I was fortunate to be able to travel to the Northern Channel Islands for a dive trip and visit surrounding areas in California along the way. My underwater experience was centered around Anacapa, one of the eight islands in the archipelago of the Channel Islands off California’s coast. Large dive boats and barges depart from Ventura Harbor in the early morning and ~1.5 hours later, they arrive at Anacapa Island. The terrain and water conditions reminded me of the Galápagos. Diving in cold nutrient-rich water comes with the benefit of seeing different marine life, but you do sacrifice clarity since the water can be quite murky.
The Northern Channel Islands, specifically, are known for the lush kelp forests underwater which are home to a variety of pinnipeds including sea lions and seals. The kelp is beautiful when the sun’s rays shine down because the leaves and beads sparkle. At times, the scene almost becomes magical, as if from a fairy tale. When the winds churn, the surge can make diving more challenging, especially with the higher risk of entanglement in the thick kelp. It was all worth it, though, to see the bat rays, seals, sea lions, bright orange Garibaldi and large red and black California Sheepshead (a type of wrasse). Below that is a short video of the underwater kelp forests and marine life from my dives.
Getting to Northern Channel Islands California is easy. Ventura is about an hour drive North from Los Angeles (in off-peak traffic). The harbor area is home to numerous sailboats, fishing boats, catamarans, dive boats and more seagulls than you can count.
There are tourist boutiques and eateries in the harbor with plenty of free parking. When I visited, the sidewalks were lined with colorful chalk art from a recent harbor festival. My favorite scene was “Paws” – a cat reaching up from the water toward the swimmer – a cute parody on the Jaws movie.
There are other fun places near Ventura to visit while you are in the area, most within an hour drive North or South. Before you leave Ventura, though, try to find the bus stop created by artist Dennis Oppenheim – it’s fun and unique. The large structure is located on Telegraph Road, in the parking lot for Pacific View Mall. You can’t miss it. The challenge is that if you want to photograph without all the buses and people, you need to visit in off-peak hours. I went around 5:45am and just as I was finishing snapping photos, a bus pulled in and my window was gone. My other challenge was that the only lens I had was a zoom which made it tough to capture the whole structure. A GoPro or standard DSLR lens would have worked better. This controversial yet functioning bus stop is hailed as either a work of modern art or a local eyesore, depending on who you ask. Arrive very early to photograph without buses and commuters.
It is definitely worth the time after diving to continuing the drive up the coast to Santa Barbara. The ocean views from the Pacific Coast Highway is gorgeous, especially near sunset.
I also spent one morning hiking the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu Creek State Park (formerly owned by 20th Century Fox Studios). Nestled between Agoura Hills and Calabasas, Malibu Creek State Park has some picturesque trail views in the Santa Monica Mountains. Trails lead you to Century Lake (more like a pond by my standards, but really pretty reflections of the mountains in the water – again, hard to capture with a zoom lens) which is about a mile in from the Grassland trail entry on Mulholland Highway.
Another 1.4 miles in from the lake you can find the site where the original M*A*S*H television series was filmed and numerous artifacts are still in place for visitors. Malibu Creek is free to enter (if you park on a side street like Mulholland) and is located in Cornell, very close to Calabasas. Travel Mulholland with care, though, since it is a common unofficial course for racing exotic sports cars and motorcycles despite the radar warning signs – the excessive speed and risk with the sharp curves was noticeable even for me and I am quite comfortable driving in fast areas. It felt like a race track and the motorcycles, especially, seem to have no fear of speed and hairpin turns.
Identifying a unique local food in California is difficult because I am used to the variety of American cuisine. That said, a visitor might be interested in trying a boba blended smoothie drink since they are not widely available or marketed throughout the entire U.S. Boba are the soft and chewy little black balls that you can see in the bottom of the cup. They are made from sweet potato and cassava roots – basically tapioca balls. As you drink the smoothie, the pearls get sucked up through the straw as a little surprise. Flavors are seemingly endless and prices are generally ~$4USD. Boba may be an acquired taste, but if you happen to like mochi, you probably will be a fan. I love the stuff and the smoothies are filling, like a meal. Some Asian restaurants serve boba drinks but there are also dedicated boba smoothie stores around if you look hard enough. My favorite was in Oxnard and I opted for the sour sop flavor because it reminded me of my travels through Belize where I first tried sour sop fruit juice – light and refreshing.