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WEEKEND ESCAPE: OXNARD & VENTURA

Water Taxi! Water Taxi!

Oxnard's harbor-hopping boats drop diners and shoppers at their dock of choice

July 04, 1999|DIANA MARCUM | Diana Marcum is a Palm Springs-based freelance writer

VENTURA — 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.

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