When it comes to places in California that feel like one big outdoor playground, Ventura County, on the south end of the Central Coast, stands out as a sun- and wave-splashed surprise. The oceanfront region doesn’t get the same attention as Santa Barbara County to the north or Los Angeles County to the south, but that might only add to its charm.
“I love that I can surf, I can hike, I can do whatever I want outdoors,” says professional surfer and Ventura native Mary Osborne. “I love that I can walk into a restaurant and say hello to the owner. I love that it’s such a beautiful place. I love that it’s different from anywhere I’ve ever traveled.” Osborne stops, shakes her head, and laughs. “It’s my favourite place to come home to. So much fun.”
A simple truth, often overlooked: Life is short, and you can never have enough fun. San Francisco has fine dining. Los Angeles has glitz. Ventura County—with mountains basking beneath blue skies, waves licked by ocean breezes—has, well, fun.
But don’t listen to us—find out for yourself. Here’s a hit list of great ways to plan a visit to this under-the-radar charmer.
This library and museum in Ventura County celebrates the life of the former movie star and Californian who became one of the 20th century’s most iconic presidents, but it has also won fans for its wow-factor exhibits, from an actual Air Force One to a piece of the Berlin Wall. Sitting on 100 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this may be the most scenic presidential museum in the nation.
Indeed, the Reagan Library regularly tops lists of presidential museums in terms of attendance (roughly a half million visitors per year, on average). But its appeal goes well beyond any politics. “You do not need to be a Republican or have voted for Ronald Reagan to get something out of a visit to our campus,” says Melissa Giller, the chief marketing officer of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute. “Our visitors learn about American history and about the American presidency as a whole.”
A walk through the museum’s main galleries offers a look at Reagan’s upbringing and early career, as well as an easy-access history lesson in the Reagan presidency, such as the Olympic boycott, the talks with Gorbachev, and even the assassination attempt (see the bullet-hole-pierced jacket Reagan was wearing at the time). Interactive exhibits let you get a hands-on feel for, say, riding a horse alongside Reagan at his Rancho del Cielo, acting in a movie with him from his Hollywood days, or flipping through a digital version of his faithfully kept diary.
A few of the permanent exhibits go beyond Reagan himself too. There’s a scaled replica of the Oval Office, an exhibit about the Secret Service, and the Air Force One Pavilion, which contains the actual airplane that served seven U.S. Presidents (including Reagan) as well as the Marine One used by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Take a virtual horseback ride alongside Reagan at his Rancho del Cielo, then sip a pint at the replica of his namesake pub from Ireland.
In this area you’ll also find a prime spot for a museum-day recharge: a replica of The Ronald Reagan, a pub in the president’s ancestral village of Ballyporeen, Ireland, where he made a stop during a diplomatic trip in 1984; the pub serves sandwiches, old-fashioned sodas, and pints of beer. Or, grab lunch at the Reagan’s Country Café, where the menu includes salads, Air Force One Angus Beef Hamburgers, and F-14 Fighter Dogs.
Head back outside to see replicas of the White House’s Rose Garden and South Lawn, as well as Reagan’s final resting place and memorial, next to wife Nancy. Don’t leave without seeing the graffiti-covered, 6,338-pound piece of the Berlin Wall, which came down two years after Reagan’s famous 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate. “We continue to break barriers and stereotypes,” says Giller, “of what a presidential library and museum is considered to be.”
As the most dominant doubles team of all time, pro tennis players Bob and Mike Bryan have wowed fans worldwide. But the crowd-pleasing identical twins, known for their signature high-flying chest bump after each victory, echo that there’s no place like home—especially when that home is California’s Central Coast. Though they now live elsewhere, the pair often returns to Camarillo, in Ventura County, roughly halfway between L.A. and Santa Barbara. We sat down with the high-flying pair at the home of the BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs, and asked them to serve up their views on everything from how they’d spend a perfect day in their home state to their favorite local place for soft tacos.
Where do you live?
Mike: We grew up in Camarillo, and I have a second home there, in Santa Rosa Valley. We live on a little five-acre horse farm; my wife’s a big horseback rider so we’ve got some land out there in the same development as Gary Sinise. He’s my neighbor.
Bob: I’m out of state, but I’m hoping to come to get back to California when my kids are older. Maybe when my daughter goes to Stanford, my alma mater, I’ll move out there.
Mike: [My Santa Rosa Valley home is] close to my parents, close to where our roots are. We love the area—we’ve traveled the world and there’s no place like home. It's just beautiful: the mountains, the ocean five miles away. That’s gonna be the place we’ll stay once we’re done playing. We’ll probably die in that house.
Bob: I like the variety and diversity of California—mountains, oceans, deserts—there’s not really any place like it that has it all.
Who or what is your greatest California love?
Mike: It’s tough to beat the Ventura County and Santa Monica beaches. We grew up bodysurfing there. And we love the mountains too—up behind Ojai in the Santa Monica Mountains—my mom and wife go horseback riding there all the time. We love the Channel Islands too—on a clear day and you see them on the horizon. It's a great view.
Bob: The fact that you can escape into nature on a trail and see what the Native Americans saw hundreds of years ago—it’s cool.
What is the biggest misperception about California?
Mike: That it’s all about showbiz and Hollywood. You get a whole range of people here—even cowboy types. It’s so diverse.
Bob: Yeah, everyone sees the Hollywood sign and that’s what they attach to California—but that’s just a very small part of this place.
What is the stereotype that most holds true?
Mike: The language. “Dude”—it’s what we grew up saying. When people hear us talk they know we’re from California.
Bob: Yeah: “Chill out, dude.”
What is your favorite Golden State moment?
Mike: The sunsets on the beach. We always go to the huge sand hill on the way to Malibu. I go up that and watch the sunset and the waves crashing. Mornings are great too—the crystal-clear air, the blue sky, the crispness. You can wake up on Christmas and go outside to a 75º day.
Bob: The cool shade. The air’s a little thicker on the east coast. I like the freshness in California—just throw on a light sweater at night and a t-shirt during the day.
Time for a road trip—where are you going?
Bob: I’d go up Highway 1 and stop at Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, then spend the night at Ventana Inn. Then go to Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and I’ve gotta stop at Stanford. Then go across the Golden Gate Bridge into Muir Woods and then keep going up to Napa to do some wine tasting. Then come back and do it all over again.
Mike: I'd hit the national parks. We’d go to Sequoia National Park—my wife has never been and I want her to see those big trees. Then we’d hit Yosemite, then Lake Tahoe and go out on a boat on the water. We’d drive around the lake—on the California side, of course—roll all the way up the state, then zoom down the I-5 to Joshua Tree National Park.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be?
Bob: A carne asada soft taco or a chile verde burrito—they seem to get it right in Southern California. I’m always looking for authentic Mexican food.
Mike: We’d always go to Somis Market near Camarillo. It was in the middle of nowhere, and we hit it almost every day. It was pretty greasy and fattening, but it had the best flavor, and you couldn’t match those beans and rice and the sauces and salsas. To this day our favorite is Mexican food. A huevos rancheros breakfast—you can’t beat it.
Bob: Yeah, if we had one last meal on this earth, it would be Mexican food from Somis Market.
Best California song?
Bob: “California Love” by Dr. Dre and Tupac.
Mike: And any songs by the Beach Boys—my dad went to high school with them. He taught us to play music at an early age, and he taught us all the Beach Boys songs—“Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls.”
How would your California dream day unfold?
Bob: We’d wake up early, drop the kids off at school. We’d go on a bike ride in Ojai, maybe take a boat out on Lake Casitas, then swing over to Carpinteria Beach—the so-called safest beach in the world—and do a little body-whomping. Come back down, pick up the kids, go to the Santa Barbara Zoo, maybe do some shopping at the outlets. Then bedtime with some good Mexican food.
Mike: I’d wake up early, go get some great breakfast down in Venice, then go roller-blading along the beach. Take off the blades and go into the ocean for a little dip. Then get some lunch in Bel Air, maybe catch a concert with friends at the Hollywood Bowl…
Bob: Which concert?
Mike: Maroon 5. Then I’d go watch the sunset…
Mike: In Yosemite.
Bob: You’d need a space ship. Sounds like a good day.
Mike: Then I’d come back and do some horseback riding with my wife, then shut it down. Yeah, that sounds like a good day.
Filled with some 2,000 gleaming boats of every shape and size, Ventura County’s largest harbor is also filled with opportunity. There’s year-round sport fishing and, from December through April, almost-daily gray whale-watching excursions. Rent a kayak at Channel Islands Kayak Center and explore the calm harbor; alternatively, grab an oar and a stand-up paddleboard, or putt around in an electric boat, from Hopper Boat Rentals. Or use the harbor as a gateway, and climb aboard an Island Packers regularly scheduled cruise to Channel Islands National Park. This chain of unspoiled islands, some less than an hour’s boat ride away, is home to plants and animals so unique that their protected habitat has earned the nickname “Galapagos of North America.”
Land-based activities abound. On Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., a farmers’ market pops up adjacent to the harbor’s Marine Emporium Landing—a great place to mingle with locals and check out fresh seafood and produce. Head to the harbor mouth and watch the boats come and go, or spread a towel out in the sun at Silver Strand Beach or Hollywood Beach. Don’t miss the Ventura County Maritime Museum: the collection of ship models and maritime art (some from 1622) is exceptional.
Hungry? If it’s morning, have breakfast at Mrs. Olson’s, a local institution. Enjoy waterfront views at Sea Fresh Channel Islands and The Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar, or for a twist, enjoy clay-pot cooking, Brazilian style, at Moqueca.
Oxnard is where strawberries meet the sea. In this city 40 minutes south of Santa Barbara, you will find 11.3 kilometres of unspoiled beaches, plus farm stands overflowing with just picked produce from nearby farms and fields. The town also has a rich history, and a strong preservation ethic to protect historic buildings and sites.
Start your visit with a stop at Heritage Square, which hosts a summer concert series and where 15 Victorian homes open for weekend tours. View California art, from impressionism to contemporary Latino works, at the Carnegie Art Museum, housed in the original Carnegie Library building dating back to 1906. Next, visit Oxnard’s two outstanding automotive museums. At Mullin Automotive Museum see exquisitely designed French cars from the Art Deco era. At the Murphy Auto Museum for American classics, see vintage classics including a 1903 Oldsmobile, and the legendary Avanti, the early Sixties sports car that was a last-ditch effort to save the Studebaker Corporation. Unfortunately, it did not work.
For Oxnard’s wilder side, board a catamaran with outfitter Island Packers on trips to craggy Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park, for a good hike and a visit to the island’s historic lighthouse. From late December into April, set sail on naturalist-led cruises to see migrating grey whales. Also at the Oxnard harbour, check out nautical art and meticulously crafted ship models at Channel Islands Maritime Museum.
Bike riding is undeniably fun, but add the chance to see dolphins leaping in the Pacific Ocean as you follow a coast-hugging path—well, it can’t get more California than that. Find this slice of pedaling perfection, plus rides and hikes ranging from leisurely to downright epic, all over Ventura County.
If you don’t have a bike with you, it’s easy to rent one—try Wheel Fun at the foot of Ventura Pier, or get bikes and great tips on local routes at Open Air Bicycles Ventura, in town. For an easy ride, pedal along Ventura’s beachfront, with views of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Or follow the new Rincon Bike Trail, a three-and-a-half-mile, pan-flat paved route that heads north to Carpinteria’s Rincon Point—a great place to watch ace surfers tackle this legendary break.
Ventura County has plenty of options for fat-tire fans, too. Local mountain bikers know Ojai and Simi Valley offer both rolling hills and lung-searing climbs: Ojai’s Sisar Canyon trail goes up and up and up, but rewards with horizon-wide views. One ride that’s almost all downhill is the Ojai Valley Trail, linking Ojai to the coast, with epic views along the way. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area also ranks as a mountain biker’s dream, with options ranging from easy fire roads following oak-dappled streams to single-track trails that climb to eye-popping ocean views. Cheeseboro and Palo Comado Canyons, in the gently rolling Simi Hills, are favorites among local hikers and bikers too. Keep your eyes peeled for deer, and when evening comes, maybe owls and bobcats too.
Hikers can also find their happy place in Ventura County. For quick and easily accessed hiking jaunts, there are park-and-go opportunities at every turn: from Camarillo Regional Park (the hike to the top of Rhombus Rock offers panoramic checkerboard valley views) to Ventura’s McGrath State Beach, one of the best bird-watching spots in Southern California. Another local favorite is the hike along the rugged, vista-laden Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Relish solitude? Lose yourself in the serene emptiness of Los Padres National Forest (stop in at the ranger station in Ojai for route maps; you can mountain bike here too). Or catch the Island Packers boat in Oxnard or Ventura to hike in Channel Islands National Park.
If you’re a smart dog, Ventura County is where you’ll try to get your master to head for vacation. In this oceanfront county, dogs aren’t just welcome, they’re celebrated. Ventura has its own “AmbassaDogs”—four-legged city reps—including Haole, who may surf better than you.
But dogs care little for recognition, and lots for amenities. First, there are beaches. Ventura County has tons of them, and dogs, on leash or off (check local regulations), are welcome to romp at most of them. You and your best furry friend can stroll the promenade at Surfers’ Point in Ventura, watching surfers catch some of California’s best waves (and perhaps even spot Haole, perched on the end of his human pal’s longboard), or trot out to the end of the Ventura Pier, snuffling recent catches and old wood. In Oxnard, Oxnard Shores Beach and Silver Strand Beach offer fine snuffling, too. Water-loving dogs (and their owners) are also welcome at both the county’s harbors (Channel Islands and Ventura); both have extensive romping greens and many of the restaurants are dog-friendly. In Ventura Harbor, check out The Parlor’s dog-friendly Paw-lor Menu.
Dog-friendly parks abound. Camarillo Grove Park and Mission Oaks Park in Camarillo, Conejo Creek Dog Park in Thousand Oaks, Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura (the place to cavort for furry fellows, and nice ocean views for owners), and Lake Casitas Recreation Area near Ojai (no swimming in the lake, sorry) are some of the green-grass highlights. Leashed dogs are also welcome on the infinite trails crisscrossing the vast and lovely Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (check with the National Park Service for specifics).
Dogs aren’t much for shopping, but they are big on being with you. All the county’s downtowns welcome dogs, and many shopping outlets (such as Camarillo Premium Outlets) do too. As an added plus, many downtowns are also close to green grass: In Ojai, a quaint collection of shops is located just across the street from dog-friendly Libbey Park. And when it’s time to put up your collective feet, plenty of local restaurants are dog-friendly. It might happen that your dog leads you to just the right spot for both of you: say, a star-filled night on the patio listening to live, local music and dining on farm-to-table freshness at the Deer Lodge tavern in Ojai. After all, what’s a best friend for?
Sip your way along the Ventura County Wine Trail, where you will find nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms in settings ranging from urban neighbourhoods to the bucolic Ojai Valley.
Sample exquisite reds in a 1902 Victorian building at Rancho Ventavo Cellars on downtown Oxnard’s historic Heritage Square. In the Ventura County city of Camarillo, visit the tasting room of Cantara Cellars, which offers barrel tastings of its vintages (pair them with cheeses and other snacks served in a low-key lounge area). Or get a taste of Ojai Valley’s terroir at Boccali Vineyards & Winery, where you can sample estate-grown Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel in a tasting room housed in the vineyard’s family-run Italian restaurant. Another outstanding wine-centric dining destination is Tierra Sur. It serves locally sourced New American fare at Herzog Wine Cellars, known for award-winning Kosher wines.
For an in-depth look at the Ventura County wine scene, take a tour led by wine experts at Explore Wines, or head out on a custom trip with Ventura County Wine Tours.
Insider’s Tip: If you don't have much time, stop in at the California Welcome Center Oxnard, which has a tasting room serving Ventura County wines.