beet factory in 1898. Over the last 100 years strawberries have taken over, producing more than 20 percent of the state’s crop.
The Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard is the gateway to Channel Islands National Park. The harbor is only 11 miles from Anacapa, the closest of the park’s five islands. We spent the first day exploring Anacapa Island. Getting to the islands is easy. Island Packers provides a brand new high-speed catamaran-style boat that reaches the islands in about a half-an-hour. My husband and I weren’t in a hurry and chose to take one of their slower boats. It was a perfect day with bright sunshine and a sparkling sea. Porpoises criscrossed in front of the boat, riding the waves effortlessly. As the mainland faded into the background and the islands came softly into focus. I thought to myself, it’s little moments like this that truly create joy.
After our boat docked at Land-ing Cove, we climbed 154 rusty iron steps to meet our park-ranger guide who would show us around and educate us about the island. Anacapa is a seabird heav-en, a vital nesting site for both Western gulls and the brown pelican. The steep cliffs and isolation from mainland predators provide a safe breeding ground for these birds.
It is spring and nesting season for the gulls. As we walked the trail toward Cathedral Cove, new mothers squawked and flapped their wings. They clearly didn’t want us to get close to their new baby chicks. Our guide expressed the critical importance of walking slowly and quietly. Disrupting the chicks is a matter of life and death. If a baby gull ventures into another gull’s territory, that chick will not be accepted back into their own family — the parents will peck the chick to death. This cruel reality, I suppose, is part of nature’s way.
Cousteau called the Channel Islands “California’s Galapagos”. This unspoiled wilderness is home to over 2,000 species of plants and animals; 145 are found nowhere else on earth. Something has always drawn me to the sea. I feel centered and at peace when I listen to the ocean and feel the salty breeze. Anacapa and the other Channel Islands are the most remote and wild place you will find in Southern California. It is believed that some 18,000 years ago these islands were actually portions of one large island of about 724 square miles known as Santarosae. As glaciers melted and the level of the sea rose, portions of the large island were submerged and the five present islands remained.
Whale watching is a spectacular pastime around the Channel Islands and actually takes place year ‘round. Gray, blue, humpback, minke, sperm and pilot whales all spend time here. The most common sightings are the gray whales from mid-to late-December through mid-March. The gray whales migrate 6,000 -10,000 miles to secluded lagoons in Mexico to breed and bear their young, then journey back to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Look for the blue and humpback whales during the summer. Island Packers is one company offering Nature Discovery Tours for viewing these magnificent marine mammals.
More than half of this National Park is under water. Divers come from around the world to explore the giant kelp forests, pinnacles, ledges and walls thriving with all kinds of marine life. This is also a perfect place to go fishing, snorkeling, and sea kayaking around the secluded coves and sea caves.
Later in the afternoon Channel Islands Kayak Center introduced my husband and me to the magic of exploring the islands from the ocean. The sea-caves, rock archways and fountain-like blowholes are spectacular. The visibility is astonishing. As we paddled, we looked down and could see 40 to 100 feet below our kayak. Mike, our guide, was right when he said “these sites are one of the gifts the world offers us. When we take the opportunity to experience these gifts, we experience life.”
When we arrived back on land we chose Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort as the “home-base” for our adventure. What a perfect place to come back to. Located on the beach with spectacular ocean views, the resort has it all! Complimentary, full cooked-to-order breakfast, a huge outdoor heated pool, lighted tennis courts, exercise room, a spa, and classy restaurants are just a few of the amenities. That evening my husband and I sat back on the deck with a bottle of wine from the mini-bar, and simply drank in the magic of the sun setting over the ocean.
The morning of our second day was spent at the Maritime Museum. The docents offer history lessons using ship models and other artifacts to help illustrate the maritime history from 2500 BC through today. A whole new world opened up to me. For instance, I learned about the porcupine ships that were designed with wooden spears and iron tips that made it impossible for the enemy to board without impaling themselves. Many of the model ships were built out of animal bones that prisoners of war saved from their meals while in captivity.
We capped off the afternoon spending a few hours indulging in wine tasting at Herzog Wine Cellars. Peter Stern, the chief winemaker gave us the grand tour of the largest Kosher winery on the West Coast. Every step of the production process from grape crushing to fermenting to bottling is conducted by Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath.
During our tour we learned that wine is an important Jewish ritual. Kosher wine must be made by Jews who, from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday, don’t work, drive, or turn on electrical appliances as they observe the commandment to rest at week’s end. Royal’s Herzog offers a wide variety of wine and the brand regularly wins medals at tastings and favorable reviews from magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
If you are wanting to sample some of the best restaurants in town, the Progressive Dining Experience can’t be beat. For $65.00 Captain Bob will take you on a harbor cruise to enjoy each course of your meal at a different restaurant. My husband and I enjoyed scrumptious crab cakes for appetizers at The Lobster Trap. At Sea Fresh Seafood we shared white sea bass topped with mushrooms, onion and cilantro, and Macadamia-crusted Halibut. The final docking lead us to the Whales Tail for dessert. Great chocolate, strong coffee. A slow cruise back to shore with soft music playing in the background was the perfect way to end the evening.
There is so much to do and learn in Oxnard and the Channel Islands. We have already booked another trip for the fall.
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently residing in San Diego, CA.
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