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Weekend Escape: Ventura

A quiet weekend by the sea proves you can go home again. And again and again.

June 30, 1996|JOANNA M. MILLER | Miller is a freelance writer based in Simi Valley

VENTURA — They say you can never go back. That the quirks of a quiet little beach town that feel familiar and quaint to a resident will only seem inconvenient or even tawdry to a tourist.

So we decided to return for a weekend in Ventura, where we had lived for seven years. We headed for a wonderful little three-story motel on the water that we had always wanted to try, and determined to hit as many of our favorite spots as we could, this time as discriminating tourists.

We left our Simi Valley house Friday night in two cars, because I had to work Sunday in Ventura and the Amtrak schedule didn't meet my needs. I always like the moment on the northbound Ventura Freeway when you come to the crest of the Conejo Grade and the Oxnard Plain spreads out like a patchwork quilt of orchards, lettuce and strawberry fields. You get a glimpse of why agriculture is still the top industry in Ventura County, at least for now. If it was hot in the valleys you just drove through, about now it's starting to cool off.

We hadn't eaten, so we stopped at Ferraro's, an Italian family restaurant where Betty Ferraro greets customers at the door and offers them a glass of Chianti on the house as they wait for a table. Ferraro's is not froufrou; the house Chianti has a replaceable cap, the lettuce is iceberg and the bread is packaged. But the entrees are ample, the sauce loaded with garlic and the place is kid friendly.

With a container filled with four or five leftover raviolis, we headed to the Inn on the Beach, about five minutes away. Looking right past the lighted sign that said "DO NOT ENTER, TIRE DAMAGE," I turned in the first driveway to the motel. As my husband, Mike, and our 2-year-old, Matthew, entered through the second drive and I lifted the baby out of his seat, I was surprised to hear a loud hissing noise. When I looked at my rear tire, I knew what the hissing sound was.

Our third floor room was lovely, decorated in pastels and large enough that a queen bed and two cribs still left room for a small table and chairs. It was bright, with a large crescent-shaped window over the sliding glass door. And it promised a million-dollar view of the Pacific by daylight. We opened the door onto the fenced balcony and let the cool ocean breeze sweep through the room. That night, the ocean's calming roar lulled us all into a restful sleep. Going back was going fine.

The next morning, my son and I went down a floor to retrieve a glass of orange juice, a couple of cups of coffee and muffins from the complimentary continental breakfast the inn lays out each day--nothing special, but enough to take the morning edge off. Back in the room, the view from the balcony was spectacular, with the Channel Islands rising out of the ocean about 20 miles out on a clear, warm day.

We took the punctured tire and headed out for a variation on what used to be our Saturday morning routine. First stop would normally have been the farmers market. But on this day, we left the car at the Four-Day Tire store at Ash and Santa Clara streets, put the kids in the stroller and walked the couple blocks down to the farmers market at Santa Clara Avenue and California Street.

Ventura's market offers dozens of vendors, selling everything from "jazzy sprouts"--that's beans and sprouts sold by a man who plays saxophone--to organically grown lettuce and fresh pasta. The market was bustling as usual. And the fresh, cold apple juice was delicious on a warm morning. At a triangle-shaped park on the edge of the market, where the Old Time Fiddlers performed such chestnuts as "My Grandfather's Clock," a half a dozen kids danced to the music or romped on the grass.

It was tempting to stay in the sun and pick up a pastry and coffee from Cafe Bella across the street. But we walked around the corner onto Main Street to Franky's Place. Mike(CQ), who is a creature of habit, was relieved to see his old favorite, the Santa Fe omelet with beans and chilis still on the menu. Owner Chris Pustina was still there--part of the kitchen crew that morning, but still taking off her apron to greet customers from time to time.

*

A look down Main Street told us that the old downtown, which includes one of the missions founded by Junipero Serra, was even better than we remembered it. We had feared a city plan to replace the gumdrop-shaped shade trees with palms would leave the downtown looking as though it were trying to be a Santa Barbara imitation. But the young palms, the bright cloth banners advertising upcoming events and new sidewalks inlaid with brick gave downtown Ventura a cleaner and more prosperous feel. It still has plenty of thrift and antique stores, but now there are coffeehouses and even nighttime entertainment to add life.

Later, while our baby slept on a blanket on the sand, we three played in the waves and sand. The water, about 65 degrees, was a little cold for a 2-year-old, but he was fascinated with a nearby fisherman.

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