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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Family saves the whales for Ventura revisit

A boat trip is a washout, but indoor adventures in the coastal city keep two little boys and their parents busy.

March 07, 2004|Debora Vrana | Times Staff Writer

Ventura — The week before our Ventura whale-watching trip, my sons and I talked about whales. We looked up the gray whale on the Internet, we read stories about whales and we packed (and unpacked) their two little suitcases (mostly with favorite toys) for days before we left.

Sometimes planning can be the best part of traveling. Our visit to Ventura on a rainy February weekend was one of those times.

My husband, Martin, and I had always wanted to go whale watching, so we jumped at a special rate of $159 for a room with two double beds at the Marriott Ventura Beach. The offer included two free whale-watching boat trip tickets worth about $50.

Little did we know the bad weather would keep us away from whales and on our toes for indoor ways to entertain Nick, 4, and John, 2, in Ventura, eventually landing us at a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant.

Because there was no way to leave Los Angeles before noon on Friday and the goal of our traveling was to avoid traffic at all costs, we set out Saturday morning for the easy drive to Ventura, about an hour from our house. We arrived at the Marriott by about 1 p.m. and were pleasantly surprised that they let us check in early.

The hotel, just blocks from the ocean and adjacent to San Buenaventura State Park, underwent a $10-million remodel in 2003, and the lobby was colorful with new furnishings. The rooms also were bright with new fabric, furniture and luxurious draperies. On the surface, everything seemed fine.

With the rain, we decided to have lunch at the hotel and again were pleasantly surprised by the dining room, with gold fabric booths and glass-blown bubbles of orange, green and blue adorning the walls. Martin had a tasty turkey club sandwich; my tortilla soup was good and the kids ate and played with their pizza. The waiter gave Nick and John crayons and stickers, which they loved.

Our next stop on this dreary day was the Mission San Buenaventura, dubbed "the mission by the sea," in downtown Ventura.

The ninth mission founded along El Camino Real was built in 1792 and has a tiny museum. I enjoyed reading the brochure about the place; it was the only mission known to have wooden bells. John was amazed at the candles, which he tried to blow out, and Nick liked the old stone olive press. But the kids were ready to go in about 15 minutes.

We pushed on to the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center and found what was the highlight of our trip. It was a beautiful center, with statues of a dolphin, a seal the kids could play on and a tide pool where they could see orange and red starfish clinging to rocks. For $7.95, we bought a National Park Passport -- the date and name of every national park you visit can be stamped inside the book -- and decided to make visiting national parks, especially the Channel Islands, a family goal.

The five islands, an unspoiled wilderness off the Southern California coast, are home to 145 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. From the center's observation tower we could see tall ships sailing into the harbor and the beautiful Ventura coastline.

Leaving, we drove by the Island Packers dock. Given the weather, it seemed unlikely we would be leaving from there the next day to take our 3 1/2-hour whale-watching tour. And indeed, the next day our outing was canceled because of rain. We were disappointed because we had so wanted to see the gray whale, sometimes called the sea pilgrim because of its long migration. The gray whales fatten up in the Arctic during summer and then in October and November leave for the more than 5,000-mile migration to Baja California to breed. In February and March, they begin their swim up the coast on the trip back.

When we called Island Packers to reserve tickets, I was assured the power catamaran was kid safe. The boat holds 150 people, was purchased less than a year ago and has a large inside area with tables and chairs. Island Packers, a family-owned business for 35 years, operates boats out of Ventura and Oxnard and offers blue and humpback whale-watching tours June through September.

Kid-friendly food

We scored with dinner -- at least as far as the kids were concerned. We weren't sure what to expect when we arrived at Joe's Crab Shack. Perched on a hill overlooking the ocean, it has a playground for kids and an outdoor patio. Inside, a large plastic shark hangs from the ceiling along with toys like trains and race cars. The kids loved it and kept staring at the ceiling and walls while we ordered.

Service was quick. I had excellent barbecue-style Dungeness crab. The kids' food was good, and Martin's steak was OK. Luckily we had arrived by 5 p.m. and had no wait, but by 5:30 lines had started forming. Nick begged to come back and our 2-year-old pronounced the restaurant "fun." Within five minutes we were back at the hotel and ready to get our over-tired kids into bed.

Bath time was problematic, however. The tub's drain didn't work (and had rust along it), so we gave them quick sponge baths.

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