Oxnard and Santa Cruz Island

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Couched within a strip of cities of instant renown--Santa Barbara, Malibu, Ventura--sits shy and retiring Oxnard. Its very name resonates with the workhorse persona of this coastal town of 148,000.

A crazy-quilt of odd contrasts, Oxnard boasts some curious seams. Farms abut beaches; military base abuts recreational harbor; there's a golf green uptown, humble center downtown, and the annual splash of big festivals.

Perhaps inspired by its more showy neighbors, Oxnard is up and coming.

Last August I set out to spend a couple of nights in Oxnard before ferrying over to Santa Cruz, a Channel Island, for an overnight. As I exited the Ventura Freeway, a neon sunset glossed over nondescript boulevards with forgettable malls and chain stores, leading to Channel Islands Harbor. My hotel, Casa Sirena, was bound on one side by the pretty marina, on the other by a little park.

In the hotel's Lobster Trap Restaurant, I met my brother and his wife from nearby San Fernando Valley. They were curious about Oxnard's rising-star reputation. As we dined on very good (though not cheap) seafood, my sister-in-law explained how realtors were hawking previously overlooked waterfront property as "upcoast in Oxnard." Forget the factory outlets, though, said my sister-in-law, a skilled browser of Beverly Hills boutiques.

Oxnard's spread-out Channel Islands Harbor is no slouch. It has nine marinas, a water taxi to speed your access from one side to another, 2,600 slips for pleasure craft, commercial fishing dock, and many restaurants. It also encompasses the nautical charms of Fisherman's Wharf at the intersection of Channel Islands Boulevard and Victoria Avenue. Under the idle eye of the New England-style lighthouse is a Crayola-colored wooden village of boutiques, general store, galleries, and waterside eateries. The Ventura Maritime Museum there is rife with the romance of sailors and ships. Old salts' tales come to life with weathered maps, charts, and drawings.

I drove inland under mild, foggy skies--summer here--watching the ice-plant-covered dunes give way to the monotonous boulevards, a respectable-size airport, and acre after acre of farm land. Over the past hundred years Oxnard has gone from cattle grazing to sugar beets and beans to orchards. On the other side of town, Port Hueneme (why-NAY-mee), a major commercial and military port for international shipping, services the defense industry. From this side of town 4,800 acres of patches feed Californians 25 percent of their strawberries.

To civilians Oxnard is probably best known for its big annual Strawberry Festival--May 18-19 this year. It takes place in Strawberry Meadows at Oxnard City College. Everything comes up strawberry, from shakes to shortcake, tart tossing, plus music, crafts, entertainment.

I was three months too late for that festival, but downtown at Heritage Square two other big events--the Salsa (the sauce) and Reggae (the music) festivals--were about to kick off. Chairs were being set up on the groomed square for the concert of the singing Herrera Family. (Oxnard, 55 percent Hispanic, is proud of its ethnic heritage. At 611 North G Street, a plaque marks the site of a former home of the late César Chavez.)

Heritage Square is a paragon of civic pride. It is an architect's showcase of replicated or original homes that have been moved from throughout Oxnard. Including famous ranch houses from 1885 through 1912 and the Pfeiler Water Tower from 1876, it is a pleasing expression of Victorian blues, greens, tans, creams and well-tended gardens.

Walking distance from these Ventura County Historical Landmarks are two noteworthy museums. At Fifth and C streets is the small Carnegie Art Museum. Behind its classical white columns is a permanent collection of over 200 paintings, sculptures, and photos. At the Gull's Wings Museum, 418 W. 14th Street, children watch tornadoes in a tube, dig for fossils, play at being doctors, and more.

Back at the marina, I jogged, weaving with roller bladers, then walked along Oxnard's most shining jewel--its broad state beach, with dunes and nothing more intrusive than weathered beach houses and some condos. Oxnard State Beach and Park is just part of seven miles of wonderful, uncrowded beaches.

Across the Channel to Santa Cruz Island

From Oxnard's harbor you can sail swiftly the 11 miles to Anacapa, the closest Channel Island. But after studying a Park Service brochure, I had settled on Santa Cruz, the second closest. It is the largest and most diverse of the chain. This meant driving about seven miles north along Harbor Boulevard to depart from Ventura Harbor.

Other islands within the National Park--Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, San Miguel--sounded very enticing. But boats to these farther-out isles leave, depending on sailing conditions, only about three times a month. Called the "Galapagos of North America," the Channel Islands are a sanctuary to marine mammals, sea birds, wildlife, and land and sea plants of great interest to biologists.

Much of Santa Cruz is wild and rugged with gigantic sea caves and peaks, the highest at 2,400 feet. A large valley nests between two rugged mountain ranges for much of the island's 22-mile length. The north shore, facing the mainland, has deep wooded canyons and steep cliffs.

Although Santa Cruz is within the National Park, ninety percent of it, the westernmost land, is owned by the Nature Conservancy. I sailed two calm hours, and landed at the east end, on the ten percent of privately owned land.

Fully expecting the coastal fog to extend beyond Santa Cruz, I was delighted to land under Mediterranean blue skies. I left kayakers at the sun-drenched beach and carried my food to the shared, well-equipped kitchen of rustic Scorpion Ranch, about a hundred yards inland. I left my sleeping bag in the dorm-style bunk room.

Loaded with water and lunch, I headed southeast on a nine-mile round-trip hike to Smuggler's Cove. I climbed steeply over windswept native grasses. The golden hills were garnished with dark cypress trees twisted by the prevailing northwesterlies.

Santa Cruz changed little in the 6,000 years it had been home to Chumash Indians. The first white, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, arrived in 1542. Then sheep-ranching was introduced in 1839. Sheep husbandry is no longer allowed, but sun-whitened racks of ribs, skulls, droppings, matted gray wool, and even bleats mark the feral sheep's widespread presence.

Only four mammals are native to Santa Cruz--the spotted skunk, bat, squirrel, and island fox. I counted well over a dozen sightings of the shy, gentle fox, snooping wraith-like mostly at Scorpion Ranch. When it sensed human presence it would scamper off. The fox thrives on a diet ranging from bird eggs to berries, but its behavior suggests it has snitched a taste of human food.

My hike took me through a pasture, from which I saw nothing else but blue beveled sea and a rusted shed with a sign reading "International Lounge Area." It was the island's functioning airport.

Finally I descended as steeply as I had climbed into Smuggler's Cove and found a dozen people, some in kayaks at ocean's edge, having a party. A quarter-mile inland from this scene was Smuggler's Ranch.

It might have been a villa in Southern France or Italy. Italian masons laid the stonework on the two-story stucco house in 1889. On the grounds were pigs, peacock, hens, sheep, olive and fruit trees, a hammock slung between eucalyptus trees, wild anise baking in the sun. In the bright kitchen I met Len and Debbie, cooking up the evening's feast for the beach crowd, who'd been flown in from Camarillo Airport (near Oxnard). The couple were leaders for Horizons West, which offers guided weekend adventures to Smuggler's and Scorpion ranches.

Though both lodgings are described as rustic, Scorpion was clearly the more humble of the two. Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, I relaxed through sunset into a cool evening. I ired up the open-pit barbecue and sat around the fire until stars salted the sky. With a convenient lack of civilization noise, I listened raptly as my knowledgeable innkeeper imparted island lore and history long into the night.

This article was first published in May 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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