Too often a weekend getaway feels like more effort than it’s worth. There is all the time devoted to getting to your destination, and once you arrive the activities often fail to satisfy the craving for a relaxing and rejuvenating experience of, say, an island adventure. As incredible as it may sound, such an adventure is closer than you might imagine. Without getting on an airplane, it is possible to arrive on a gorgeous and unpopulated island in mere hours!

Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Ventura, is one of four northern Channel Islands in the area, which are part of the federally protected National Park System. In the 40 years since the islands have come under protection, the area has undergone a remarkable recovery so that now it is home to a marvelously diverse and vital ecosystem.

Island Packers ( offers daily trips to the islands at an affordable price. Thrown in to the bargain is the likelihood of seeing schools of dolphins that escort the boat along its journey in magnificent fashion. You can also spot scores of sea lions and seals loitering on passing buoys.

Much of Santa Cruz Island is under the care of the Nature Conservancy so special permission is required to venture on to these parts. The rest, however, is state park, and trails can take you to numerous little coves. The ship drops you off at Scorpion Cove, a lovely little bay that opens at the mouth of the valley. Not so long ago the valley was home to a ranch that raised sheep. The old buildings still remain and now house some of the resident rangers. There is a campground about a half-mile in where spots can be rented nightly for a small fee. There are lovely walks to be taken in the area and beaches fit for swimming, but the most exciting activity is kayaking through the many coastal sea caves.

Aquasports ( rents kayaks and offers tours of the sea caves. The guides are highly trained in first aid and rescue as well as being extremely knowledgeable of the natural environment. The tours are not for the faint of heart since they involve rigorous paddling and moments of thrilling intensity. To maneuver through the caves is like being on some wild amusement park ride without tracks and the luxury of knowing it’s just a ride. Inside the cave, the sound of the waves reverberates against the walls, making an ominous deep roaring sound. Through one cave in particular the reflection of sunlight underneath the water makes an extraordinary deep emerald glow that is like something out of a movie.

While the experience is physically exhilarating, it is just as much intellectual stimulation. The guides are all equipped with information about the vibrant flora and fauna of the area. On the bright side, the area has made a remarkable recovery with the banning of fishing near the cove. The story of the brown pelican is perhaps most uplifting. In 1970 only one hatchling was born due to the devastating effects of DDT. They are now, however, a thriving species that has been removed from California’s Endangered Species List. Other news, however, is far from good. Our guide explained how the ocean has lost 40 percent of phytoplankton in the last generation because of pollutants and global warming. These microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain and thus support the rest of ocean life. The reduction of phytoplankton is one of the reasons for the decline of worldwide fisheries. One day on Santa Cruz Island kayaking and exploring packs a month’s worth of adventure and gives plenty to ponder on the boat trip back to Ventura.

The fact that Ventura has been traditionally overshadowed by Santa Barbara, its larger neighbor, has been a blessing in disguise. There are no chain stores or glitzy makeovers that characterize the tourist center of its northern neighbor. On the contrary, Ventura retains a quaint, old-town feel complete with family-owned boutiques and restaurants. One of the finer of these restaurants in the historic district is Watermark (598 Main St.;, housed in a gorgeous 1920s building that once served as a bank, serving Spanish tapas with a Californian twist, including such exotic dishes as duck quesadillas and lamburgers. The fresh oysters are also amazing!

Yet another fantastic dining experience can be had at the Greek at the Harbor (1583 Spinnaker Drive;, located very near the Island Packers station. Owned and operator by husband-wife team Makis and Lynn Mikelatos, the restaurant simmers with authenticity. Much of the staff are Greek natives, as is Makis, the most gracious host who loves sharing his culture. On weekends, his sons perform traditional Greek folk dancing. The restaurant is especially renowned for its first-rate lamb dishes. One bite of a savory lamb chop can elicit tears of joy. One is also advised to try traditional Greek wine Retsina with its piney flavoring or the powerful after-dinner drink Idonika.

If spending a night in the city, you can find a great room at the Crowne Plaza (450 E. Harbor Blvd.; The hotel is quite possibly the largest building in all of Ventura. From its higher floors you can see all of downtown on one side and turn west to peruse a vast expanse of ocean, including Santa Cruz Island in the distance.

If you have extra time, a visit to the Limoneira Packinghouse ( in nearby Santa Paula is a fascinating diversion. Hidden among vast acreage of citrus trees, the company offers tours of its orchard and turn-of-the century packinghouse. As the birthplace of the Sunkist brand, the company takes great pride in its history and its current sustainable agricultural programs.

Ventura gets its name from the mission San Buenaventura. Translated from Spanish, it means “good journey,” an appropriate name for a region that offers so much to do, see and learn.

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