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Oxnard revisited: better than ever

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Last year I wrote an article about a fun-filled visit to Oxnard, a beach town on the California coast located close to the Channel Islands. This year we had the opportunity to visit Oxnard again and our initial enthusiasm was renewed. If anything, we are even more enthusiastic now about all Oxnard has to offer, including beautiful beaches, lots of outdoor activities, interesting museums and ever-increasing wonderful culinary options. Oxnard is known to be an agricultural mecca, but it is so much more.

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And Oxnard is so easily accessible. Wherever you live in Southern California, Oxnard, which is just south of Santa Barbara, is only a few hours or less away. The city is right off the Pacific Coast Highway 101. Or if you live further away, you can fly right into Los Angeles and be in Oxnard in about 60 minutes or even fly into Santa Barbara and be there in about 30 minutes.

Stay right on the beach

We were so happy to be staying again at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Resort on Mandalay Bay. The property is lushly landscaped and set on eight acres of the pristine Mandalay Beach. Major renovations are now mostly completed and the results are stunning—from the luxurious lobby to the upscale bar and restaurant. The suites, many with breath-taking ocean views, are comfortable and spacious. Our suite had two bathrooms, two TVs, and a lovely outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. We enjoyed a full breakfast every morning, with made-to-order omelets, and a manager-hosted cocktail party every afternoon. (Make sure you try the delicious, made-from-scratch margaritas.)

We loved walking to and from our room through the beautifully landscaped property surrounding an inviting, large, heated pool. The tumbling waterfalls and tropical plants create a true resort feel.

Although there are many wonderful restaurants in Oxnard, you definitely need to savor the delicious menu items at the hotel’s Coastal Grill restaurant. Executive Chef Tim Hulbert has created an enticing menu of both casual and elegant dishes, as we discovered during a dinner our group of writers enjoyed. He emphasized to us that he focuses his menu on local, seasonal ingredients and wants his customers to leave the restaurant saying “wow!”

After we ordered some interesting wines and creative cocktails, we sampled scrumptious appetizers, including Chicken Quesadilla, Baja Spring Rolls, Spinach and Artichoke Dip with pita chips, and tangy Chicken Wings. Some of the entrees receiving rave reviews included Linguini Primavera, BBQ Ribs, Rib Eye and New York Strip steaks with roasted potatoes, Fish and Chips, Roasted Chicken and the Fish of the Day, which happened to be tender, sweet Escolar. We concluded our meal with a Sweet Indulgence Dessert Sampler, an imaginatively presented variety of sweet indulgences in small glasses, including white and dark chocolate mousse, strawberry cheesecake, tagine pana cotta (sweet Italian custard) and key lime pie. Needless to say, we left this special meal saying “wow!” The Coastal Grill is open daily for lunch and dinner.

California Welcome Center

When you visit Oxnard, you will be pleasantly surprised by the California Welcome Center which, in addition to offering visitors lots of helpful travel information, offers tastes of some excellent California wines from an innovative, self-serve, wine-dispensing machine. If you purchase one of these wines, most Oxnard restaurants will not charge a corkage fee if you want to enjoy it with your meal. I would say that this Welcome Center is a “must stop” place as you embark on your visit to Oxnard.

La Dolce Vita

We had another absolutely wonderful dinner at La Dolce Vita, a lovely Italian/Mediterranean restaurant located in the charming, historic Heritage Square, a quaint area of carefully restored Victorian homes that house a restaurant, a wine tasting room, small shops and businesses. Last year I enjoyed a fascinating cooking class taught by the restaurant’s owner and Executive Chef, Michelle Kenney, so this year we were thrilled to be dining at La Dolce Vita (meaning “the sweet life”).

Michelle recommended two of her favorite wines, including a refreshing, citrusy 2013 Rancho Sisquoc Sauvignon Blanc from nearby Santa Barbara and an intense, luscious red wine from Alma Sol Winery in Paso Robles, called Cuatro Caminos. These wines paired nicely with the variety of delectable entrees we ordered, including Portabella Florentine, a marinated mushroom stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, and pancetta, topped with gruyere and a Marsala cream sauce; Linguini a la Bolognese, made with house-made sausage in a rich tomato sauce; Pork Loin stuffed with gorgonzola and served atop garlic mashed potatoes with a fig port wine reduction sauce; Grilled Vegetable Ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and vegetables; and Gnocchi tossed with chicken, squash, red peppers and leeks in a roasted garlic cream sauce. For a gourmet meal in an intimate, romantic setting, La Dolce Vita should be another must on your Oxnard itinerary. It is open daily, except for Mondays, for lunch and dinner plus brunch on Sundays.

The Italian Job Cafe

We tried to save our appetites for what came next, beautifully presented and delicious sweet treats at The Italian Job Café, a trattoria specializing in pizza, pasta, and desserts. We first ordered some after-dinner drinks that hit the spot, such as the Flaming Sambucca and the Mini Cooper Dash, an intriguing combination of black Sambucca, Baileys and Kahluha. Some in our group savored special coffees and cappuccinos. We were then served a mouth-watering array of desserts such as Frutti di Bosco, a mixed berry and cream tarte; Mousse al Cioccolato, Italian bittersweet chocolate mousse cake; Cheesecake al Lamponi, Italian Raspberry cheesecake; and Profiteroles, puff pastries stuffed with vanilla cream and topped with chocolate cream. We also relished Gelato and Sorbetti, in several tasty flavors, imported from Italy. The Italian Job Café is open daily from 11:30 a.m. for lunch and dinner.

Gondola Cruise via Gondola Paradiso

A highlight of my Oxnard visit was cruising through the picturesque Channel Islands Harbor on a real Venetian gondola called Gondola Paradiso. Entrepreneur Mark Schooling has brought this serene form of water travel to Oxnard and it’s the perfect way to see the boats in the harbor and the lovely homes on the shores. For a few moments, we felt transported to Venetian canals, although I believe the water is more sparkling and beautiful in the Oxnard harbor. As we relaxed and savored the scenery, we sipped wine and savored a very nice lunch supplied by a restaurant on the shore called Fresco II. Mark even serenaded us with a lovely rendition of “Blue Moon.” (Moonlight gondola cruises are also available.) To make reservations, call 805-612-4475.

Cruise to Santa Cruz Island via Island Packers

While I was peacefully cruising in my gondola, my husband, Todd, was having a totally different experience as he bounced over rough but exciting waves on his way to Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is the largest of the five Channel Islands that comprise the Channel Islands National Park along the California coast. (There are 3 additional islands that are not part of the National Park.) Todd traveled to Santa Cruz via a ship that is part of a commercial ship line called the Island Packers. The ride was gorgeous but a bit bumpy. The bumps were worth it, however, because of all the sea life that could be observed close-up, including Humpback and Blue Pacific whales, sea lions, and frolicking dolphins. The captain slowed down during the trip and described the islands and the sea life to his enthralled passengers.

After about an hour and a half ride, Todd and his fellow explorers were greeted by the island’s park ranger and then sat at picnic tables on the shore while they enjoyed sandwiches purchased before leaving the harbor. While some of these explorers took pleasant walks around the island, or participated in educational programs or kayaking, Todd and a fellow journalist embarked on a moderately strenuous, two-mile hike up to Cavern Point, which majestically overlooks the glistening expanse of sea a thousand feet below. Camping is also possible on the island.

Todd commented after his trip to Santa Cruz, “What is especially unique is that you can leave the hustle and bustle of Southern California’s urban scene and in a matter of a few hours step onto land that is like the beginning of the world, where you can only hear the sounds of nature and see nothing but sparkling sea all around you.”

Reservations can be made by calling Island Packers at 805-642-1393. If you would like to kayak or paddle board call the Channel Islands Kayak Center at 805-984-5995.

The Kitchen for Craft Beers

After your hiking adventure, if you are looking for a casual meal and some unique, Southern California craft beers served in a congenial bar setting, try The Kitchen. The friendly owner, Cathie Moreno, welcomed us with a sampling of beers and described the characteristics of ambers, lagers and hoppy beers. Some of the special beers we relished were Mission Blonde from Mission Brewery, Barking Squirrel from Hop City, Aerial IPA from Surf Brewery and Russian Stout from Stone Brewery.

These beers went well with some nicely paired and tasty appetizers, such as blue cheese stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, tiny hot dogs in buns with a swipe of mustard, and wontons stuffed with jalapeno and cream cheese. The Kitchen has 12 beers on tap and at least 100 additional bottles available. The owner emphasized that her goal is to keep her menu simple and do everything well. Our group felt that she has more than met her goal. The Kitchen specializes in comfort food and burgers. The locals’ favorite burger is a lamb/beef combination. That’s what I’ll be trying the next time I visit—and I will be visiting again.

I’ve only touched a little on all there is to do in Oxnard and the surrounding area. There are museums, boutiques, wine tasting, water sports, and all kinds of special events, including a Strawberry Festival in May, a Salsa Festival in July, a Tamale Festival in December, a Summer Concert Series, and Gourmet Food Trucks the first Thursday of every month in the Harbor area. I am convinced that this is one of the hidden gems on the California coast that will entrance visitors who will keep coming back once they have sampled all Oxnard has to offer.

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