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Oxnard is a hidden gem along California’s coast

Tourists know about the treasures found around Los Angeles, but just 65 miles north lies one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. The little seaside town of Oxnard offers almost everything that you can find in its southern neighbor, but none of the crowds.

The area boasts two harbors located just five miles apart, offering every water recreation you can imagine: boating, jet skiing, whale watching, gondola gliding, kayaking, sports fishing. All of that is skirted with seven miles of pristine beaches, picturesque sand dunes and a historic downtown.

It’s duly championed for what it doesn’t have: traffic, long lines, weeks-in-advance reservations, swarming beachcombers and wallet-busting prices.

But the truly unique thing about Oxnard is its proximity to the uninhabited Channel Islands, located just an hour off the coast.

Eight islands, sculptured by faulting and volcanism, were once tethered to the land. Five of them are part of the National Park system. The nearest, Anacapa Island, features some of the best diving with its deep sea caves, kelp forests and crystalline water. The sea life is so abundant it’s not unusual for a diver to spy a cormorant diving past him on its way to breakfast. More than 145 species of plants and animals thrive on these islands that are not found anywhere else.

The islands permit camping for up to 14 days, but equipment (including water) must be carried in – except for Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands, where water is available.

Crossing the channel you can spot bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins skipping along the wake of the ship, seals bobbing in the briny, and whales blowing geysers of water through their blowholes. These waters host the world’s largest congregation of blue whales, sighted June through September; the grey whales predominate December through May.

Cruises may be arranged through Island Packers at; (805) 642-1393. There are all-day, half-day, evening, dinner and harbor tours, all at various prices. A half-day cruise to Anacapa runs $37 for adults, $27 for kids. An all-day trek to Santa Cruz costs $59 for grown-ups and $41 for children.

For bicep-building kayak trips, tours, lessons or rentals, try Channel Islands Kayak Center (805) 984-5995;

The Channel Islands Maritime Museum provides a dandy little visit to our seafaring past. It’s open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in the harbor. (805) 984-6260; adults $5.

Downtown Oxnard is singular in several ways. For one, it offers free parking all over town. Try THAT in Los Angeles. Sequestered on South A Street is Heritage Square where 15 historic structures have been relocated to a city block and restored. Since the area was settled because of its abundant agriculture, most of the dwellings are historic farmhouses. Guided tours are available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays or by appointment. Adults, $5; (805) 483-7960.

The one-time Andrew Carnegie Library looks like a miniature Parthenon plopped in the middle of downtown. Donated to the city in 1906, it’s seen a variety of uses, but today it houses Oxnard’s Carnegie Art Museum.

Specializing in California artists, the museum changes collections quarterly, but one small room is dedicated to local artists. Located at Plaza and Centennial parks, admission is free.

Just 31 miles northeast sits Simi Valley, which houses the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, well worth the trek. Adults $16, youths $9. Daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (800) 410-8354.

Eleven percent of the lima beans consumed in the U.S. still come from Oxnard. To celebrate their agricultural heritage Oxnard holds a Strawberry Festival in May and a muy picante Salsa Festival in July.

There’s a bountiful choice of inns and hotels in the area as well as great places to eat, and most of the restaurants feature farm-to-table victuals. Moqueca Brazilian Cuisine, in Channel Islands Harbor, specializes in seafood stewed in a tangy tomato sauce, simmered in handmade clay pots.

The Kitchen downtown is deceiving. It looks like a brew pub, and proffers beers and ales, but it serves some delicious grub, too. It’s located at the corner of Fifth and A streets.

There are 22 award-winning wineries in the area, though the grapes are not generally grown here.

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