Looking for a weekend getaway filled with beautiful beaches, gondola rides, wild island adventures, cultural museums and botanical gardens? It could only get better if there was also fun stuff for kids, like mini-golf, paddle boats, arcades and carousels. Now add great food and affordable accommodations. And it’s all only an hour away. That’s right; Ventura and the cities of the central coast are the getaway you’ve been dreaming of.
This is the highlight of your Ventura visit: a visit to one of the pristine Channel Islands. Santa Cruz is probably the best island for a first visit, as it’s the largest and offers the most amenities. (Though Anacapa is a beautiful and wild adventure, and you can read more about taking a trip to Anacapa here.)
Hop on an Island Packers boat for a day trip to Santa Cruz Island. It’s an amazing foray into pristine nature for kids of all ages (you’ll see even young babies, with the cutest life vests, on the boat on the way over). When you get to the island, which is the only one with running water and a visitor center, you can take a hike with the naturalist volunteer who takes the boat ride over with you, and learn all about the history of the island from the Chumash settlers to the ranchers who raised cattle here to the island’s new life as a National Park and marine sanctuary (that has the cutest dwarf foxes your family will ever see).
The hour ride is a wonderful seafaring adventure, which doubles as a wildlife spotting trip. We recommend taking the boat that docks at Scorpion Ranch, which has lots of beautiful hikes, the visitor center and snorkeling spots. It also has the extra adventure of docking at sea, so you take inflatable motor boats to your shore landing, which makes it extra fun (you get wet!) for kids. If your family is adventurous or has been to the islands before, consider booking a kayak tour while you’re on the island (try the tours at Aquasports). Pack lunch, snacks and water as nothing is available on the island, or make your trip blissfully easy and order a gourmet meal from Channel Island Provisioners (read more about them in the food section!).
Ventura Botanical Gardens
While not as old or vast as some other SoCal Botanical Gardens, the new Ventura Botanical Gardens offers up a few things for families that no other garden in town can: sweeping ocean vistas and a chance to play Mary Contrary and see how the garden grows. The garden winds up in the hills above the city and is in its infant stages, which means every time you visit you can see what’s newly planted and growing. With an easy hiking path that leads to spectacular ocean views, native plants and Chumash stone walls, it’s a wonderful way for kids to stretch, play and learn. Admission is free, and free (informative and fascinating) walking tours are available. Check the website for tour and event information.
Oxnard Beach Park
This is a fabulous park that has absolutely everything you could want: vast green spaces for running, a small playground for littles and a bigger one for more adventurous big kids (pirate themed, of course), dog friendly, extends all the way to the beach and has bike and scooter paths along the beach. Oh, there’s also loads of space for picnicking and grilling. You may have to peel the kids away from here to get to other activities, so it’s a great place to spend the day, or just let them run around and go crazy after a long car ride.
Find it: 4800 Beach Way, Oxnard
Ventura Harbor Village
First stop for family fun in Ventura has to be Ventura Harbor Village. This is where Channel Islands tours and adventures leave from, but leave extra time to explore the harbor and village. While the shops range from unique (get some local art at The Mermaid Gallery and The Ventura County Potters’ Guild) to useful (hats for all come in super handy at Hats Unlimited and extra suits, sun screen and more are available at Ventura Swimwear), the draw here for kids is the activities. You can ride the vintage carousel and play video games at the retro arcade for a trip back in time. To really explore the harbor, rent any kind of boat (paddle, sail, electric or kayak) at Ventura Boat Rentals.
If a gondola ride through pristine canals in a hand carved wooden gondola sounds like a romantic date night, it is. But it’s also an immensely relaxing and entertaining family outing. Kids adore the 50-minute cruise through Oxnard’s hidden (ok, not like you can hide a canal, but did you know Oxnard had such a beautiful, tucked away waterway?) spot, where they can glide and spot fish, birds and paddle boarders and you can bring a bottle of wine and relax after a day of sightseeing. Snuggling blankets line the beautiful boat, and a sunset cruise may just be your favorite part of your trip.
Golf N’ Stuff
When you drive up the coast, you have probably noticed the giant castle looming over the freeway. It’s a massive mini golf course (if that’s not an oxymoron!) and that’s not all. There are go-karts and bumper boats, laser tag and an arcade. If you need a break from nature and museums and boating, this is sure to delight every kiddo in the family.
San Buenaventura Mission
This is the first stop on the historical tour (the one we’re making up!) of Ventura and the central coast. It’s a beautiful example of an early California Mission, and you can bring kids in 7 days a week for self guided tours. Founded in 1782, the mission still holds masses and confessions, and gives kids a glimpse of the early days of settlers life in the area. Enter through the gift shop, where you buy tickets to take a tour of the museum and grounds.
U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
Lovers of history, science & technology and playing with little green army men and tanks will all love this Naval military history museum in Port Hueneme. Pacifist parents dig it too, as it really explains and emphasizes the infrastructure building and engineering that the Navy participates in around the world in times of war and peace. The Seabees (standing for CB, or Construction Brigade) were born in the days after Pearl Harbor when the Navy needed builders who were trained to be in war zones and fight, too. This museum has history, past and present, alongside loads of cool artifacts and STEM room for kids that will let them build and construct to their heart’s content. To get the most out of the museum, you can contact them in advance of your visit and arrange a guided tour.
Murphy Auto Museum
This tucked away little museum in Oxnard is a must for kids (and parents) who love cool vintage cars or miniature trains, because smack in the middle of over 90 beautiful old cars are over 1800 feet of railroad tracks and tiny surrounding villages maintained by the Gold Coast Modular Rail Road Club. The museum is open on weekends year round, and also on Wednesday and Friday from April-December. But try to visit on the weekend; that’s when the railroad club turns on the trains!
Where to Eat
Andria’s Seafood Restaurant and Market
When in Rome, eat pasta. When on the California coast, eat fish! You’ll smell the fish and chips as soon as you hit the harbor village, and then it will be all you can think about. The generous portions of lightly fried halibut do not disappoint and neither do the sourdough bowls filled with clam chowder. Even kids who don’t like fish tear into both, but if they resist, there are also inexpensive kids meal options that include mini corn dogs and chicken tenders alongside the fries and a lemonade (or other drink). Watch the boats as you eat, and you’re ready to take your own seafaring adventure, fully fueled. They’ll also give you a token for 50 cents off an ice cream over at Coastal Cone.
Because of course you need an ice cream by the sea! Between your fish and chips and your cone, you might want to take a long walk and even longer paddle around the harbor, because once you smell the fresh & house baked waffle cone (they also dip ‘em in chocolate and roll them in sprinkles), you’ve got to get one. This ice cream comes in 40 flavors and it’s one of the only places outside Disneyland that you can also get an official Dole Whip.
Channel Island Provisioners
Yes, you can stop at the grocery store and stock up on a whole host of snacks to munch on as you picnic your way through the beach or on your trip to the Channel Islands. But why you’d do that when you can call Channel Island Provisioners and have them pack you a gourmet lunch or breakfast (or both!) to go, we can’t understand. A sailor himself, founder Chef Neil knows how to cook gourmet and pack small. Everything is delicious, but for kids we especially recommend the breakfast buns, which are easy to pack, unbelievably delicious and will get you ready for your whole day of hiking, camping or island exploring. For grownups the tasty seafood catch of the day sandwich is out of this world good. Place your order, they’ll deliver it dockside in the morning, and you’ve got unbelievable food (including a ginger and salty snacks trail mix that settles seasick tummies) for the day with no work. Now that’s a vacation!
Pete’s Breakfast House
Did you take advantage of being on vacation to sleep in, but still want a hearty breakfast? Pete’s is your place. Old school delicious breakfast food is served ‘til they close at 2 p.m., and while your kids will adore the happy face pancakes or the pancake roll up, we have to recommend that whatever you order, you get an extra side of the fresh biscuits and home made strawberry jam (strawberries are the #1 crop of Ventura County, so it makes sense the best and freshest jam is made here).
Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant
After your gondola ride, you may want to continue the feel of an Italian holiday, in which case you should make your next stop Ottavio’s in Camarillo. From a Michelangelo bust to a decorated ceiling, it’s definitely a Disney version of Italy; in other words, kid heaven. Pastas, pizzas, salads and meatballs dominate a decidedly old school menu, which is exactly what you remember (and loved) as a kid yourself. While kids will be tempted by everything on offer, point them to the kids menu, which is a fabulous deal every day, free with adult diners on Monday & Tuesday and comes with a Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple for every grown-up in training. We told you it was old school, in the best possible way! It’s also a hop, skip & jump from the Camarillo outlets if you’re doing a little shopping.
Topa Topa Brewing
If after exploring, hiking, shopping and soaking up some culture you’re beat, this is just the spot. Topa Topa offers 16 rotating hand-crafted beers on tap, and is a wonderful spot to relax inside or on the patio, is very welcoming to kids as well as dogs, and will let you order pizza from the fabulous Tony’s Pizzaria down the street for the kids to munch on while you work your way through a sampler. If you’re an oatmeal stout drinker, don’t miss this version!
Spencer Mckenzies Tacos
Nothing says California like a fish taco, and sometimes after a day smelling the salt air, that’s all you crave. Luckily for Ventura visitors, some of the best in the state are at Spencer Mckenzies. They also make one of the best shrimp and fish burritos (nope, seriously, it’s been quantified) and best hot sauce (that one’s just an opinion, but an educated one). Kids who won’t touch critters from the sea are happy with chicken tenders or chicken and carne asada tacos, and parents and happy with everything, washed down with an ice cold beer.
Where to Stay
Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort
There’s really too much to do in Ventura for a day trip, especially if you’re taking an island hop, when you need to be dockside in the early am. Our favorite place to stay locally with kids is this Embassy Suites in Oxnard, which is right on the beach, has a pool setup that kids compare to Peter Pan’s Neverland, great breakfast buffet and is minutes from the harbor in Ventura. All that, plus suites where you can tuck the kids into one bedroom while you toast the sunset from your balcony in the other and reasonable rates too.
Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
Another Oceanside spot, this one is right on the boardwalk, overlooking Ventura Beach and Ventura Pier with amazing beach views. You know that round, tall building you can spot off the 101? This is it. Right off the freeway, this is an amazingly affordable and convenient option that is super central to all your Central Coast explorations.
Residence Inn Marriott Oxnard at River Ridge
This is our pick for a longer getaway with the kids since it has fantastic suites that are like little apartments and even offers grocery shopping, tennis courts with a coach, footgolf, football fields (attention pigskin fans: this is the Rams and Cowboys official practice venue during spring/summer).
Four Points Sheraton in Ventura
If you’re staying overnight to catch an early boat, this pick is perfect. You can literally roll out of bed and walk to Ventura Harbor Village. So not only can you be on time for boat launches, harborside means you can walk to dinner, the carousel, arcades, shopping and have lovely harbor views.
If you need more help, the Ventura County Coast website has loads of information for planning anything from a daytrip to a week getaway. You can also visit the Ventura County Coast Visitor Centers of each city; find their contact information online for the Ventura Visitors Bureau, Oxnard Visitors Bureau and Camarillo Visitors Center.
Have you ventured to Ventura County? What are your favorite family spots?
—written and images by Meghan Rose