For the previously housebound, especially those oversaturated by screen time, a day trip to Santa Cruz Island is the perfect slap-of-fresh-air reminder that there’s still a big, beautiful world out there begging to be explored.
On a recent Thursday, Ventura’s Island Packers ― now back in service after a three-month coronavirus closure ― ferried a group of mainlanders across a glassy Santa Barbara Channel. The crew took all the proper health precautions, asking everyone to wear their face masks and making sure we sat as far apart as possible. Hand sanitizer was readily available. The strangeness of the times was quickly forgotten as, clutching cups of warm coffee, we pointed and whooped at a pod of dolphins chasing our bow and surfing our wake.
We soon docked at Prisoner’s Harbor, where history abounds. We stood where the Chumash village of Xaxas lived and breathed for 3,000 years. Inhabitants gathered acorns and cherries while hunters plied the channel in redwood tomols. We also heard how the place got its Anglo name. (It’s a fascinating story, involving 80 shackled men from an Acapulco penal colony, but you’ll have to head there to get all the details.) A big-bodied raven landed nearby. Seals poked their heads up from the shallows.
Visitors are permitted to explore at their leisure, a National Park Service ranger told us, provided they stay on public property and respect the protected land. We opted for the five-mile, there-and-back trail to Pelican Bay. Along the way, we took in the pretty but lonely vistas that only islands can offer, stopping every so often to appreciate bunches of bush poppies and island paint brush. On two occasions, bold and curious island foxes trotted from behind manzanita bushes to check us out. They squinted and we smiled before we parted ways.
The hike itself wasn’t easy but certainly not too difficult either, the perfect workout for sedentary legs suddenly put to use again. Even though the weather was cool, we were happy we brought lots of water. There are no drinking fountains on Santa Cruz. We ate our packed lunches on a bare outcrop overlooking the bay, listening to the ocean crash into sea caves and shore birds cackle somewhere out of sight. Way in the distance, whale spouts misted the horizon.
The walk back to the boat was a little less enjoyable, only because it meant we were going home. We could have easily spent another day or two on the island. And maybe next time we will; Island Packers offers drop-offs and pickups for backpacking trips. A few of us bought beers while we motored north. Others napped. But we all quickly jumped to our feet when another dolphin pod came splashing toward us. Their gray backs glistened as they jumped through the air and their white underbellies flashed as they played and turned just below the surface.
Once inside Ventura Harbor, we decided we didn’t want the day to end, so we walked down to Andria’s Seafood, where I wolfed down a charbroiled halibut cooked Cajun style. As a Santa Barbaran, I envied the casual, homespun atmosphere and delicious local fare served right on the water. Somehow, we don’t have enough of that.
Just down the way, the Ultimate Escape Rooms tempted us, but it was getting late. Next time, we promised ourselves. Though The Wizard’s Lair and The Attic themes looked tempting, I’m most intrigued by the Mermaid’s Curse.
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