VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Look Around--the County Is Full of Great Ideas : The choices range from hot-air balloon rides to whale watching or buying local produce and landscape paintings.


Want to give a slice of Ventura County to someone on your holiday list?

There are gift ideas right here under your nose--things made here, grown here, or simply fun, even adventurous things to do.

For the high-altitude types on your list, how about a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over the hills of Simi Valley and Moorpark? Newbury Park-based Hot Air Balloon Adventure charges $125 per person for this lofty hourlong experience. They top it off with post-flight champagne. Call (800) 346-6444.

Does whale watching sound a little more tame? Island Packers, operating out of Ventura Harbor, will take you on a four-hour cruise for $21 ($14 for children). A full-day trip to Anacapa Island, with a two-hour stopover for lunch and hiking, will set you back $37 ($20 for children). (805) 642-1393.

Or, for athletic types, spend $60 to buy a day of kayaking in and around Ventura Harbor with Warren Glaser and his Ventura-based Outdoor and Aquatic Recreation Specialists (OARS). Glaser also does island kayaking trips for $117.50. (805) 642-2912

For a more down-to-earth experience, Pink Moment Jeep Tours in Ojai will haul your loved ones over rugged mountainous terrain for some sightseeing. One 3 1/2-hour jaunt up Matilija Canyon to the top of Chief Peak in the Topa Topa Mountain range costs $42 per person. A gentler 90-minute cruise around Ojai runs $20 per person. (805) 646-3227

You can give a piece of Ventura County without breaking the bank. The Information Center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Agoura Hills has books, guides, maps, calendars and posters, all relating to the mountains. (818) 597-9192.

At the center, you'll find these books: "Mountains to Oceans," a new guide to parks in the recreation area with photographs ($12.95); Milt McAuley's "Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains" ($9.95); and Nancy Dale's "Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains" ($15.95).

The Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center at the Ventura Harbor has a similar collection. For the kids, you'll find lots of marine-related books and toys, like the mobiles featuring brown pelicans, whales or sharks that kids can put together. (805) 658-5730

You can also give a gift of art. The county's diverse look is captured by many local artists, such as Oxnard's Margy Gates, known for her coastal watercolors seen around the county and for her ceramic art. Others who depict local scenery include Roxie Ray Bordelon and Gail Pidduck, known for their agricultural themes, and Norman Kirk.

Nothing says Ventura County like the produce grown here. Some growers, like Underwood Farm Market in Somis, make fancy gift baskets of produce. Underwood's run $22 to $90 and include specialty veggies like Chinese eggplant and radicchio. They'll send the goods by express mail to faraway relatives up to a few days before Christmas. (800) 932-4252.

If your tastes lean toward the zany, how about a gift of exotic bananas--or a banana plant--from La Conchita's Seaside Banana Garden (643-4061)? Or nuts from the Nut House in Somis (800) 266-NUTS. If all else fails, don't forget Ventura is the "Poinsettia City."

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