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WEEKEND ESCAPE : A Beach Campground That’s (Almost) Paradise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking for a mini-vacation where the hardest part is eating lobster without drawn butter?

Read on.

The place is El Capitan State Beach, a cliff-side wonder 20 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. If this state campground were just nestled between the ocean and rolling hills of Los Padres National Forest, it would be heaven. Unfortunately, active train tracks and U.S. Highway 101--which form the park’s eastern border--reduce it to only a Garden of Eden.

In other words: Even with choo-chooing and varooming, it still ain’t bad.

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The 133-acre site--among the state’s smallest parks--offers a range of activities. There’s surf fishing and swimming for the wet at heart. For land-lovers, there’s hiking and camping. During my three-day stay, however, I opted for the land package plus eating, drinking wine and reading trashy novels.

And best of all, the entire trip cost less than $100.

I discovered El Capitan quite by accident. It had reached that point we’ve all experienced at some time where I needed to leave Significant Other, Family/Friends/Freeway and Job behind for a few days. So with camping gear, Beethoven tapes and maps in tow, I drove north, having no idea where I’d end up.

I took a rather roundabout route that started at Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Because it was midmorning on a Wednesday, there was a smattering of traffic so I could leisurely cruise up PCH and take in the ocean without someone on my tail.

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Just north of Malibu, I cut inland across the Santa Monica Mountains at Kanan Dume Road. If you take this way, pull over when you see the sign for the first viewpoint. On a clear day, you’ll have a view of the Pacific to end all views of the Pacific.

On the other side of the mountain was U.S. 101, which took me north toward Westlake Village. The plan was to stop at my bank, pick up loot, then head to the market for goodies for my empty cooler. Between the bank and the supermarket, though, I was drawn to a restaurant called Johnnie P.'s Ribs to Go at 1014 Westlake Blvd.

Perhaps it was the name “Johnnie” that attracted me, because as rib joints go, this place had everything else going against it. I mean, this daughter of two Southerners believes that good ribs only come from shacks with smoke-stained walls and barbecue sauce on the floor, and not from eateries in suburban shopping centers.

I took my chances and ordered the baby back sampler (there had to be a ton of ‘em for only $10.95) and deliriously gnawed on these delights all the way up Highway 101.

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But before I let the eating begin, I stopped at the market and bought a Dieter’s Dream: Dodger dogs, a New York strip steak, a wedge of Brie, Trisket crackers, a can of Bush’s baked beans, half a pound of raw shrimp, a bunch of carrots, a bag of pretzels and a bag of potato chips, French onion dip, two bottles of their cheapest wine, a liter of Diet Pepsi and a bag of ice.

With all windows down and Ludwig blaring out all four speakers, I switched over to PCH just outside Ventura, passing scenic Emma Wood State Beach and Seacliff.

Back on 101, I stopped briefly in Santa Barbara and headed west to East Cabrillo Street, which is right on the water. The seaside shops are pretty standard stuff. I also did a quick stop among the shops on Stearns Wharf. Again, nothing too spectacular.

Driving father north on 101, I saw a sign for El Capitan State Beach and figured, what the heck. As the campground was not too busy, I was allowed to pull in and select my own site (there are 140 camping sites with in-ground barbecue grills), then paid my $16 for the first night. When I discovered--upon closer inspection--that my campsite had an ocean view, I knew it was love.

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The good thing about taking a mindless vacation is that the things deemed intolerable at home now mean nothing.

For example, before leaving L.A., I decided at the last minute to treat myself and buy a lobster tail for my first night’s dinner. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring butter or any facsimile. I ended up grilling it on my propane stove with soy sauce and oregano. (I’m sure many a connoisseur would find the baked beans, $2.24 bottle of wine and the crackers that accompanied the lobster to be more offensive than no butter.)

After setting up the tent, I crawled in and started reading one of three trashy novels that I had brought along (“Love Machine” and “Valley of the Dolls"--oldies but goodies by Jacqueline Susann, and a new book called “Hostages” that was so bad that I recycled it as soon as I returned, so I can’t tell you who wrote it.)

My days essentially consisted of getting up, going over to the camp store for coffee and a paper (El Capitan and a private campground within walking distance on the other side of 101 have well-stocked stores). Then I’d make breakfast, consisting of odd combos such as shrimp, Brie and beans.

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Midmorning I’d take a little walk over to the beach and read until about noon, then it was time for lunch, followed by nap time. During my stay I wrote letters to friends back in New York, describing how I had died and gone to heaven, and how I had seen lizards, loads of gorgeous flowers and a whale off the coast, which initially I mistook for a speedboat.

I also did the one thing I always have wanted to do: I read an entire book in one day.

As the sun was setting I’d make dinner, walk a little more, then crawl into the sleeping bag and read and snack on chips until there was no more light.

At about midnight I’d force myself to wake up and poke my head out of the tent. I’d look up to see a jillion stars in the dark sky over the ocean and Los Padres National Forest, which is just to the east of El Capitan. I’d take great joy in seeing the Big Dipper, the only constellation I can easily recognize.

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(At first, trains coming through in the middle of the night were annoying, but the soothing sounds of crashing waves, mourning doves, swaying trees and the smell of flowers, and yes, even the sound of cars and trucks whizzing by on 101, countered effectively in sending me back to sleep.)

El Capitan is the ideal place to bring one’s frazzled freeway nerves. It’s a neat, well-maintained park that’s user-friendly. There are plenty of restrooms (kept very clean), hiking trails, walkways down to the beach and places to get water and toss trash that are a comfortable distance from campers. (For reservations--they are suggested, especially in summer and on weekends--call 800-444-7275. The park phone number is 805-968-3294.)

Open year-round, it’s a place where an L.A.-er can be in self-imposed exile for a few days. Where the only place you might feel the need to rush to is one of the few benches along the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

During the summer, it’s generally filled to capacity and noisy. But off-season--especially during the week--it’s a haven for parents (during my stay there were lots of young parents with infants and toddlers). Or for anyone else who just wants to get away--with or without drawn butter.

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Weekend Budget

Gas (round trip from Venice): $14.00

Campsite, three nights: $48.00

Groceries: $34.65

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Trashy novels (brought from home): Zilch

FINAL TAB: $96.65


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