California Surfing on a Ventura Beach

When I told my husband that I was planning to take a surf lesson while on a press trip to Ventura, Calif., he stared at me as if I had been snatched by Martians. He weighed his words carefully: “How unlike you.” He really meant: “Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

Yes, surfing seems high on the athletic adventure scale—more the purview of well-muscled beach boys than wimpy, flabby writerly types. But I love the ocean, and I couldn’t think of anything more representative of the Ventura experience than to get on a board.

Professional surfer Mary Osborne gives private lessons and runs surf camps in Ventura, Calif. Photo courtesy Patagonia

Besides, I had low expectations. I pictured lying tummy-down on the board and flailing through a few swells.

Surfing Surprises

My instructor was Mary Osborne, a champion longboarder and tandem surfer who grew up on the beaches of Ventura. She’s a petite blonde who does surf modeling and won MTV’s “Surf Girls.” And she’s devoted to teaching women and kids to surf. She runs surf camps for people of all ages, sizes and abilities.

Mary is also the co-author of Sister Surfer: A Woman’s Guide to Surfing with Bliss and Courage (Lyons Press: 2005). It’s a how-to book that guides women through the process of learning to surf and covers everything from conquering fear to waxing a board.

The first step to learning to surf is practicing on the sand with Mary giving pointers.

First surprise: Mary explained to me and the other journalist who was taking a lesson that she was going to show us the new craze: stand-up paddling. In this sport, the surfer stands on a larger, wider surfboard and paddles to catch a wave. I’d never heard of stand-up paddling, but Mary assures us it will be an Olympic event someday.

Second surprise: As we women stood in the parking lot wriggling into cold, clammy, skin-tight wetsuits, I realized there’s a pretty un-glamorous side to surfing. If you’re going to surf much, you get used to changing clothes in public!

Then Mary pulled a board out of her pickup and balanced it atop her head with the posture of a ballet dancer. Once on the sand—we were at Surfer Point by Ventura Pier—she demonstrated how to lie on the board and bring yourself to standing. It starts like the Upward Dog pose in yoga and then you kick a leg back into a lunge and bring yourself erect. Hello core muscles!!

Practicing in the ocean

After we’d practiced that move on land, Mary demonstrated stand-up paddling on the water. She made it look easy, bouncing right up on the board to a standing position. As the board skimmed along the surface, she looked like she was walking on water while “sweeping” the ocean surface with a broom-like paddle.

I couldn’t imagine being able to achieve a vertical posture. Yet, I followed Mary into the ocean, and with her patient coaching, I hand-paddled myself while lying on the board (super fun as you glide over the swells!) and then managed to stand on my knees and cautiously paddled. It’s a real lesson in balance.

Ultimately, Mary convinced me I could even stand up on the board. I gave it my best shot—twice—but always plummeted into the sea when I got semi-erect. But here’s the thing: it was fun! Even falling was okay—sort of goofy as you flop unceremoniously into the water—although getting back on the board in deep water was challenging for me.

So, I had a blast trying to surf, and honestly, I can see how with an instructor like Mary and some practice, pretty much anybody could get the hang of surfing…and soon be hanging ten!

Save the Oceans

There’s an ecological angle to my surf lesson: Mary Osborne is just one of the many pro surfers who are becoming ocean ambassadors by helping the public become aware of the importance of preserving and protecting oceans and beaches. (One of Mary’s sponsors is outdoor gear company Patagonia, a leader in corporate sustainability.)

Surfer Mary Osborne is also passionate about preserving beaches. Photo by Ellen Barnes

Mary and other surfers know firsthand about polluted, contaminated oceans. They wade through debris that washes up on shorelines daily. And, shockingly, many surfers are infected with potentially life-threatening staph infections from the water. Storm and sewage runoff washes harmful bacteria right into the water for a brew that’s toxic to both humans and ocean animals.

(For more about preserving beaches and fighting runoff pollution, visit the nonprofit organization Surfrider.)

In addition, Mary is currently on a plastic-pollution research trip run by The 5 Gyres Institute to help raise awareness of the problem. Along with a team of researchers, she and fellow professional surfer, James Pribram, are sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa, to explore the Atlantic plastic “gyre”: a rotating system of ocean currents where floating debris accumulates. This plastic garbage patch harms marine wildlife and potentially threatens human health. See the 5 Gyres blog for updates on the voyage of the research ship, “The Sea Dragon.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and ocean lover

P.S. I’m dying to hear about an un-characteristic adventure you’ve taken, dear reader. Tell me about it in a comment below…

The SideCar Restaurant: Where SoCal’s History Mixes with Organic, Locavore Cuisine

Stepping into The SideCar Restaurant in Ventura, Calif., I knew I was going to love every bite. How could I have a bad meal in a restaurant housed within a historic 1910 Pullman dining car with old-fashioned arched train windows, classy white tablecloths, and mini-chandeliers?

The SideCar restaurant in Ventura, Calif., serves local, seasonal cuisine in a 1910 Pullman train car.

I could just feel the glory days of old Hollywood at this restaurant. In the Thirties and Forties, movie stars who were invited to lavish parties at the Hearst Castle (farther north) drove up the coast and stopped for a nice meal at The SideCar.

Grilled Cheese Night and Jazz

I was lucky enough to dine at The SideCar on Tuesday, which is Grilled Cheese Night featuring live jazz. Really, any evening at The SideCar is perfect, thanks to Chef Tim Kilcoyne’s inventive and farm-driven gourmet menu that features Ventura’s local, seasonal, sustainable and organic produce. But Tuesday and Thursday’s Burger & Martini Night light up midweek evenings.

On Tuesday night, the place was packed with a comfortable mix of older and younger clientele—all bobbing their heads to the Gil Valencia Trio jazz combo. When a guest vocalist launched into “It Had to Be You” I was hooked!

Now, grilled cheese sounds a bit mundane, but Chef Kilcoyne’s menu in mid-October included not just traditional cheddar cheese but lavish “specialty” grills such as:

Tuesday is Grilled Cheese and Jazz Night at The SideCar.

  • Triple-cream brie with roast turkey and fig-honey jam (made with figs from the restaurant’s fig tree!)
  • Herb havarti, blue cheese, red onion, oven-roasted tomato spread, and roasted garlic
  • Goat cheese and apple-walnut relish

All the sandwiches are served with scrumptious creamy tomato-basil soup.

As I enjoyed both soup and sandwich, I toasted my first dolphin sighting (see “Wild Dolphins Ahoy”) with a Ventura Lemonade, a tasty concoction of  Ventura Limoncello (created from Ventura-county lemons including those from the organic Limoneira farm), Meyer lemon-infused vodka, fresh lemonade, and homegrown mint served over ice. It was refreshing, and I could taste the California sunshine in the fruit and mint.

Sophisticated Menu

My friends and I didn’t stop with grilled cheese. We ordered salads, entrees and desserts from the menu, which lists in-season foods and the regional farms that supplied the evening’s fresh flavors. We passed dishes around the table for all to sample.

SideCar cocktail: the organic Ventura Lemonade, plus a dolphin magnet (in honor of seeing my first wild dolphins).

The pepper-crusted filet mignon with Yukon Gold mashes potatoes and creamed Swiss chard was outstanding. Even a side order of sweet-potato fries with roasted garlic aioli was a special treat.

And for dessert, our group couldn’t decide whether the pumpkin tiramisu or the blackberry crisp was more divine.

Oh yes, did I mention the wine list consisted only of California wines, many of them made with organic grapes? You can do this sort of thing in California, where fine wine abounds within just a hundred miles of any part of the state.

What’s Cooking at Your Thanksgiving?

If your tastebuds are tingling from reading this blog post, tell me what you’re cooking for Thanksgiving this year. (Leave a comment below.) I’m certainly thankful for the organic bounty of local family farms!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Ventura: California’s Authentic Beach Town

A quintessential California surf town, Ventura has a laid-back vibe and down-to-earth soul that some people say feels more like “authentic” California.

Chic boutique in Ventura, Calif.

Ventura’s got far less glitz—and lower prices—than Los Angeles, directly to the south. And with a population of just 100,000, it’s easy to navigate and retains a smaller town feel.

I loved its architecture, its outdoorsy atmosphere with emphasis on sustainability (eco-company Patagonia is headquartered here), and its downtown, which has a lot of character.

Here’s a tour of some in-town spots.

Ventura’s revitalized Downtown Historic District is packed with boutiques, coffee houses, wine bars, and restaurants. The town is famous for its thrift shops, vintage bookstores and antique shops.

Get your surfer gear here!

The lettering on the window of the Hawaiian Shirt Shop, “Open daily unless surfing” says it all. The shop was closed when I was there. Could the shopkeepers be out hanging ten?

The San Buenaventura Mission (Ventura’s official name is “Buenaventura,” which means “good luck” in Spanish) was founded in 1782 by Father Junipero Serra, the last of the historic California missions.

The San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura

A statue of Father Junipero Serra stands in front of the stately Buenaventura City Hall.

Padre Junipera Serra founded Ventura.

A great downtown lunch spot is the Anacapa Brewery, which serves hand-crafted ales and lagers produced on site. All the salads and appetizers were nice and fresh, and I tried the taster flight of beers ranging from a pale wheat to a dark espresso stout.

Menu of local microbrews at the Anacapa Brew Pub

The Watermark on Main, an elegant downtown restaurant, was originally the Ventura Guarantee and Loan Company building constructed with gorgeous tilework and balcony grillwork in the 1920s. It gets my vote for most historic atmosphere.

The Watermark Restaurant in a beautiful historic building

This pirate sign below was in the front window of a Ventura shop called Sea Things, which sells seashells and ocean-inspired gifts and jewelry.

In the window of the Sea Things store

Wine Lovers Bar has a cozy, outdoor patio complete with fireplaces—in addition to a posh, indoor vintage-and-velvet ambiance. Wine Lovers specializes in rare boutique, local, and California wines. I enjoyed a pre-dinner glass of Casa Barranca “Bungalow Red.” Casa Barranca, an organic and biodynamic vineyard, is just a few miles from Ventura in Ojai.

The neon signs at Wine Lovers

Ventura Harbor

Although it’s a drive from downtown, the Ventura Harbor is a fabulous place to go at sunset. You can watch the fishing boats come in and ogle the docked sailboats in this picturesque marina. Many of their names intrigued me and made me envision the type of person who owned the boats. Names included: Hold My Calls, Wizard of the Winds, Dragon Rider.

Boats docked at Ventura Harbor

The Harbor is also home to the Four Points Sheraton hotel where I stayed. It’s a comfy place with a slightly nautical ambiance and views of the harbor that can be enjoyed from balcony rooms.

Local author Sondra Briggs took my friends and I on a harbor meditation walk during which we cleared our minds and let our senses smell the sea air, feel the rain on our faces, notice the wind on palm fronds, and contemplate the international flags on the boats, thinking about all the places they’d been.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Sea Kayaking in California’s Enchanting Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Photo: Channel Islands Nat'l Park

The Channel Islands captured my imagination when I read Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Chumash girl who lived there alone after her tribe was forcibly relocated to the mainland in the mid-1800s.

Now for the first time, I’ve gotten to visit one of the Channel Islands, celebrating its 30th anniversary as a National Park this year.

Island Packers' boats take visitors to the Channel Islands Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

The Channel Islands can be reached from the marina at Ventura (or from the city of Oxnard) by boarding an Island Packers catamaran.

I went to the island of Santa Cruz, which was a 9:00 to 5:00 day trip that runs year-round. (I was there in mid-October.) It takes an hour to reach the two landings: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor (you can depart at either).

Things to Do on Santa Cruz

  • Hiking: There are 16 hikes of varying lengths and difficulty on the 24-mile long island (partly owned by the Nature Conservancy)
  • Swimming: Beach access is at Scorpion Anchorage, Smuggler’s Cove, Prisoners Harbor
  • Snorkeling and diving
  • Sea kayaking: You must bring your own kayak, rent one, or go with an outfitter
  • Camping: There’s a campground near Scorpion Anchorage)
  • Birdwatching: The endemic Island Scrub Jay lives nowhere else on the planet

Kayaking Around the Shores of Santa Cruz Island

Blue Sky Kayak tour guides show you how to paddle in the Channel Islands. Photo: Blue Skies

I chose to spend the day at Santa Cruz on the water by taking a guided sea kayak excursion with Blue Sky Kayak Tours. They provided individual top-seater kayaks, a wetsuit (sleeveless for ease of paddling), life vest, dry bags for clothes, and experienced guides who spend a lot of time in the park.

(The National Park Service does not allow any tour operators to serve food, so you have to bring along your own food and water. There are drinks and snacks available for you to purchase on the Island Packers boat.)

My group’s guides, Clay and Matt, asked the boat to drop us off at a lovely area a little west of Prisoners Harbor off Nature Conservancy land. They instructed us on safety, gave us paddling tips, and helped us suit up. Then off we went, paddling among the jagged shoreline and kelp forests around Santa Cruz.

Sea urchins and starfish Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The ocean was calm, and it wasn’t hard to approach the rock cliffs for up-close views of rocks crusted with starfish, barnacles, and limpets. Cliff pointed out the bright-orange garibaldi, California’s state fish. I never got a close look, but its color shone brilliantly from the water.

In some places, the kelp forests were so thick that I felt like I was paddling through sand. My paddle blades kept getting caught in the wavy strands of brown kelp or tangled amid the kelp’s air bladders. When that happened, we were told to slide the paddle gently upwards rather than trying to rip it away from the sea plants.

Adventures with Sea Lions

Shy harbor seals poked their heads above water to check out our kayak group, but if we got very close or make direct eye contact, they slid their round heads beneath the surface and disappeared in an instant.

Harbor seals Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The curious California sea lions were more bold. At one point when I was paddling a short distance from the others, I heard a sea lion blowing air as it surfaced right behind me. I was a little scared, but it didn’t come too close—and then it dove. A moment later, I heard the sea lion blow again, this time on the opposite side of my kayak. I said “hello there!” before it dove again. Our little game of tag when on for a few minutes, then the sea lion moved on to more interesting things—such as catching delicious fish!

Our group stopped at a rocky beach for lunch. It was a cloudy day with several rain showers while we were paddling, so when we got on land I was pretty chilly. (And a little seasick from paddling through some choppier waves. Who knew?) Fortunately, on land Clay and Matt unpacked our dry clothes, so our picnic was fairly comfortable and enjoyable.

On the beach at Santa Cruz island Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

Far too soon, it was time to leave this quiet adventure of paddling placidly amid the ocean wilds. It felt great to be propelling myself through the water, smelling the salt air, and watching the waves and the sky and the pelicans.

As someone who lives in a land-locked state, I just never tire of the miracle of the sea.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What are the best kayaking spots you’ve visited? Leave a comment below.