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    Southern California on a shoestring

    Most people don't think of SoCal as a cheap place to visit. But it is possible to experience the region's beauty without breaking the bank.

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    Last summer, my family and I journeyed to SoCal for my brother's wedding. With four kids under the age of 10, the obvious place to visit would have been Disneyland. And I'll admit: My husband Marcus and I were tempted. But when we crunched the numbers, it just was not feasible. Besides, we wanted Sam, Tyler, Nathan, and Adam to get a feel for the real California, spending time outside and in the ocean, not waiting in line for yet another ride.

    Look for the path less traveled

    Our family decided to focus our time and energy on free and cheap attractions, particularly those that are unique to Southern California. My brother lives in Camarillo, a city of 65,000 situated 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles and 40 miles south of Santa Barbara, so we scoured the Internet for fun things to do in the area.

    What we found surprised us. Free historical museums. Public beaches. Community parks and botanical gardens. A Farmer's Market. We'd have no problem staying busy.

    Embrace nature

    Southern California is known for its gorgeous climate, so we were a bit surprised to find SoCal cooler than Wisconsin in August. Soon, though, we noticed a pattern. Mornings started out cool and cloudy, with temps in the 60s. By mid-day, the sun was shining and temperatures topped out in the high 70s. We'd packed plenty of shorts and T-shirts, but found ourselves wishing we'd thrown in a few sweatshirts as well.

    The cool temps didn't stop us from plunging into the ocean, though. On our very first day, we drove up Highway 101 to Ventura Beach. There, we parked our blankets on the sand while the kids experienced salt water for the very first time. A few days later, we were back again, this time with my brothers. They rented boogie boards in town ($10 for two hours) and kids and adults alike had a blast riding the waves.

    We also traveled to the Santa Monica Mountains, a 40-mile long range that traverses the Southern California Coast. Starting with a stop at the National Park Service Visitor Center, in Thousand Oaks, the kids played with the interactive map while my husband and I located possible hiking trails.

    The gently rising dirt trail at Sycamore Canyon, near Newbury Park, was just the thing for our young family. We explored rocky hills and dry gullies while enjoying the mountains in the distance.

    Go local

    Our family enjoyed strolling through the town of Camarillo as well. We bypassed some of the local tourist attractions, despite reasonable prices, and focused on living like the natives instead. Walking a few blocks to a community park, we spent time observing the local flora and fauna. The kids caught butterflies, chased lizards, and climbed trees. If we'd had time, we would have gone back later that night for a free jazz concert.

    On Saturday morning, we went to Old Town Camarillo for the Farmer's Market. Held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. every Saturday, it was our opportunity to experience fresh California produce. We have a garden at home, but at the Farmer's Market, our children tasted fruits and veggies they'd never seen before. We sampled white peaches, plumcots, and Asian vegetables before loading up on strawberries, nectarines, hummus, fresh pita bread, and sweet corn for lunch.

    Make the most of memberships

    Back home, we're members of the Milwaukee Public Museum via a family membership worth $70 per year. While I knew it provided reciprocal admission to various museums throughout the United States, I had no idea how valuable it would prove to be.

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    Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN
    JENNIFER FINK is an independent consultant in OB/Gyn, in Madison, WI.