by Ken McAlpine
See this as a tale of two cities beside the same cooling sea, only one city is a city and, well, one really isn’t. It’s a win-win tale, because – imbued with Southern California sunshine and beachy fun — both places should be at the top of any travel bucket list, and San Diego often is, though Ventura often isn’t, because flying under the radar may be what Ventura does best. And, in the end, this may be Ventura’s greatest charm, and offering.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Balboa Park. At some 1,200 acres, its America’s largest urban cultural park; home to more than fifteen museums, not to mention a world-renowned zoo. Well worth seeing. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Grant Park. It sits atop Ventura, just above City Hall. No museums, no zoos; only the whisper of eucalyptus trees and one of the finest panoramic seascape sunset views in the world. Bring wine. Sit at a picnic table and watch the gloaming turn Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island (part of one of the country’s most glorious national parks – more on that in a minute) a pink-tinctured blue. Well worth seeing. And after the sun has fallen into the Pacific, drive down the hill to downtown Main Street (two minutes, no traffic guaranteed), lined with art galleries, boutique and thrift stores, and restaurants. Maybe catch a play at the Rubicon Theatre, where you’re never more than ten rows away from the likes of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Jack Lemmon, and Davis Gaines (the longest-running Phantom), all of whom have graced the small wooden stage. Haven’t heard of the Rubicon either? It’s okay. You can remedy that too.
Both San Diego and Ventura are about water, and, when it comes to water, you’d be hard-pressed to top San Diego’s beaches and Mission Bay (raise your hand if you’ve heard of Sea World). But it isn’t about topping, it’s about offering different versions of the same joy. Sea World is splashy fun on a grand scale. C-Street (short for California Street) is a quieter, though no less electric, ride: it’s one of the best waves in California, and you can park your car in the seaside lot for $4 all day. No, that is not a typo. Don’t surf? That’s fine. Just watch the acrobatics as you stroll the palm-lined promenade. And beyond the waves, and across the Santa Barbara Channel, lie the five islands of Channel Islands National Park. Again unsung (there’s a theme here), again unparalleled (they’ve been described as the Galapagos of North America, with plants and animals found nowhere else in the world), and again imbued with casual ease: Island Packers, the Park’s concessionaire, will whisk you out to the two closest islands, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, in roughly an hour. Yep, San Diego’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has stunning vistas and a world-renowned spring wildflower riot, but you aren’t likely to see schools of dolphins, or Humpback, Gray, or Blue Whales on the way there.
Some might argue that Ventura is a step (or three) behind San Diego on many fronts, and, frankly, this is true, not that Ventura cares all that much. Take the matter of beer. The craft beer tidal wave began in San Diego. There are now dozens upon dozens of breweries in San Diego, some of which have earned global awards (Yes, there is a World Beer Cup: no, you cannot be a judge). Ventura is creeping up on a twelve-pack of local craft breweries, and the town is not yet entirely on the World Beer Cup map, but there’s always a seat at the bar, and should you sit on the patio at MadeWest Brewery on a balmy evening with a Donlon Imperial India Pale Ale in hand, you might be surprised to find you are sipping a 2018 World Cup bronze medalist. Yep. Casually flying under the radar.
In the end, it’s really pretty simple. Think of Ventura as San Diego pared down. Fewer marquee lights. A lot less crowded. Less expensive. A leaner version of the best reason for living – salty, sunny summer fun.
All year long.
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