Midway between Malibu and Santa Barbara, downtown Ventura (pop. 106,433) is an offbeat little place, its three-block Main Street lined by enough thrift shops (seven at last count) to clothe a destitute retro-minded army. Apart from searching out vintage couture, the main reason to stop is the small and much-reconstructed Mission San Buenaventura (211 E. Main St., daily, $4 adults), standing at the center of Ventura just north of the US-101 freeway. This was the ninth in the California mission chain, and the last one founded by Junípero Serra, in 1782.
Ventura doesn’t get anything like the tourist trade that Santa Barbara draws, but it does have the pleasant Bella Maggiore Inn (67 S. California St., 805/652-0277 or 800/523-8479, $75 and up), offering good-value B&B rooms in a nicely restored 1920s courtyard hotel between downtown and US-101.
South of Ventura, US-101 heads inland through the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, while Hwy-1 heads south through the 10 miles of stop-and-go sprawl that make up the rapidly suburbanizing farming community of Oxnard (pop. 197,899), then continues right along the coast through Malibu and West Los Angeles.
As an introduction to the high-style car culture of Southern California, there’s no better stop than Oxnard’s unexpected treasure trove, the Mullin Automotive Museum (1421 Emerson Ave., 805/385-5400, $15). Though it is open barely two days (Saturdays) a month, the chance to appreciate one of the world’s finest car collections may be worth planning your trip around.
Alternate Route: Simi Valley
If you opt to follow US-101 rather than coastal Hwy-1 into Los Angeles, be sure to check out the somnolent suburb of Simi Valley, 30 miles east of Ventura, where the hilltop Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (805/522-2977, daily, $23 adults with audio tour) fills 150,000 square feet of Spanish-style stucco with a fascinating array of exhibits and artifacts, most famously a chunk of the Berlin Wall, set in a Cold War-era tableau. Also here, housed in a 200-foot-long glass-walled pavilion, is the actual Boeing 707 used as presidential Air Force One by Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. The “Great Communicator” was interred here following his death in 2004. To get to the library, take US-101 to Hwy-23 north (a.k.a. the Ronald Reagan Freeway), exit at Olsen Road, and follow the signs.
The other Simi Valley sight to see is Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village (4595 Cochran St., 805/231-2497, $10), a complex of small buildings and sculptures built out of glass bottles, TV sets, hubcaps, and assorted other recycled refuse. The late Tressa Prisbey started building it in 1956. Subject of an ongoing battle between folk-art preservationists and those who think it’s a pile of junk, the “village” can be viewed less than a mile south of the Hwy-118/210 freeway between the Tapo Street and Stearns Street exits.