Oxnard, California: The Affordable Family Vacation

Oxnard, CA may have a funny name, but Eric and Nancy Anderson say it's a winning destination for a family vacation. Its beach and museums are just 2 of the highlights of a trip to the southern tip of California's Central Coast.

Oxnard is a city of 200,000 people spreads over the fertile farming land on the southernmost point of California’s Central Coast between the Pacific and the Santa Monica Mountains. This land, the Oxnard Plain, has accumulated its rich alluvial soil mostly from the sediments of the Santa Clara River over the eons of geological time. The crops growing here, like lima beans, tomatoes, and strawberries are living in a topsoil that is more than 200 feet deep. Oxnard has been called the Strawberry Capital of California, its annual revenue from its strawberries alone topping $100 million!

Its agricultural potential was discovered by the Oxnard brothers at the end of the 19th century. Henry T. Oxnard was the dynamo developing the area and the town was finally called after him. Locals apparently would have preferred something more euphonious even as they chanted “Oxnard: More than just a pretty name!” Later when its 20 miles of soft sand beaches were discovered by Hollywood film makers, they made the movie “The Sheik” here with the (then) famous Rudolph Valentino. Then fancy homes were built by residents offering the imaginative slogan “Oxnard: Only our name keeps us humble!”

The land is flat and walking and bicycling are easy — and inexpensive – activities as part of a family vacation, then there is the beach. Tourists to Southern California need to know, although it’s sunny in California and people love to lie on our beaches, our waters aren’t as warm as those impacted by the Gulf Stream on the East Coast. This is not Florida. And few Southern Californian hotels have a beach you can walk out on and embrace, Oxnard has one, possibly the best of all the Embassy Suites we have stayed at: the Oxnard Mandalay Bay.

We like Embassy Suites. They don’t gouge you with resort fees. Instead they offer a substantial cooked breakfast, free parking, newspaper and WiFi, and this fun-allowing free evening event that Embassy Suites first pioneered, “the manager’s special” that offers snacks, cocktails, and wine in the early evening. We saw kids playing table tennis while we chatted to the bartender. No surprise, and through a wide gate beyond the pool stretches the ocean. At the time of our visit in February 2015 winter rate rooms (all suites actually) were $99 and those with a sliding door to the beach $199. Families traveling with kids and trying to make vacations fun and affordable could comfortably go for the less expensive suite and make the kids’ running through the gate to the beach the big excitement of the day.

It’s no surprise to see the ocean figures in Oxnard’s attractions. The city has the deepest harbor between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In fact, Port Hueneme is the only deep water military port between San Diego and Seattle.

Some of Oxnard’s nautical history is on display at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum that has now relocated to Bluefin Circle on the waterfront. Although there’s a lot there for adults, it’s really a kids’ heaven, and your soul leaps at the end of the day at the interest shown when the museum is meant to be closing and yet children are still sitting there hearing about their naval heritage — and enjoying it.

(Top right) One of the treasure ships of the early Ming Dynasty. The model scale is one inch equals 10 feet and shows a ship with 9 sails that was 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. Massive! In 1405, Emperor Zhu Di had ordered a massive “Treasure Fleet” of 200-300 ships with 28,000 men to sail on the “Western Ocean.” The Admiral (Zheng He) kept a logbook. The fleets made 7 voyages between 1405 and 1433 when abruptly Ming imperial policy changed to one of isolationism whereupon China, the superpower of the 15th century, closed its doors on the world for 5 centuries. Nations including America don’t learn from their mistakes.

Nine of the 120 models in the museum were exquisitely made by Edward Marple, a local retired dental technician, but the 9 unusual ones (top left) were created by French prisoners of war in England during the Napoleonic Wars. The models were made out of bone leftover from their meals and became popular purchases by the British people. The prisoners were allowed to keep what money they made. The other models span 5,000 years of maritime history and include Roman biremes from the 1-2 centuries AD and, below, the famous Swedish ship Vasa, which sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage. For one of our articles about Vasa click here. Other museum models vary from Viking longships to the ships which brought Columbus to America in 1492 — as every schoolchild knows: La Pinta, La Nina and La Santa Maria. Click here for our article on Viking ships but the Hurstwic article about those fantastic ships is more informative.

We noticed that the local children at the maritime museum were proud to display their interest and their knowledge but the kids at the Gull Wings Children’s Museum didn’t care to do that. They were too busy engrossed in their own world and oblivious that Oxnard does such a poor job of supporting this perfect little place for the world of children. This children’s museum must be the Cinderella of museums yet is a must see if you are here with your family. It’s a modest building leased for a dollar a year around the corner from the splendid Carnegie Museum. It opened in 1987 funded by a small group of educators which is probably why it is so perfect for kids. It is conveniently just off Highway 101 so it could be a destination in itself if only it had more city support [those comments are ours from hanging around little Oxnard as tourists trying to find what the attractions are. We did not hear such comments from the museum staff.]

It has a touch tank but you expect that in a hands-on museum. The resident iguana is called Frankenstein and obviously has a thing for Mandy Lira, our guide. She goes into its cage and explains as she greets it, “I first came to this museum, the only children’s museum in Ventura County, in a school visit when I was 5 years old. Now I have 3 children — and 3 animal babies: an English bulldog, a pug and Frankenstein aged 18 months.” Asked about the museum’s mission she replies, “We’re here to provide experiences which excite the senses and inspire young minds to ask questions.” The first experience we notice is that of being in a doctor’s examining room where a doll has been created that shows the body’s interior when the child pulls back Velcro layers. The space is quite authentic even showing brain CT scans – and a chest X-Ray that is not displayed the wrong way round as so often Hollywood does in its movies.

Experiences for the child can include blasting off in the Orion Spacecraft and walking on the Moon up high — or, down low, digging for fossils at a paleontological site and making fossil rubbings. Or playing at being a “first responder” while wearing a firefighter’s uniform or being an EMT in the back of an ambulance. (Insert: Frankenstein checking it all out). Bottom image. Mandy Lira and “the other Amanda” Ms. Hofmann-Handy, the executive director, smile for our photograph on hearing our remark, “This museum makes us want to be kids again!”

There are plenty of the usual American Easy Eats places in Oxnard. There’s a lunch counter in the tiny Woolworth Museum at 210 W 4th Street. “It’s the only Woolworth museum in the World,” a local walking downtown tells us. “Our 5- and 10-cent store went out of business in 1997.” And thanks to Google Maps, we found or way to the only bargain in America, an ice cream at McDonalds.

But if the affordability of your Oxnard vacation has allowed a celebration there are 2 restaurants in particular you might consider, the Waterside, positioned where else, in the Channel Islands Harbor and La Dolce Vita in Heritage Square. Both those locations in Oxnard, even by themselves, are attractive places to come to in a city that, unlike neighboring Ventura, lacks a real downtown Main Street — and to find 2 such restaurants open in the evening for dinner is an extra pleasure.

The Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar has a heated glass enclosed patio and, of course, a fine harbor view. It encourages tourists to hang around the harbor and maybe consider visiting the Channel Islands themselves. We sometimes forget those options when we come to Oxnard or Ventura. Our vacation preferences for museums has had to ignore Rick Steves’ opinion that says, surely tongue in cheek, “Museums can ruin a good vacation.” Our usual time restraints and advancing years now make us eschew adventure trips as if our motto is the softer the adventure the better the trip. But the harbor offers a lot of interesting places.

Heritage Square opened in 1991. With its eleven relocated century-old homes, its church, water tower, pump house and Victorian buildings and its 25 businesses and gift shop it is actually more commercial than the harbor but it has a jewel in the restored Victorian home we have come to each Oxnard visit: Michelle Kenney’s La Dolce Vita. Michelle, the owner and chef, has her own cookbook for sale and even offers a Saturday cooking class (reservations 805-486-6878). Her Italian and Mediterranean fusion cuisine gets rave reviews but there’s more than that to its charm. City dwellers used to dining in fine restaurants in malls or Pentagon-sized buildings are delighted to be dining in a house. It’s as if they were in. if not Europe, at least a village in New England. And turns out Michelle lived in New England for several years.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.