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Surfer's Point, across from the Ventura County Fairgrounds, is a popular surf break. Max Hartshorne photos.Surfer's Point, across from the Ventura County Fairgrounds, is a popular surf break. Max Hartshorne photos.

Ventura: Where Surfers and Non-Conformists Choose to Live

If you look at a map of the California coastline, you'll see areas where the coast turns in a bit, sheltering coves. These are where the best surf breaks can be found, and one that we found during the cold winter of 2014 was the city of Buenaventura, founded in the 1800s by missionaries who built their mission there.

tripadvisorThe first residents of this pretty land by the sea were the Chumash Indians, and in 1789 the Spanish Portola expedition brought Franciscan missionaries to what those local Indians called Shisholop. 

Today you can see a statue of Father Junípero Serra at the base of city hall. Though the official name of the city is San Buenaventura, it's known as Ventura.

Today Ventura is a thriving city that attracts surfers, bohemians, and anyone else who seeks easy to access ocean beaches, a near-perfect climate, and a decidedly anti-establishment bent.  Here, when you mention their tony northern neighbor, Santa Barbara, the universal reaction is 'we're NOT Santa Barbara!'

"A Trader Joe's Kind of Town"new botanical garden site

Rebecca Chambers. 28, is one of the young people we met here in Ventura. She describes the city as "a Trader Joes type of town," referring to this local  predeliction for doing your own thing, taking advantage of the surf break, and just being happy to be a little different than the rest of Southern California, and especially, Santa Barbara.  It feels like Ventura is more real, less touristy, and less affluent than its neighbors like Newport Beach. 
We met world-renowned guitar maker Randy Parsons, who just moved his guitar studio from Seattle down to Ventura for much the same reason--he loves the surf.  It's also midway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, right on the major freeway, 101. But it's not just surfers who gravitate to this city of about 100,000. 
randy-parsons-guitarsRandy Parsons, a world-renowned guitar maker, moved his studio to Ventura in 2014.
Plenty of tourists stroll the streets where the most common retail businesses are thrift stores--another example of the town's bohemian culture. 

If you love shopping for vintage clothing, used furniture, or other pre-owned treasures that are found in your local Salvation Army, then you'll love shopping in Ventura.

We arrived in the city at nightfall, and our first stop was a local spot famous for fish tacos on Thompson Boulevard. 

Everywhere we went, it seems, fish tacos were on the menu, and at Spencer Makenzie's Fish Company, the stools were all full at the counter, and we sat outside to enjoy ahi and grouper tacos that made a tasty and cheap dinner.  The warm breeze was a welcome relief after we'd spent the winter on the freezing East Coast, and we strolled across the park to the historic Main Street area of Ventura.

We knew we had hit the right place when we heard the funky sounds blasting from the top floor of the Watermark on Main, where an eight-piece band called "The Bomb" was blasting out sizzling renditions of Rick James tunes. 

We passed by a gorgeous glass bar to the elevator and were soon knee-deep in a dancing mob of women out on the town enjoying the funk.  Wow, we love this town!

The next day we had an early appointment to hike a hill behind city hall and meet two men involved with an exciting new development in Ventura. As we walked a winding path up a canyon, Doug Halter told us about a long-range plan to turn this open land into a botanical garden, with a visitors and nature education center at the top, all with a view of the ocean and the Channel islands eight miles offshore. 
watermark on Main, where the W20 nightclub packs dancers in on the top floor.Watermark on Main, where the W20 nightclub packs dancers in on the top floor.
It won't be all planted grass, we learned, since SoCal is getting greener and greener, instead, native plants that don't require much water will be planted.

As we climbed up the steep dirt path, Halter said the park will showcase plants from the earth's five different Mediterranean climate zones. One zone under development will have plants from Chile, for example.

Doug and his fellow board members are thinking big with other future ideas. Close to the top of the hill Doug said, “we are combining a public private partnership to build a world-class Discovery Center.

It will be an LEED certified green building. It will showcase an eclectic mix of modern and Spanish architecture.” Doug described the planned adjacent outdoor classroom as an “education meadow."

Lunch at Anacapa Brewing Co

Looking out from the beach, the Channel Islands are in view from anywhere in Ventura, and local brewery Anacapa Brewing Co is named for one of these islands. Nobody lives on the islands, instead, they are nature preserves served by a ferry service. Read a story about camping on San Juan island.

Danny Saldana has owned Anacapa since 2007, he grew up in Ventura, and remembers when his mother would warn him about how dangerous this downtown once was.

"Twenty years ago, nobody came downtown," he recalled.  Now there are many music venues like The Bombay Bar and Grill and W20 in the Watermark, as well as the busy Ventura theater with regional and national acts.  The arts have played a big role in making Ventura safer and put it on the tourist map. Ventura is a haven for live music, with dozens of venues for rock, blues, jazz and more. You can find photos, schedules and reviews of music in Ventura at Ventura Rocks, a local music website.

Today's clean streets, lively music scene, and safer conditions are a result of a city-wide effort to bring in the right kinds of businesses and promote the arts.  Nobody is quite sure why so many thrift shops have opened up, but some people said it was because it's a very inexpensive way to make a lot of cash...donated goods, a small percent to a local charity, it all adds up!
father tomFather Tom at the front door of the mission.
Ventura's proximity to Los Angeles also attracts movie and television stars.  Tea Leoni, David Duchovy, Bonnie Franklin and other stars live nearby or have vacation homes in Oji, 15 minutes away and so does musician Melissa Etheridge. The hit movie "Little Miss Sunshine" was filmed in Ventura, as well as The Babysitter, The Aviator, Chinatown and many of the Perry Mason TV shows.

Ventura's Mission
The belltower at the St Buenaventura Mission in the center of the city.The belltower at the St Buenaventura Mission in the center of the city.
The vibrant downtown comes alive on weekends, but slows to a crawl during weekdays.  One of the most popular attractions is the San Buenaventura Mission, which dates back to 1782.

Father Tom Elewaut, the current pastor, explained the early missionaries built the church with the hope of bringing Christianity to the 1200 native Chumash Indians. San Buenaventura Mission has endured for three centuries, and today it’s considered the epicenter of this vibrant seaside city.

From its four-acre site one sees the Pacific Ocean and  fom its tranquil gardens one gazes on an eclectic mix of Spanish architecture that comprise the church and its historic buildings. “I am the luckiest pastor in the world,” Father Tom told us, as he opened the door that lets in the view of the sea all the way down the boulevard from the church.

One of the Mission buildings houses a museum. On display are intricate baskets made from reeds by the Chumash.

What we found the most inteRebecca Chambers, a regular customer with Mark Rey of the Jolly Oyster on the beach in San Buenaventura State Park.Rebecca Chambers, a regular customer with Mark Rey of the Jolly Oyster on the beach in San Buenaventura State Park.resting in the museum was a tiny wooden cross. In a solemn voice Father Tom stated that the tiny wooden cross was made from the actual cross from the crucifixion. And he pointed to a document hanging on the wall which he said offers verification.

Ferries and Trolleys

Harbor Village is where ferries depart for excursions to the Channel Islands. The city has one small drawback, and that's the massive freeway 101, that runs along the coast and cuts off part of the city.  On my first night in Ventura when I tried to walk to the beach from our hotel, the Best Western Plus on Thompson Boulevard, I had to detour a block down, where I found a pedestrian bridge that led me to the Ventura pier and the beach.

The city's tourists are served by a downtown harbor trolley that runs from Harbor Village to the Ventura Visitor's Center, and it's free. The trolleys run from 11 am til 11 pm Wednesday through Sundays.

Slurping OystersMany of the surfers we saw in Ventura were in their 50s and 60s.Many of the surfers we saw in Ventura were in their 50s and 60s.

We met Mark Rey at a picnic table beside St Buenaventura State beach where he runs a popular food truck called the Jolly Oyster.

Rey, whose family is from the UK, has built an empire of three oyster farms in Baja Mexico, and this retail location that brings together everything people love about the beach.

You bring your own wine or beer, bring your dogs, and slurp some of the best oysters you've ever tasted beneath Ventura’s glorious sunshine right next to one of the world’s top surfing beaches. No wonder people line up at their truck whenever they are open!

Oh, and you can buy them un-shucked to take home or open yourself for about a buck each!  The Jolly Oyster is open Friday through Sunday and the two stations keep busy throughout the day.

This part of Ventura is Pierpont neighborhood, a one-mile stretch between the harbor and San Buenaventura State park. 
Truffled fries at Social Tap, in Pierpont, Ventura California.Truffled fries at Social Tap, in Pierpont, Ventura California.

Filled with small, mostly one-story homes, Pierpont is also the home of a popular local eatery called Social Tap.   You follow the bike path down Pierpont Avenue to Seaward Ave and you'll find this sprawling place with open air sections and views of the ocean. 

Along with a 17-tap selection of microbrews from California and elsewhere, we chowed down on the truffle salted fries and the steak tacos.  It's got the biggest patio for miles around and a friendly vibe--great for after a day at the beach or a casual dinner.

Ventura is one of my favorite cities in California, and it made me yearn to live among its freedom-loving citizens, who care more about the quality of their lives than the kind of car they drive. 

It made me want to move away from my cold East Coast home and strike out on a new exciting plan. Maybe that's what beautiful weather, perfect surf and happy people can do to you. In any case, I'm sure I'll be back to San Buenaventura soon.

Find out more about Ventura at their tourism website,


Max Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD. He writes a daily blog called Readuponit where he shares stories of the people he meets and his life as a travel editor. Read more of his stories on GoNOMAD.

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