Tucked away in a harbor better known for fishing and paddleboarding is the Channel Islands Maritime Museum in Oxnard, a treasure chest of maritime art that rivals some of the finest European and U.S. collections.
Among the 72 original paintings on display are seascape paintings by masters of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, works from the 18th and 19th century by English Romantic painters, and French Impressionist works by Eugene-Louis Boudin, a mentor of Monet.
"People often assume that maritime museums are all about rusty anchors and crusty ships," says Executive Director Julia Chambers. "We have five centuries of exquisite art that sails -- truly marvelous, gorgeous art and artifacts that open up a whole world of adventurous ocean exploration for visitors who can drive an hour north from L.A., slow down, and take the time to absorb the beauty here."
Also included are works by American painters Thomas Hoyne (his famous "The Widow Maker" among others) and John Stobart, and the largest collection of historic ship models on the West Coast.
The 81 museum quality models include American Edward Marple's work, and an amazing group of "bone models" carved from soup bones by French soldiers held captive during the early 19th century Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md., has the largest U.S. bone model collection, but the Channel Islands Maritime Museum has more on display. The museum's own Model Guild has built a replica of a Ming Dynasty treasure ship for display.
Many of the master works of art and ship models are part of the Nelson Foundation's collection, and are exhibited in the remodeled two-story space once occupied by the Port Royal restaurant near the entrance to the harbor. Large floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the harbor and its busy traffic -- large sailing sloops, small electric party boats, kayaks, paddleboarders, fishing and whale watching boats, heading in or out of the nearby harbor entrance. Sea lions on the dock out front also add to the view.
The museum opened in 1991 at the north end of the harbor, but moved south in 2012, and is staffed by a large roster of docents and volunteers. Many of them have been with the museum since its inception.
Upstairs from the main exhibit areas and gift shop is a large space for featured exhibits, movie nights and maritime-themed parties. A monthly speaker series covers a wide range of maritime topics -- local Chumash history, Peruvians' early wave-riding reed craft and the annual presence of migrating whales in the Santa Barbara Channel.
The Channel Islands sit just offshore and the harbor's Island Packers Cruises has daily visits to five of the islands that offer magnificent hiking and camping. Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the closest islands in the chain, are an hour away.
Harbor neighbors include restaurants and watering holes. Sea Fresh and the Whale's Tale offer good fish entrees and a casual atmosphere. The Italian Job Cafe and Moqueca Brazilian Cuizine are a tad more formal, but not overly so. The Lookout Bar and Grill and Topper's Pizza at the north end of the harbor offer good grub and grog. A block off the harbor is Mrs. Olson's Coffee Hut. Its breakfast is worth getting up a little early for.