For Elderly Set, Ventura’s the Ticket


At one time in their lives, Chuck and Jaque DeBedts spent a year living in London, visited Paris every other summer and participated in a U.S. trade mission to China.

With Chuck’s work as a Lockheed executive taking them overseas often, they sampled the local cuisine in Australia and Algeria, bought souvenirs in Ireland and Israel, and had their passports stamped by customs officials in Sweden and Sri Lanka.

Now retired and living in Escondido, these veteran travelers, both 77, prefer to vacation closer to home. So when their country club closed recently for renovation, they signed up for a five-day tour of Ventura, the site of a thriving Elderhostel program that draws an average of 2,000 visitors a year to the seaside city.

Along with 42 other tourists 55 and older who paid $600 each for the trip, the DeBedtses listened to a community college professor explain his research on stimulating aging brains. They watched a local marine biologist’s slide presentation about the Channel Islands. And they saw a costumed docent from the Ventura County Museum of History and Art impersonate the daughter of Theodosia Burr Shepherd, a 19th century resident who acquired fame, if not fortune, exporting the flower seeds she grew behind her house on Chestnut Street.


Provincial? Perhaps. Small-time? You bet. But sightseeing their way from one parochial landmark to another earlier this month--from a collection of figurines at the museum to the gardens of San Buenaventura Mission--the Elderhostel tour members appeared captivated.

“It’s wonderful to find this beautiful, charming place with so much going on,” said Jaque DeBedts as the group prepared for a stroll downtown.

To a large extent, Ventura owes its popularity as an Elderhostel site to good luck and bad weather. Ten years ago, Marty Knowlton, one of the co-founders of Elderhostel International, the nonprofit travel organization that in 1975 pioneered the concept of learning vacations for mature adults, settled in Ventura. In 1994, during a particularly bitter East Coast winter, he persuaded David Bianco, the group’s other co-founder and a Boston native, to relocate too.

Center Develops Slate of Programs


With their knowledge of the kinds of programs that appeal to adventurous seniors and a desire to put their adopted city on the map, Knowlton and Bianco launched the Center for Studies of the Future, a Ventura-based Elderhostel affiliate. In the decade since, the center has conducted computer courses out of a rented classroom at Ventura Harbor Village; arranged history, music and literature courses at the Sheraton Four Points Harbortown Hotel; and organized California mission tours that began and ended in Ventura.

In the process, the center has emerged as the fourth-largest Elderhostel affiliate in the nation and the second-largest in the West behind an organization in the Bay Area, said Todd Shetterly, deputy director of Elderhostel’s nine-state Western region.

“Ventura is one of those wonderful beach communities of California that has a uniqueness about it that isn’t over the top,” said Bianco, 63. Joe Corso, 61, of San Diego, came to Ventura in early October with his wife, Barbara, to train as trip coordinators for the Center for Studies of the Future. The couple have held similar positions with an Elderhostel affiliate in the Bay Area, spending about half the year overseeing tour groups.

The center operates programs in other communities, including a “gaming lab” in Las Vegas, a float-building workshop in Pasadena, and trips to the Queen Mary and the Getty Center. But its programs within the city of Ventura that generate the greatest attendance, according to Bianco, who credits a diverse mix of course offerings. Last month, for instance, 20 participants were in town for a digital camera course; and last week, 28 visitors arrived for a three-topic itinerary covering the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, the making of “Citizen Kane” and the life of Harry Truman.


To keep the programs fresh, Bianco, who serves as the center’s executive director, and Marsha Rhodes, program director, are always working to develop new courses. Knowlton, 83, is no longer involved in running the program.

Bianco said he and Rhodes are planning a program around Ventura County’s agriculture industry--possible topics include the life cycle of an avocado and a tour of citrus packinghouses--and an intergenerational program that would allow grandparents and grandchildren to surf together.

In Southern California, 22 public and private affiliates arrange trips on behalf of Elderhostel, including USC, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

Terrorist Attacks Cut Into Enrollment


Bianco said that although the center’s fall enrollment is down about 20% after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he expects the numbers to turn around quickly.

“This is a generation that knows adversity. Elderhostelers are a stout bunch,” he said.

Indeed, a new fear of flying in the aftermath of the attacks did not stop Norma Dang from traveling from Hawaii to Ventura recently to fulfill a long-held dream of seeing the Channel Islands.

“I was determined to come,” she said.


Nor did it deter Frieda Hortfield of Dickinson, Texas, who first planned to visit Santa Barbara and Ventura during an Elderhostel trip that took her down the California coast last year. Now, she is planning to tour the two cities during back-to-back Elderhostel vacations this month.

“I think Ventura should be very proud of its museum,” she said. “For a small town, I’ve never seen anything so elaborate and beautifully presented.”

For the DeBedtses, vacationing in Ventura was more of a homecoming. They lived in Westlake Village for three years, and although they used to have friends in Ventura, they had never taken in its sights until they stumbled upon a listing in Elderhostel’s phone-book size course catalog.

“I’m going to tell people back home they ought to come down here,” Chuck DeBedts said. “Ventura is softer than a lot of places, I think. It has its own special flavor and charm.”