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A Leisurely Afternoon in Ventura

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beachhouse600

When heading north on the 101 to escape Los Angeles, it's all too easy and predictable to bypass the humble city of Ventura and head straight for stately Santa Barbara. But after years of doing just that myself, I decided it was time to get to know San Buenaventura a little better. I'll admit; I was lured by the promise of good tacos and local craft beer. Here's a rough version of my itinerary, which should kill a good three to four hours, starting with lunch, and get you back to L.A. before nightfall.

Picturesque and refreshingly free of crowds, Ventura's pier is just right: not overrun with carnival rides like in Santa Monica, but, with more going on than those in Malibu or Manhattan Beach, I'd say it's damn near perfect. Parking is easy too; the adjacent structure charges $2 an hour, but is free with validation from one of the pier's restaurants. Beach House Tacos is an easy bet, with a delectable menu of fresh seafood tacos, veggie options and more, along with an excellent selection from local favorites Surf Brewery, Firestone Walker and Island Brewing Co.

After lunch, stroll to the end of the pier to watch fisherman and crab catchers, check out the informative plaques about local ocean life, and enjoy views of the Channel Islands. If you brought a kid along, you'll want to spend some time at the playground down on the sand. And if you're up for a bit of exercise, you can rent a bicycle or surrey from Wheel Fun Rentals, located just southeast of the pier, and coast alongside the ocean for a couple of miles on the relatively flat Ventura Bike Trail.

Downtown Ventura is an easy 10-minute walk from the pier, so leave your car in the parking structure and head to the free Downtown-Harbor Trolley stop at the corner of California and Santa Clara streets, right in front of the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau. The 20- to 30-minute trolley loop will take you back past the pier and down to Ventura's Harbor Village, the jumping-off point for all sorts of sea-themed recreation, including kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and harbor cruises. You can also grab a bite to eat here (if you haven't already) at your choice of over a dozen restaurants, and browse the gift stores, art galleries, and surf shops.

The return trolley ride takes you past the beautiful and historic Mission San Buenaventura (it's not an official stop, but if you ask nicely, the trolley driver will drop you off -- it's just three blocks west of the stop where you originally embarked).

botanicalgardens600

After your leisurely trolley ride, especially if you opted out of renting that bike, you may be ready to work up a little sweat. Perched on a hill two blocks north of the Visitors and Convention Bureau at the intersection of California and Poli streets is Ventura's Beaux Arts-style City Hall -- you can't miss it. If you follow the driveway up the hill to the right of the building and cross a couple of parking lots, you'll come to Grant Park, where the city is in the process of establishing the Ventura Botanical Gardens. The park's one-mile "Demonstration Trail" is currently open to the public, climbing 1,400 feet through a wildflower- and native plant-covered landscape to offer expansive views of the ocean.

Alternatively, you can just spend some time strolling, noshing and window-shopping through Ventura's charming downtown before walking back to the parking structure near the pier and heading home.

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