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Weekend Escape

A Channel Islands-Hopping Adventure

Santa Rosa by plane, Anacapa by boat-- no matter the conveyance, the national park pleases


CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK — We had been flying over water for about 20 minutes when the fog suddenly cleared and Santa Rosa Island appeared, its hills golden in the morning sunlight. The tiny plane banked and leveled out to land. As it eased down, a dirt runway came into view, filling the cockpit window in front of us. Then we were on the ground, gently bumping along the makeshift landing strip.

The pilot shut down the engines, and there was silence. For just a moment.

"Twenty-six miles across the sea," warbled a friend from the seat behind me, "Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me ... "

"Wrong island," another friend scoffed, cutting him off.

All of us laughed. Definitely the wrong island.

Like Catalina, Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands group, a string of eight islands off the coast of Southern California. But that is where the comparison ends.

Catalina has 10,000 visitors on a good weekend. Santa Rosa may have a dozen. Then again, it may have none.

On a Saturday in June, fewer than a dozen of us--my group and a few fishermen--were visiting.

My friends and I had decided to embark on an all-islands weekend in the Santa Barbara Channel. We had planned to stay in Ventura and take day trips to Santa Rosa and Anacapa, two of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park.

Santa Rosa, 44 miles from the mainland, is occasionally visited by charter boats: Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara and Island Packers in Ventura. But it's a long trip and may be canceled if enough people haven't booked the voyage. The most dependable way to traverse the channel is as we did, on a 10-seat twin-engine plane flown by Channel Islands Aviation out of Camarillo.

If you can piece together a group of at least six friends or family members for the plane ride, you may have the 15-mile-long island mostly to yourself. The round-trip cost is $106 for adults, $84 for children. Stay for a day--or longer if you like to camp. But don't expect amenities. Visitors must bring their own food, water and shelter.

As we left the plane, pilot Eric Burg recommended a beach walk and pointed out a trail. Then he said he would return to pick us up in six hours. He started the engines of the noisy Britten Norman Islander and lifted off, bound for the mainland.

We strolled off the runway, bound for a beach.

It didn't take long. Within 10 minutes we emerged on a thin strip of sand that seemed to stretch as far as we could see. There were no footprints, no litter, no people--just driftwood and shells and rocks. A strong scent of kelp filled our nostrils, and we could hear the lazy crash of the surf.

Behind us, 20-foot sand dunes were stacked up against the sandstone cliffs that line the beach. The only marks on them were soft ridges and swirls carved by the wind.

The sea was azure in the shallows, gradually deepening to dark blue on the horizon. About 50 sea gulls stood their ground at the tide line, undisturbed by our invasion.

We marveled at the scene and congratulated ourselves on finding such tranquillity so close to home. Then we ambled up the beach, heading for a tumble of volcanic rocks and tide pools.

Santa Rosa ranges from steep canyons and grass-covered rolling hills to the beach we were exploring. Once the home of Chumash Indians, the island is considered a treasure of archeological sites, some dating back 12,000 years.

There are Torrey pines, a coastal lagoon and plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. At one time, flightless geese and pygmy mammoths strolled here.

Unfortunately, our six hours of island isolation vanished long before we were ready to leave. Before we knew it, we heard--then saw--Burg's plane approaching. Tired and sunburned but grateful for the experience, we reluctantly boarded and returned to the mainland.

The Four Points by Sheraton hotel sits near the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center at sleepy Ventura Harbor. Friday night I had been checked into a room that wasn't made up. I was moved twice and finally ended up in a clean and comfortable room ($99 plus tax per night). Unfortunately, it was over the bar. The desk clerk assured me, however, that the loud music would end at midnight. And it did. The same desk clerk assured us we could eat in the hotel restaurant, Alexander's. But it closed early that night.

So we scouted the harbor and happened upon the Scotch and Sirloin, a clubby-looking restaurant with lots of plants, burnished mahogany and burgundy overstuffed booths overlooking the marina.

It was a pleasant surprise. Despite the late hour, the sourdough bread was warm, the prime rib was rare and the sirloin soup was steaming and hearty. True to its name, the restaurant offered 31 single-malt scotches.

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