King of your own castle and sandcastle

King of your own castle and sandcastle
WHERE BUT VENICE? A skateboard-riding saxophone player serenades the sky and sand along Venice Beach on a late afternoon. (Richard Hartog / LAT)
How can you not have fun when the sun is shining, the waves are crashing and the incense-selling, palm-reading, bongo-drumming freaks on the boardwalk are out in full force?

Most people experience the wacky pleasures of Venice Beach only while traveling along the bike path. My wife, two sons and I decided to bask smack dab in the middle of it.

The goal: Embrace our inner beach bum.

The secret to being a bum, of course, is living within your means. For us that meant a luxury oceanfront hotel was out of the question. Instead, we chose Venice Suites, whose three properties include a well-appointed, four-story apartment building on the strand that underwent a $2.5-million renovation in 2000. Though the place caters mostly to folks on business or in town for several weeks, nightly accommodations can be made when there are vacancies.

Make no mistake about it, this place is not for those who like to be pampered. There's no bellhop, no room service. The parking lot is blocks away. But what you do get is a clean, fully furnished room with a kitchenette and a front door that opens up to the beach and street theater that has made Venice a renowned tourist attraction.

Our room, $110 a night plus tax, was a tad small, but we had an ocean view. Our 2-year-old, Casey, slept in his portable crib. A rollaway bed for our 7-year-old son, Riley, came at no extra charge. Parking was free too.

There were larger rooms, but none was available during our recent stay. Depending on the size and view of the room and the length of stay, nightly rates range from $90 to $180. Venice Suites' other two properties are within walking distance of the beach.

There was a decidedly light and beachy feel to our place. The rooftop deck had a panoramic view of the ocean and surrounding beach communities. Guests could recline on steamer-style lounge chairs and barbecue on a gas grill. For those who couldn't live without the Internet, high-speed connections were available in all rooms.

Leslie, the kids and I arrived at Venice Beach on a Saturday afternoon. After carting a carload of luggage, food and beach paraphernalia up to our third-floor room, we decided to get a feel for location and walk along the boardwalk.

Both our boys seemed amused by the musicians who played reggae, the artists who peddled paintings, candles and windmills made from beer cans, and the street performers who clowned around with the tourists or stood robotically still.

Every half-block you could get a henna tattoo or have your future told for $5.

In some respects, Venice Beach — once known as the "Coney Island of the Pacific" — looks like a gathering spot for Grateful Dead fans. Hippies, homeless and hipsters mingle harmoniously.

Digging the beach

After soaking up the local atmosphere and talent, we went up to the room for lunch. Our plan was to make several meals in the room and splurge for dinners.

Following lunch, we went to the beach to relax on the sand and play. There's quite a stretch of sand between the boardwalk and the beach, giving surfers and sun worshipers plenty of room to enjoy themselves.

The beach was clean, the water warm and the waves challenging. Riley and I swam for what seemed like hours — or at least until the sun started to set and Riley's teeth began to chatter.

For dinner, we hopped on a beach shuttle called the Tide and, for 25 cents a person, rode into Santa Monica.

We ate at i Cugini, a moderately upscale Italian restaurant that is family friendly, with high chairs and a kids' menu. The boys had cheese pizzas. Leslie and I split a tomato-and-mozzarella appetizer, followed by chicken penne pasta for her and lasagna for me, all quite tasty. Because we weren't driving, we also had a bottle of wine.

Afterward we walked across Ocean Avenue to the Santa Monica Pier and spent the rest of the evening at the amusement park there, riding contraptions that induced smiles and laughs from children and headaches and nausea for adults. At least the 25%-off ride coupons, which we printed at home from www, were handy.

At 10 p.m. we caught the last shuttle back to our room.

The local news

On Sunday we had bagels and fruit in our room, then left for one of the many bike-rental spots along the beach. We picked up one tandem and one standard bicycle with a child's seat attached to the back. Helmets were included.

As the sun broke through the morning cloud cover, we rode along the path to Marina del Rey, Santa Monica and back to Venice. Along the way we passed a throng of singing and dancing people celebrating the annual Festival of the Chariots, an event put on by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

After our ride, we repeated our ritual from the day before: Up to the room for lunch, then down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon.

The spot where we laid our beach blanket happened to be where Venice locals hung out. We met friendly families whose kids played with ours, building and destroying sandcastles.

Before sunset we strolled along Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The street, named after the founder of Venice, is an eclectic district with funky antique, clothing and furniture stores, many closed by that late hour.

Based on a recommendation from the local beachgoers, we walked to Lula Cocina Mexicana in Santa Monica for another very satisfying dinner. Riley had a bean and cheese burrito, Casey had a quesadilla and Leslie and I had chicken taco plates and a couple of margaritas each.

Cafe, then canals

The next morning, we embraced an- other recommendation from the locals and went to breakfast at Figtree's Café, less than a block away from our place. The insiders' tip: Everything on the menu is half price if you order between 8 and 9 a.m.

We sat on the restaurant's patio next to the boardwalk and watched as the vendors set up shop for another day.

We checked out of the apartment but weren't through with Venice quite yet. For the first time all weekend, we got in our car and drove a mile or so to the Venice canals.

Sixteen canals were built in 1904 in an attempt to imitate the community's Italian namesake. In the '20s, many were filled in, and only six are left. But those that remain are worth seeing.

We took a scenic walk along the waterways, admiring the residences adjacent to the canals. No bikes or skateboards are allowed on the paths, making for a peaceful stroll.

There were no bongo drums, no street performers.

The quacking of ducks was the loudest sound we heard.