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Inn for a Real Treat : County B&Bs let you escape without venturing far from home. The settings are pastoral, accommodations elegant to cozy. And all offer a big dose of charm.

July 14, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So you want to get away from it all. Just for a night or two. No cooking, no cleaning, no kids, no chaos.

No time.

No time to drive to that little getaway four hours up the coast. No time to fight the Los Angeles traffic and fly to that little getaway. What to do?

Stay right here in Ventura County. Book yourself a room at a bed and breakfast inn. There are at least seven operating in the county, including the two newest ones in Santa Paula.

Feeling romantic? How about the Madame Pompadour room at La Mer in Ventura. Along with the elegant French decor, you get an ocean view, wood-burning stove, balcony and private entrance.

Feeling sultry? Check out the Casablanca room at the Fern Oaks Inn in Santa Paula, where the canopied wicker bed lends a tropical feel, and you can watch the moon rise over the mountains from a private veranda.

Bed and breakfast retreats are on the rise in California. But they're not the casual European-style bargain spots they were once patterned after. Now they are somewhere between cute and elegant, and the prices are up there with the nicer hotels.

In California alone there are 760 B&B's (more than 500 north of Monterey), with a burst of new ones in the last five years, according to the California Assn. of Bed and Breakfast Inns.

Why the popularity? People can no longer afford to take the traditional two-week vacation, so they scout out spots they can get away to for two days, according to Cheryl Eigenhuis, owner of the Fern Oaks Inn.

"They don't want to spend all their time on the road," said Eigenhuis, whose clientele is mostly from the Los Angeles area, but with a surprising number from Ventura County.

One local was Mary Doll of Santa Paula, who splurged on her 40th birthday and spent the night there with her husband, Dan. That would have been special enough, but the couple also invited friends to stay overnight and enjoy a catered dinner Eigenhuis prepared for the occasion.

"We all had breakfast in the morning," Doll said. "I had all my friends around me. It was a great birthday."

If you decide to try out a B&B, here's what you'll need to know:

* Expect to pay an average of $120 a night, according to the association's state-wide estimate. In Ventura County, the cost ranges from a low of $50 for a room with a shared bathroom, up to $155.

* Most inns now provide rooms with private bathrooms. The owners agree that people are more hesitant these days to share a bathroom with strangers.

* Although some places will serve you breakfast in bed, be prepared for the communal breakfast, which brings you face to face with strangers over coffee cake and Belgian waffles. "People make friends--they exchange addresses," said Gisela Baida, who owns La Mer with her husband, Mike.

* Expect a cozier ambience than a hotel, a historical flavor, antiques and collectibles, complimentary wine or tea in the afternoon, distinctive rooms, better quality linens, libraries and usually a congenial owner on the premises.

* Don't expect a television or telephone in the room, swimming pool, fax machine, gift shop or someone to carry your luggage to your room, which often is up a flight of stairs.

* In older inns (and most of them are) be prepared for thin walls. This was a drawback for a Ventura couple whose stay at a local B&B was crimped by the chatty couple in the next room.

There may be other pitfalls. Dave and Terri Slone, who celebrated their 15th anniversary recently at La Mer, will tell you about the B&B they once stayed in along the central coast. "It was at the on-ramp to the 101," Terri Slone said, "and the 18-wheelers. . . ."

Bed and breakfast inns have transformed over the last 10 or 20 years, according to Sandy LaRuffa, director of the state association, based near Santa Cruz.

What was then a sideline for someone with a big house and a spare bedroom or two is now a full-blown business. "It's moved from being a hobby to the professional arena. They've upgraded tremendously."

Here is what you can find in Ventura County:

SANTA PAULA

Fern Oaks Inn: Owner Cheryl Eigenhuis bought this rambling 1929 Spanish-style home and turned it into an elegant four-bedroom B&B three years ago.

Located at the edge of Santa Paula on the road to Ojai, it's impossible to miss. It's a peach-colored stately two-story house, canopied by giant oak trees and surrounded by rose gardens and fruit trees.

The house, which was for years the residence of a doctor, has a large living room and the formal dining room is fitted with an eight-place table where guests eat together. Or they can eat in the cozier kitchen nook.

Eigenhuis prepares a full gourmet breakfast. Here's a sampling: New Orleans-style French toast baked in carmel with strawberries and whipped cream, or maybe eggs Oscar. She bakes her own buttermilk biscuits and cinnamon rolls.

Throughout the day, guests can help themselves to hot apple cider, homemade cookies and fruit. In the afternoon she offers sherry, and each room has chocolates and flowers.

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