They say something in our salty blood draws us to the sea. As such, Ventura will always be one of our easiest, breeziest, saltiest options. You know you've left L.A. proper when the boot shops start popping up along the 101. You know you've arrived in Ventura when the wind begins to whip and the gulls begin to circle. The tab: $289 for two nights right on the beach, $120 for meals and $98 for three tickets to the whale-watching experience of a lifetime.
We set up at the Inn on the Beach (1175 S. Seaward Ave.;  652-2000), a small, three-story, family-owned hotel about a mile south of the pier. No one's idea of luxe, but every room faces the water, and it's easy walking distance to the casual/funky beach eateries along Seaward. Be sure to book a room on the second or third floor, because the first-floor rooms are often hemmed in by sand dunes. Other options include B&B sailboat stays aboard vintage vessels in Ventura Harbor ($249 a night, includes bottle of wine and diner discount;  235-2208) or the sprawling nearby resorts (Four Points by Sheraton, Pierpont Inn) that are more up to date but also a fair distance from the sand.
The long lines at the Lure attest to its rep as one of Ventura's hottest fish houses (60 S. California St.;  567-4400; entrees from $10). But if flip-flops are as dressy as you'd like to get, check out Duke's Griddle 'n' Grill (1124 S. Seaward Ave.;  653-0707), a beloved beach hangout with first-rate burgers, flaky fish and chips and a first-rate teriyaki chicken sandwich. Meanwhile, Greek at the Harbor (1583 Spinnaker Drive;  650-5350) serves a well-spiced gyros pita on a patio overlooking the scenic harbor, where fishing boats and rental kayaks bounce in the breeze.
After staring at the ocean for a day, you'll want to board a vessel. First stop: the visitor center at Channel Islands National Park (1901 Spinnaker Drive;  658-5730), where a stunning documentary preps you on the history of five of the islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara). Then climb aboard one of the whale-watching excursions. We took a half-day trip from Island Packers (1691 Spinnaker Drive;  642-1393), and spent almost four hours enjoying the sight of migrating grays and a camera-friendly humpback that splashed playfully and nudged the boat as if on salary. On the way back, we were surrounded by a mega-pod of dolphins, thousands in number, jumping and skimming through the wake.
Landlubbers can pick their strawberries inland or rent a bike along Ventura's windy but scenic shoreline. Toes in the sand, you can easily anchor yourself with a book on the beach. But Ventura's best offerings are off-shore, and if you think you can sample all that the area offers in a couple of days, you'd be missing the boat.