Ventura.HarborSomewhat overshadowed by sultry Malibu and posh Santa Barbara, Ventura County is a hidden gem with classic California beaches and quaint downtown districts. Situated an hour northwest of L.A., it’s where locals go to get away from the crowds. Sandy beaches (many with free parking), a plethora of recreational activities and year-round festivals make Oxnard and Ventura ideal family destinations.

Oxnard

Popular for the annual California Strawberry Festival in May, Oxnard is a unique coastal city steeped in agricultural roots and home to a diverse ethnic population. That translates to an array of culinary options, farmers markets and multi-cultural festivals. At one time it was a retreat for Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and other actors.

Shore Fun in Oxnard

The best keptย secret: Oxnardโ€™s seven miles of uncrowded white sand beaches that are hidden from freeways. Locals favor Hollywood Beach, a former celebrity playground. Amenities: free street parking, volleyball courts, lifeguards (in summer) and restrooms.

Cultural Outings for Kids and Adults

Worth a visit is the nearby Carnegie Art Museum, established in 1906 as the cityโ€™s first library by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. A short walk away is the Gull Wings Childrenโ€™s Museum, which presents story, art, music and science programs for kids ages 2โ€“12.

Trendy Sport

Sport enthusiasts may like FootGolf, a sport new to the U.S. and available at the River Ridge Golf Course. Instead of using a golf club to hit a ball, players kick a soccer ball into a nine or 18-hole course. $10 adults, $5 children. Or explore protected coastal wetlands and dunes with the Nature Conservancy on bi-monthly hikes.

Overnight Digs

Embassy Suites Mandalay Bay on Oxnard Beach (805-984-2500). Two-room suites include free breakfast. Rent bikes or surreys to ride along a pathway.

Residence Innย has full kitchens and complimentary breakfast and afternoon snacks.

Ventura

The gateway to the Channel Islands National Park, Ventura is a laid-back beach community with a vibrant arts and cultural center. Dining options range from flip-flop eateries to elegant restaurants.

photo (157)Shore Fun in Ventura

A beach path ideal for strolling and biking overlooks miles of scenic beaches. Surfer’s Cove has waves suited for expert surfers and those learning to hang ten.ย  Grab a snack or meal on the 1,620-foot Ventura Pier, built in 1872.ย  It’s also a prime spot for catching a spectacular California sunset.ย  Channel IslandsPlan a trip to Santa Cruz Island, the closest of the Channel Islands, and enjoy a day of snorkeling and kayaking. Contact Island Packers to book your excursion.

Getting Around

The free Downtown-Harbor Trolleyย ย travels between historic downtown and the Ventura Harbor Village, making stops along the way.ย  Catch the trolley from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Wednesday โ€“ Sunday during summer. The trolley also transports visitors to the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Seaside Park, an annual event since 1875.

Sample Itinerary

Park your car at Ventura Harbor Village, the hub of beach-side fun with boutiques, restaurants, a carousel and paddle boats. Swim, play and watch boats sail by from Harbor Cove Beach, a scenic spot with small waves and windblown sand dunes. At the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center, kids can look through a telescope, examine a tide pool and learn about the islandsโ€™ natural and cultural resources.

Next, hop on the trolley to downtown for a walking tour of Mission San Buenaventura, California’s ninth mission founded in 1782. Across the street, check out art and artifacts at the Museum of Ventura. Free admission the first Sunday of each month.

Overnight digs: The Ventura Beach Marriottย is steps from the beach.

For more information about what to see and do in California, go to the website Visit California.