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Olive Oil Rubs Beach Expert the Wrong Way


Stephen Leatherman is the nation's best-known beach expert, but he's never thought about tucking a quart of virgin olive oil into his beach bag.

Maybe now he will.

I had to tell Leatherman about the olive oil because I like him. I'd like anyone who can turn a fondness for beaches into a job that can be done with a laptop and a mai tai.

Just as each year's Old Farmer's Almanac is a harbinger of fall, Leatherman's annual list of the top 20 beaches signals the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Every Memorial Day, he reels off the list on national news shows. The beautiful beaches along Ventura County's 42-mile coastline never make it.

I don't hold that against Leatherman. He lives in Florida and suffers from the regional delusion that water at the beach should be warm enough to swim in. Never mind that Florida gets so hot you wouldn't mind cooling off in a pool of molten lead. To make Leatherman's list, a beach must be swimmable sans wetsuit.

So be it. I don't even mind that Leatherman this year placed Santa "Pretty Is as Pretty Does" Barbara on his list of the country's Top 10 Beaches With Night Life.

"Santa Barbara is the toast of Southern California," he told me. "It's a very special place."

I'm not surprised that a stranger to the area would think Santa Barbara is a more happening town than Ventura. What else would he think, with the crowds on bustling State Street, the clubs, the music, the leathery bazillionaires, the gorgeous young people with their "Trust fund, anyone?" smiles.

But that's such a superficial view. Ventura's night life is equally exciting, although it takes an insider to smoke it out. How could a visitor know that we have something like 75 separate choices on cable, each and every night?

So even Leatherman's gush about Santa Barbara didn't keep me from cluing him in about the wonders of olive oil, as applied to the human form.

Olive oil, of course, has replaced fat-laden butter on the tables at your higher-tone restaurants. You're supposed to soak your focaccia in it for a truly healthful carbohydrate experience. After dinner, you can go home to eat some bread and butter.

Now scientists in Japan have suggested that a good post-beach slathering of olive oil can help protect you from skin cancer.

"I didn't know that," said Leatherman. "It sounds . . . kind of kinky."

Here in California--the seat of tolerance and the home to unsung beaches--we no longer have a working definition of "kinky," and if we did, I suspect olive oil wouldn't figure into it.

It certainly wasn't in the mind of the researchers at the Kobe University School of Medicine who arranged for groups of hairless mice to relax under a sunlamp and then swabbed them with virgin olive oil. I'm really not sure what was in their minds.

However, they found after 18 weeks that the olive-oil-painted mice had fewer tumors than their unpainted cousins.

In their study, they were quick to point out that olive oil is not a substitute for sunscreen. If you try it, don't forgo your usual goop. Consider the oil a condiment--the mustard on your ham.

If I were a mouse, I would find it disquieting to be baked and basted three times a week. Come to think of it, though, that's what summer is all about for the millions of non-mice--77% of all vacationers, Leatherman says--who head for the beach.

This year, his list reads about the same as last year's. Six of the top 20 beaches are unpronounceable spots in Hawaii, with Kaunaoa rankedNo. 1. The others are mainly in Florida and North Carolina. Carpinteria, which Leatherman liked for its safety, is No. 19.

After nine years of rating beaches, Leatherman, a professor of coastal geology at Florida International University, has refined the art. He evaluates 50 factors, from the color of the sand to the amount of floating scum. He also writes scholarly papers on erosion and confers with the very, very rich on the optimum locations for their castles in the sand.

Not long ago, he was in Ventura to talk groins and jetties at a conference of beach experts.

He liked the place. He strolled the pier, had some decent seafood and on one day rented a bike for a ride to Ventura Harbor, just a few miles down the coast.

No, he told the rental agent, he didn't need directions.

"I can find it," he said. "I know my beaches."

But can a man who doesn't know his olive oil really know his beaches?


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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