Ventura, California

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ventura, California

Just 69 miles north of L.A., with beaches carved like moonscapes by wind and sea, a lovely harbor and an endearing Main Street that feels as if it's just coming to life after a long slumber, Ventura might just be one of Southern California's best-kept secrets. If you like Santa Barbara but could do without the cookie-cutter chain stores on State Street, you'll love this low-ley alternative.

Main Street between Ventura and Laurel avenues is a collection of independent bookstores and boutiques, serious taquerías and chichi wine bars, and endless secondhand stores--vintage clothing spots, antiques purveyors and thrift shops. The latter are great for treasure hunting used toys for young kids or cool retro fashions for older ones. At Main Street's western end is the San Buenaventura Mission (a must-see for fourth-graders).

The toys serve as a handy distraction during dinner at the Busy Bee Cafe--a 1950s-style diner with perky red-and-white décor and boothside jukeboxes spinning tunes by Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis and other singers your children have never heard. Diners are a mix of tourists and locals, one of whom shared a bowl of clam chowder with his pet parrot on a recent visit.

The ocean is where most of the fun is, and the lodging (inexpensive, but none of it wonderful) tends to hug the water too. The smell of sea air and the sight of masts bobbing in the bay tell you when you're getting close to Ventura Harbor Village, the SoCal version of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. The old-timey carousel arcade lives up to its name with a well-worn and slow-moving merry-go-round. After taking dozens of spins past the cotton candy and candy apple counters, your kids will be begging for sweets once the ride is done. Bust out some tokens and it's time for air hockey, Hot Licks and dozens of other games in the small arcade.

On weekends, the outdoor stage is home to kid-friendly performances, including, on a recent Saturday, magician Dan Ray, whose bag of tricks included a bird (pulled from a hat) and a wooden board used to levitate a young volunteer. San Buenaventura Beach, with its small dunes and rolling surf (and lack of lifeguards) is just a short and sandy stroll away.

At the marina, a pair of companies offer vastly different types of boat rides. If it's whales you want, Island Packers will whisk you away to the high seas for a minimum of 3 to 31/2 hours (whale trips from $28; [805] 642-1393). Ventura Boat Rentals ([805] 642-7753) keeps landlubbers in the calmer waters of the harbor, with pay-by-the-hour electric boats, paddle boats and kayaks or, for less adventurous types, a 40-minute guided tour aboard its multipassenger Dreamer.

Or just take a lazy stroll on the jetty at Marina Park as the sun sets and let the kids romp on the big play ship, the San Salvador.--


Ventura Beach Marriott, 2055 E. Harbor Blvd.; (805) 643-6000, Doubles start at $159. Pierpont Inn, 550 Sanjon Road; (800) 285-4667, Doubles from $145.


Brophy Bros. Restaurant & Clam Bar, 1559 Spinnaker Drive; (805) 639-0865. Enjoy selections from the clam bar or fresh fish caught off the coast in this harborside restaurant. Entrees $18 to $22. Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main St.; (805) 643-4864. Dine like it's the 1950s, with chicken pot pie, meatloaf and other all-American fare. Whole apples are served on the side. Main courses $8 to $12.


Ventura Convention & Visitors Bureau; (800) 483-6214,

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