For decades TV wits like Johnny Carson had a field day with that city's hardly poetic name, just as old time radio comic Jack Benny needed only to exclaim "Cucamonga!" to be sure of getting a laugh from his audience.

Oxnard is prime agricultural land.

Oxnard — not very California sounding either. Nothing like "Reina de Los Angeles” pragmatically shortened to "Los Angeles” or even sister city "San Buenaventura", which eventually got clipped to "Ventura.”

Oxnard was named a century ago by Henry Oxnard, the sugar beet king who helped build the town to house his workers. Legend has it that Henry the preferred the name "Zachari" (Greek for "sugar") but, frustrated by local antipathy to foreign influence, finally said, "Oh, hell, I’ll just name it after myself and be done with it!"

Strawberry Fields Forever.

Nowadays Oxnard is the largest city (200,000) between LA and Santa Barbara. Situated on the western edge of the Oxnard Plain it remains one of the world’s most fertile agricultural regions. Each spring the famed Strawberry Festival reminds us that California produces 85% of the nation's crop and Oxnard alone annually ships out ten million pint baskets of strawberries.

Alas, tourism survives not solely amid the fruits of the earth. After all, on any given weekend how many pint baskets of strawberries can you eat?

Stay for Oxnard's Strawberry festival.

What the Oxnard folks are trying to create — flanked by the dazzle of Hollywood and spectacular scenery of the California coastline — is something the tourist industry likes to call a "niche destination". And they are doing a pretty good job of it.

Start by asking yourself, "what can Oxnard show me that the rest of southern California can’t?"

First, there’s the U.S. Channel Islands, home to Channel Islands National Park. Just a 90 minute ferry boat ride from the harbor at Oxnard, the Islands have been called "the Galapagos of North America". Isolated from the mainland, the Islands are home to many unique species of animal and plant life. These stark volcanic peaks rising from the Pacific are important breeding grounds for eagles, falcons and gulls.

Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands.

A particular treat in springtime is a visit to East Anacapa Island, when its 700 acre surface is literally covered by thousands of nesting Western gulls. A mile and a half of trails allow you to walk among the mamas (and papas) sitting their eggs.

As you weave your way along, sometimes only a few feet from the nests, the large grey and white birds offer up an unnerving chorus of wails, doubtless intended to keep intruders at bay. I couldn’t help but think, as one of the more intrepid gulls dive bombed towards my head only to break away a split second before contact, that it must have been here on Anacapa that Alfred Hitchcock received his inspiration for "The Birds"!

Caution sign on Anacapa Island.

But fear not, gentle reader — as long as you keep a reasonable distance these winged creatures mean you no harm. On second thought, note the tons of guano deposited everywhere about and remember to bring along a not-too-favorite hat.

The ferry crossing to Anacapa, Santa Cruz and the other Channel Islands operates year round and affords great opportunities for observing dolphins, seals, sea lions and migrating whales.

Although its agricultural lifeblood has inclined Oxnard to face landward, the sea beckons nearby with miles of soft sand beaches and some of California’s best surfing. The "Arabian" quality of the dunes prompted the filming of various sandy romances, including Rudolf Valentino's "The Sheik". Since Malibu is only a short drive to the south, it’s hardly surprising that Clark Gable and sundry starlets regularly frolicked amid the waves — thus the name "Hollywood Beach" graces the popular local strand.

The Ventura County Maritime Museum.

A pair of nautical museums in the vicinity are definitely worth a visit: The Ventura County Maritime Museum houses an extraordinary collection of historical paintings and ship models with special emphasis on depictions of American and Pacific Coast naval life. At nearby Port Hueneme, the Seabee Museum offers a fascinating look into the peace- and war-time activities of the U.S. Navy "CBs" (Construction Battalion).

Both museums are in the process of relocating to new facilities but remain open to visitors. Note that Port Hueneme, the only military deep water port between San Diego and Puget Sound, is subject to increased access restrictions in the wake of 9/11.

In any case, the bracing salt air stimulates a healthy appetite. Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor has worked up a pleasant scheme of "progressive dining" which involves boarding a water taxi between courses!

Dine around Oxnard by Water Taxi.

Our evening began with a spicy appetizer of Baked Clams Diavolo at Sea Fresh Seafood followed by a short harbor cruise to look over a score of waterfront mansions. Back on shore, we settled in for a main course of zesty beefsteak at a new Brazilian restaurant called Moqueca.

Dessert? Re-board the water taxi to seek out a variety of dockside options. It’s all good fun and the sunsets alone are worth the voyage.

Oxnard's Salsa Festival.

Other dining options include a brace of excellent Mexican restaurants, particularly family spots like Pilar’s Café and Sabor Mexican & Seafood in the historic downtown which serve some of the best and most reasonably priced Latin cuisine on the West Coast. This should surprise no one, since a full two-thirds of Oxnard’s population is of Mexican descent, many of the families having settled in the community a hundred years ago in the days of Henry Oxnard himself. The Mexican community has been instrumental in developing the annual Oxnard Salsa Festival which takes place each July.

The historic district also features Heritage Square, a collection of restored nineteenth century homes and public buildings. La Dolce Vita, a friendly and inviting Italian family restaurant, has located in the McGrath House and next door Rancho Ventavo Cellars recently opened its new winery in the 1902 Scarlett House.

Dine at Herzogs Wine Cellars' Tierra Sur.

On the subject of California food and wine, one of the more intriguing local establishments is the Herzog Wine Cellars. The Herzogs started out producing fine kosher wines for the Austro-Hungarian royal court in the nineteenth century, leading Emperor Franz Josef to dub the family patriarch "Baron Herzog".

How did an Austrian kosher winery wind up in Oxnard? Of course part of the reason stems from the availability of excellent wine grapes from nearby vineyards of the central coast, but another factor is a local Jewish community able to provide a sufficient number of observant and knowledgeable wine makers who ensure that kosher standards are maintained throughout the winemaking process. Tours and wine tastings are offered daily.

Be sure to couple a visit to Herzog Wine Cellars with lunch or dinner at Tierra Sur, the winery’s superb gourmet restaurant. Executive Chef Todd Aarons has garnered a reputation for excellent and inventive kosher cookery (meat, in this case, meaning that here no dairy products are served). Of course any number of Herzog’s fine selection of Pinots, Merlot, Chardonnays and Zinfandels are available for pairing with the stellar appetizers and entrees.

Click photo to book the Mandalay Beach Hotel

Capistrano Restaurant at Embassy Suites' Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort.
(Click photo to book The Mandalay Beach.)

Look to stay at least two or three nights, especially if you plan on a daytrip out to the Channel Islands. Lodgings include Embassy Suites’ Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort, a luxury alternative right on the beach adjacent to Channel Harbor. Their Capistrano Restaurant features excellent California Cuisine and a sumptuous Sunday Brunch.

If you come with family, a good price-conscious choice is the Marriott Residence Inn just a few minutes drive from the beaches. An added feature at Marriott is the golf package available for play at the adjacent River Ridge courses, which include two 18-hole championship layouts warmed by perennial California sunshine and cooled by ocean breezes.

Any time is strawberry
time in Oxnard.

For more information on Oxnard holidays, go to www.visitoxnard.com or phone 800-269-6273. That website will lead you to others which focus on Channel Islands National Park, local museum and historic sites as well as lodging and dining opportunities both locally and around Ventura County.

More information on the annual California Strawberry Festival is found at www.strawberry-fest.org or on Oxnard’s upcoming Salsa festival at www.oxnardsalsafestival.com

Interested in kosher wines?  Check out  www.herzogwinecellars.com

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine Editor. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature about Schooner Sailing to the American Galapaos (Channel Islands), and the feature XOXO Oxnard.

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