Water Taxi! Water Taxi!

Diana Marcum is a Palm Springs-based freelance writer

I'm always torn between the wing-it or plan-ahead vacation philosophy. The problem with planning, as we'd done in this case--making restaurant reservations as we plotted a harbor dine-around, hopping from one eatery to another by water taxi--is that plans can be foiled. As ours seemed to be.

The water taxis were packed. Boats went by with no room for us as reservations and the afternoon slipped away. On the other hand, there are worse things than being stranded on a dock in Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor on a bright, sunny Saturday. It wasn't as though we were starving. The first part of our scheme had gone without a hitch. We caught a cheery, powder-blue and yellow taxi-boat, with a "little-engine-that-could" smile painted on its bow, and rode across the harbor to Pirate's Grub & Grog, where we sat on a waterfront balcony and enjoyed margaritas and jalapen~o poppers (delectable deep-fried, cream-cheese- filled peppers).

Now, as I watched the tide roll in, I could hear Otis Redding playing, even if it was only inside my head. My friend Tami had her flower-bedecked straw hat pulled over her face. The only thing missing was a couple of fishing poles.

By the time we did catch a boat, there wasn't enough time to make another restaurant and still get back to our car before the Harbor Hopper Water Taxi service stopped running at 6 p.m. (We wouldn't have this problem now, as summer schedules have begun and water taxis run Saturdays 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Call for weekday schedules.)

So we joined the rest of the crowd just cruising the harbor aboard the smiley boats. A friendly elephant seal provided entertainment, following the boat around and showing off how he could stand on his head and stick his tail fin above water.

The basic restaurant plan, however, is a good one. There are six water-taxi ports in the harbor, five outside restaurants, such as Tugs, whose highly recommended cheesecake had been on our dessert list. It costs $1 a person for each taxi hop, and in many cases restaurants offer complimentary tickets.

After the taxis stopped, we drove the 15 minutes north to Ventura and checked in at our hotel, the Bella Maggiore Inn on South California Street--with just enough time to walk to the beach three blocks away before wine and cheese were served in the lobby. The 24-room inn has wrought- iron work wrapping a central spiral staircase, roses stenciled on the walls, vases of fresh flowers and a grand piano in the lobby. Complimentary breakfast (including omelets, cream-cheese-filled French toast, and grapefruit filled with berries and topped with lime-honey creme frai^che) is served in a peaceful courtyard with peach-colored walls and a fountain.

The area, Ventura's historic downtown, is full of antique shops and used-book stores. We were immediately drawn to Bank of Books on Main Street, a cavernous store with bulging shelves, paperbacks stacked 4 feet high on the floors and more books on the way, according to the new owner.

On the 1 1/2-hour drive up from Pasadena we had somehow gotten to talking about "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," a book we'd both read as girls. I couldn't believe it when Tami picked a book off a stack only to find the teen classic lurking beneath. We left with armfuls of paperbacks and spent less than $5 each.

The street was an intriguing hodgepodge. If Santa Barbara, 30 miles to the north, is the Barbra Streisand of tourist towns, in careful control of her image, then Ventura is rocker Courtney Love, undergoing a transformation to glamour but with the scrappy edges still showing. Dreary thrift stores named after the afflictions they raise money for share the block with upscale boutiques. The best part of the incomplete gentrification is that there's still free parking everywhere, even downtown.

I've never had the patience or money for antique shopping, but for anyone so inclined, Ventura is the place. We walked by windows displaying vintage clothing, Bauer bowls, wonderful old maps and the same model of wooden Jack Kramer tennis racquet that I happen to own and still use! If we had been interested in antiquing, our first stop would have been the Ventura Visitors Bureau, next door to our hotel, for their shopping guide to all the antique stores.

At a tiny shop with lacy curtains and a pink scalloped awning lettered Atelier de Chocolat, we bought delicious, creamy candies that were the Godiva of peanut butter cups. Indeed, shop owner Audrey Gaffney told us her husband, Bernard, who makes the chocolates, was once a Godiva vice president. The candy shop is the realization of their retirement dream.

At the east end of Main Street we peeked into the Mission San Buenaventura, the ninth of California's 21 missions. Here in the midst of a downtown street was a peaceful garden of rosebushes, stately pines and a bubbling stone fountain lined with blue and gold Spanish tile.

There wasn't any readily discernible night life, so after dinner at the 8-month-old Jonathan's restaurant, where the food was decorated with edible flowers, we ended the evening by catching a movie.

After seeing our well-made plans spoiled on the first day, we learned that the problem with not planning is that you can get left ashore while those with reservations sail away. The sky was again brilliant blue, and I was determined to get out on the ocean. But at 10 a.m. I stood on the dock at Ventura Harbor watching what seemed to be the last available boat for rent or hire sail toward the horizon.

Then a Dutch-accented voice said, "Why don't you go sailing? My husband could take you." Lia and Erik Sluyter own Aloha Sports Boatel Bunk and Breakfast, a B&B;, only the bed is on a boat in the harbor--another realization of a retirement dream. Erik also teaches sailing. He would take us both out on his 34-foot sloop (not the boat you sleep on) for a two-hour sailing lesson for $100. It was an unplanned expense, but on the other hand, we hadn't spent all the money we'd expected to on restaurants the day before.

Before Erik had finished freshening our memory about jibs and mainsails, Lia decided to ditch her paperwork and come along. In no time, we were past the harbor and out on the open ocean. Erik told us about luffing (when you get off your mark and your sails start flapping about in confusion--a concept I figured I could use, sailing or not). The sea was turquoise green. Anacapa, the Channel Island just 11 miles from shore, grew bigger on the horizon. The sails were filled with a 12-knot wind, and once again an elephant seal was tagging along.

We sailed back to harbor wind-whipped, happy and very hungry. Taking the Sluyters' suggestion, we walked to the nearby Greek at the Harbor and downed savory, authentic Greek food. We ate in the sunshine on the outdoor patio, feeding sparrows, watching boats come and go . . . just sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time. I swear I could hear Otis Redding.

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Budget for Two

Appetizers, Pirate's Grub & Grog: $15.85

Dinner, Jonathan's: $31.08

Bella Maggiore, 1 night plus breakfast: $148.50

Movies: $15.50

Sailing lesson: $100.00

Lunch, the Greek: $22.07

Gas: $15.00

FINAL TAB: $348.00

Bella Maggiore, 67 S. California St., Ventura, CA 93001; tel. (800) 523-8479. Harbor Hopper Water Taxi; tel. (805) 985-4677. Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau; (800) 4-VENTURA.

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