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California's Ventura County Coast: Surf, Style & Shakespeare

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 27, 2022
California Street Ventura
Courtesy Ventura County Coast
On a recent visit to this beautiful stretch of the Golden State’s central coast, my family and I reveled in the region’s glorious juxtaposition of urban sophistication with natural beauty.

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you.”

The words, written by William Shakespeare around 1598, resounded in the small theater, a converted church, on a balmy July afternoon, beautifully and simply spoken by an excellent young actor, Seryozha La Porte, playing Signor Benedick opposite the equally excellent Juliet Johnson as Beatrice. I brushed away a tear and smiled, not only because Rubicon Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most energetic, polished, and insightful productions of the play I’d ever seen, but also because those words were not being delivered at the Globe Theater in London or in New York’s Central Park, but in beautiful Ventura, California, a few blocks from a perfect Pacific beach and a short walk from a vibrant, bustling historic downtown.

As I learned firsthand this summer, the entire Ventura County Coast, comprising the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, and Hueneme, on the southern end of California’s central coast, offers many such glorious juxtapositions, embracing surfing, style, Shakespeare, and much more.

VENTURA

From our spacious room at the Ventura Beach Marriott, my family and I were able to walk to the beach - a bracing, foggy place to start your morning, or a relaxing, sunny place to spend an afternoon or early summer evening. We loved wading in the relatively calm waters, standing on the jetty, and engaging in searches for cool rocks and shells with other visiting families. The Ventura Beach Marriott was a great base of operations for exploring the Ventura County Coast region, with a big courtyard that includes a pool, hot tub, and koi pond with waterfalls. We also really appreciated the on-site laundry facilities and round-the-clock services. As lovely as the property is, I got a sneak peek at an upcoming renovation that will bump every room up in terms of eye-popping, contemporary beach-inspired design.

If you can ever pull yourself away from the beach, the Ventura Beach Bike Trail is pedestrian-friendly and leads you past breathtaking ocean views, the historic 1872 Ventura pier and promenade, and to the city’s wonderful downtown. My kids loved visiting City Hall for the great view back down toward the ocean, and we enjoyed family-friendly comfort food at the Busy Bee Cafe, which sports retro-chic decor and an old-fashioned jukebox that feels like a neon-colored time machine. (“Yes,” I explained, “a jukebox was like Spotify for Baby Boomers.”) For more grown-up fare, I relished Anacapa Brewing Company’s beer-tasting flight and satisfying (to say the least) brewhouse burger. If unique-yet-affordable shopping is your thing (it’s ours), drop by Rosie Lee Imports for British foods, teas, and nicknacks (my kids insisted that I honor my favorite author by browsing the Dickens-themed souvenirs) or Iron & Resin Garage for great original T-shirts. From Ventura Harbor to San Buenaventura State Beach and beyond, the city offers great seafood, fine local wines, and the chance to watch truly accomplished surfers in action.

OXNARD

Neighboring Oxnard, a quick drive south on Highway 1 from Ventura, is home to a busy harbor and beautiful beaches. Known as the gateway to the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Oxnard also offers the annual California Strawberry Festival (trust me, you haven’t tasted a strawberry until you’ve tasted a fresh-picked California strawberry), kayaking in the harbor (you may get up-close-and-personal with a harbor seal), and the Henry T. Oxnard National Historic District and Heritage Square, including the rich collection at the Carnegie Art Museum. Fuel up at Seafresh Grill, rent a paddle boat or electric boat to explore the harbor, stop by the Channel Islands Maritime Museum for its cool models of sailing ships, or just relax at Oxnard Beach Park.

CAMARILLO

Camarillo may be best known for the Premium Outlets, which draw an international crowd of visitors for more than 150 designer and name-brand stores. But the city is also a beautiful weekend (or longer) escape, offering gorgeous views of central coast farmland, a Commemorative Air Force Aviation Museum featuring vintage aircraft, and (speaking of vintage) great wine bars spotlighting the local vino scene in Old Town. You can also get a taste of local produce at the farmers market, sip local craft beers, tour a restored ranch house, visit the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and find unique boutique hotels that match the city’s historic vibe.

PORT HUENEME

We love the origin of this beach city’s name. “Hueneme” is derived from the native Chumash people’s word for “resting place.” Needless to say, you’ll relax here visiting 50-acre Hueneme Beach Park with its walking paths, fishing pier, seafood snack bar, and ample picnic table and barbecue pits; touring the Naval Battalion Construction Center; or sightseeing at the Port Hueneme Lighthouse, built in 1941, with its scenic shorefront Promenade Walkway.

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK

My visit to Ventura County Coast this summer was too short to include a trip to the Channel Islands National Park, 11 miles offshore and accessible by ferry or small plane, but it’s on my list of must-sees next time I’m in the area. Nicknamed the “American Galapagos” for its diversity of unique species of animals and plants. Almost any outdoor activity you can name can be found here, including hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, birdwatching, and camping. Bicycles are not allowed, and you won’t find cars or public transportation here either, so peace and quiet are almost guaranteed. When you’re ready for your Channel Islands adventure, book an excursion with Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

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Inspiration

San Francisco's Summer of Love

Visiting San Francisco during its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love was appropriate for me on several levels. In fact, “love” is a word I’ve come to associate with San Francisco for most of my adult life. I first visited the City by the Bay with my then-girlfriend, Michele, and we got married and moved to SF two years later. Over the course of eight years in “the city” (as everyone from Big Sur up to Eureka refers to San Francisco), I came to love the morning fog, the often spooky-gray Pacific, the food (the Mission District’s best-ever burritos in America, a wider variety of East Asian cuisine in Chinatown and beyond than anywhere I’d ever lived), the oasis of Golden Gate Park (we lived two blocks away), and the pinch-me weekend getaways (Muir Woods, the Sierra foothills, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Monterey just a short drive away. So, sure, “Summer of Love.” I didn’t really have to think twice. Luxe-for-Less Lodging And while it’s an admittedly stale construction for a travel writer to claim he found the “perfect” hotel for his destination, I stand by the notion that Michele and I stayed at the hands-down most appropriate hotel in San Francisco. The San Remo, at the top of the North Beach neighborhood just a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, was built in 1906 by Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini to house workers rebuilding the city after the devastating earthquake and fire. If that’s not enough SF cred, in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the city became a mecca for young people seeking to escape what they perceived as stifling Middle American values, the hotel was revitalized by the very countercultural types that made the 1967 Summer of Love possible. Today, the San Remo is utterly unique among Bay Area hotels. You notice the vintage cars parked outside on Mason Street first, then the charming turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, then as you climb the stairs to the main floor you realize the hotel is styled after an Italian pensione with shared bathrooms, exquisitely decorated narrow hallways, cozy rooms, and a quirky, homey vibe you may have never found - and may never find - anywhere else your travels may take you. With rooms under $200/night and a penthouse under $300, the San Remo offers the style, authenticity, and value that every Budget Traveler craves. Fisherman's Wharf Waking up at the San Remo means you’re a quick walk to exquisitely brewed coffee and fresh pastries at the Boudin bakery on the wharf before the hordes arrive. Boudin also offers a cool bakery tour where you can watch the unusual, labor-intensive process by which sourdough bread is mixed, kneaded, cut, and baked. In the early morning, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and fishing boats loom out of the fog on the bay. Vintage streetcars ply Jefferson Street. We loved exploring the wharf during the crowd-free hours, the barks of sea lions cutting through the fog all the way from their favorite perch at Pier 39. In the evening, the wharf can be a nice place to grab a bread bowl full of clam chowder, local craft beer, or a glass of Sonoma or Napa wine at a good price. Bohemian North Beach The San Remo’s neighborhood, North Beach, is SF’s Little Italy, which mostly means, of course, extraordinary food on every corner, from the fresh breads, cheeses, and cold cuts at Molinari’s to snug cafes like Michelangelo Ristorante and Caffe  for pasta dinners and desserts like gelato and cannoli at Liguria Bakery. For a decidedly more upscale (and totally worth-it) splurge, you’ll find Fior d’Italia, the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in San Francisco, on the street level of the San Remo Hotel, serving up classic Florentine beefsteak, light-as-air pastas, a deep wine list, and live jazz by local music-scene veterans of the highest, swingingest order. Walk down Columbus Avenue to stop by City Lights bookstore, a must-stop for those who want to experience the roots of San Francisco’s countercultural movement; the shop was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and became not only a bookshop but a book publisher and meeting place for people who care about literature. “It is as if the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern,” Ferlinghetti famously observed of his shop. Art & Eating Downtown As charming as North Beach is (and I sometimes feel that I could be happy remaining at a cafe table on Columbus Avenue for days on end), we also loved hopping on a nearby bus to reach downtown in minutes. Our CityPass allowed us three full days’ of complimentary public transportation, including MUNI buses and streetcars as well as the iconic cable cars that traverse Powell and Mason and California streets. Downtown juxtaposes old and new in jarring ways that may remind some visitors of London. Stately 19th-century structures stand side-by-side with early 20th-century tenements (some now converted into relatively stylish apartments to feed SF’s insatiable tech-money-fueled real estate market) and sleek office towers like the brand-new SalesForce tower. Lunch or dinner downtown should include a stop in Chinatown, where shops like Good Mong Kok Bakery and Hon’s Wun Tun House serve world-class noodles, seafood, and dim sum. On our way to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), we grabbed lunch at Oasis, on Market Street, serving Middle Eastern favorites like falafel to a young, fast-moving lunchtime crowd. SFMOMA is one of those perfect museums whose exterior and interior design thoroughly complement the vibe of the art collection and the spirit of the neighborhood. Gallery spaces are expansive and uncluttered, showcasing the work of modernists from Matisse and Picasso up through pop artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg, plus provocative new work by contemporary artists. I especially loved Nam June Paik’s “Self Portrait,” which features a vintage television set displaying video of the artist’s face obscured by a screen spray-painted with graffiti. Golden Gate Park A streetcar ride from downtown out into “the avenues” took us to the DeYoung Museum, in Golden Gate Park, which made the excellent Summer of Love Experience exhibit the focal point of its 2017 offerings. The exhibit celebrated the fashion, visual art, and music of 1967 and of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the epicenter of hippie culture (something that, post-exhibit, visitors can do by visiting the nearby crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets for vintage clothing stores, funky boutiques, and a decent helping of latter-day hippie types). The DeYoung’s rooftop observation tower almost steals the show, affording visitors a 360 view of what is widely regarded as the most beautiful city in America. The view turns grownups into kids, marveling at the downtown skyscrapers in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, and the fog crawling back in from the Pacific along the avenues of the Sunset and Richmond districts. The tower also reminds you of all the attractions right there in Golden Gate Park, including the peaceful Japanese Tea Garden; the dinosaurs, hands-on exhibits, and dioramas of the California Academy of Sciences Museum; and the incredible Botanical Garden, which gives you a sneak peek at California’s many climates and landscapes (desert, coastal redwoods, old-growth forest…) all within a short walk of the DeYoung. After living near Golden Gate Park for eight years in the ‘90s, we’re partial to Pasquale’s pizzeria on Irving Street, and it remains a neighborhood favorite and relative “best-kept secret” for San Franciscans and visitors seeking California-fresh toppings like garlic, onion, bell peppers, and other veggies at a reasonable price. Ocean Beach Another quick streetcar ride took us westward on Judah Street to Ocean Beach. If you’ve never been to SF’s massive stretch of oceanfront, prepare to be surprised: This is not your sunny Southern Cali beach by a long shot. But if you show up prepared for fog in the morning, late afternoon, and evening (and possibly every hour in between), temperatures in the 50s, and relentless gray waves and warning signs that tell you flat-out that you’ll die if you try to swim here, you can learn to appreciate it the way locals do. When I lived in San Francisco, I often started my work day with a trip to Ocean Beach, the fog and cold and relative isolation waking me up better than any cup of neighborhood French roast ever did. Yes, Take a Guided Bus Tour I have one more recommendation, and a little confession to make. When Michele and I lived in SF, we would never have considered taking a double-decker guided bus tour of the city. I mean, that's what tourists do, right? But when we realized that our CityPass included hop-on-hop-off privileges, we gave it a try. And we are so glad we did. From our perch on the top deck, we took in familiar sights in a new way and learned history and trivia we’d never heard before (for instance, the clock tower on the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, now known for its incredible food market, survived the 1906 earthquake), and because we were enjoying the ride so much we didn’t actually pay attention to the route, we ended up getting an unexpected ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. If you’ve never zoomed over the bridge from the second story of a bus, there’s a lot of vertigo-inducing activity on the bay you’ve missed. No, four days in San Francisco were not enough. While you can manage to squeeze most of the city’s sights into a day trip if you have to, you can also spend a week, a month, a year, getting to know this complex, ever-evolving melting pot. Whether you’re seeking some kind of transcendence like those kids who headed here back in 1967, or just a great crab salad with sourdough bread and a reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc, or, like most of us, something somewhere in between, I hope you’ll enjoy your own Summer of Love in San Francisco sometime soon.

Inspiration

Get to Know: Nevada City, CA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Nevada City, CA, is no. 3 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. When I visited Nevada City in July, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, I loved strolling up and down Broad Street, where cool boutiques and unique shops rub elbows with local ice cream, BBQ, and historical sites. When I mentioned to locals (who range from families who trace their roots here back several generations to recent transplants and weekend warriors from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley) that Budget Travel has named their town one of the coolest in America, I generally got one of two reactions: A high-five and a thanks, or a whispered, “Please don’t tell everybody about us.” Well, the secret is out. Nevada City and its surrounding area are definitely having a moment. Just a few days after my visit, the California Arts Council named the region the Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District, honoring its evolution from a gold-mining hub in the mid-19th century to its reinvention, starting in the 1960s, as a cultural hot spot that draws artists, writers, and technology innovators. Where gold-hungry miners once panned, culture now thrives. We love Nevada City for its music and art, food, and the surrounding rivers, lakes, and nearby mountains. I found perfect burgers and wings at Bistro 221, along with local craft beer and lively conversation. Up the street, the Nevada City Chocolate Shoppe serves heaping scoops of great ice cream made by locals with deep roots in the community. Music lovers flock to the Miners Foundry for live acts, the town is the epicenter of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, devoted to nature and adventure filmmakers, and with incredible hills, switchbacks, and scenery, the Nevada City Classic is one of the, well, coolest bicycle races in the U.S. The Miners Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, in nearby Grass Valley, pays homage to the region’s history with a decidedly more upscale welcome than those 19th-century miners ever got. A grand lobby hosts cocktail events for guests, and the hotel’s beautiful woodwork and comfortably appointed rooms are a real treat. My wife and I really enjoyed our gorgeous room, and we loved chatting with the staff about the Grass Valley-Nevada City area, its history, and their recommendations about food and fun.

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Grand Rapids, Michigan

When Dana Friis-Hansen moved to Grand Rapids, one of the things he was immediately smitten with was how each neighborhood was accessible to the rest, yet each of them had a character uniquely its own. It’s a walkable, livable city, yet he hardly runs out of things to explore. As the director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dana is particularly attuned to the art, architecture, and all-around visual allure of the city. We chatted with him about those things as well as where he likes to eat, drink, and hang out when he’s exploring his hometown. LOCAL COLOR Heritage Hill’s name says it all. The neighborhood, which is situated about a half-mile from downtown Grand Rapids, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The well-preserved time capsule lined with historically protected Victorian homes, including the Meyer May House built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which Dana says is particularly worthy of seeing. And the appeal is all the more enhanced by the fact that everyone who lives there keeps their property in tip-top shape.  You can easily switch from past to present with a quick stroll to Downtown, a scenic area cut through by the Grand River and dotted with public parks. There’s been increased attention to development alongside the river, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of the various running trails, biking trails, spots for fishing (yes, urban fishing) and, perhaps most interesting as far as Dana is concerned, lots of public art. He’s quick to call out Calder Plaza, the site of an old and stunning Romanesque-style City Hall that was torn down in the 1960s, much to preservationists’ chagrin. In its place stands a hulking building of glass and steel. To give the area a little pop, though, La Grande Vitesse, a giant red metal sculpture, was constructed outside, but not without opposition from locals. Dana explains that it was the one of the first NEA-funded sculpture in the country and today it’s one of great respect. It’s the city’s symbol and it appears on the city seal, garbage trucks and lots more. “I love telling that story because it shows the triumph of art,” he says. That story and plenty more about other important sculptures are what you’ll likely find if you take advantage of Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affair's free public art app, available on iTunes and the Google Play Store. EAT YOUR HEART OUT There’s plenty of art to be found on plates around Grand Rapids these days. The restaurant scene is more vibrant than ever, thanks to creative entrepreneurial chefs as well as longstanding institutions that just can’t seem to stop being fun. Bridge Street, an area on the west side of the river, is in the throes of a full-blown renaissance after being a bit down on its heels for a while. One of the most exciting go-tos these days is Sovengard, a Scandinavian-minded eatery in an old brick building. Dana likes its backyard beer garden and bocce ball courts, not to mention the herb gardens that grow along the walls. And the super-creative cocktails. “It’s how hygge came to Grand Rapids,” he says, referring to the Danish tradition of simplicity and coziness that’s become the trend du jour in America’s hippest neighborhoods. Equally cozy but in a different, more old-school way are the various dive bars on the strip, like the well-worn Anchor Bar.  And that’s just one street. Head over to nearby Leonard Street, where you might find Dana at Long Road Distillery, which features a laid-back, rustic-chic gastropub that serves elevated twists on classic American fare as well as the spirits they distill in the next room. Another option is the newer, locally owned Mitten Brewing Co., which dishes out excellent pizzas along with top-rate brews in its taproom, a rejuvenated Victorian era building. And speaking of beer, the area’s beer culture has been booming to such an extent that a lot of the businesses banded together to create the Brewsader Passport, a booklet that you can gets stamped on each visit to the various brewery. Pick one up at the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Welcome Center, fill it up over the course of several days’ of visits (moderation is key in this challenge, of course,) then bring it back to the museum’s Welcome Center and trade it in for a t-shirt. Another way to get a true sense of the local scene is a stop at the Fulton Street Food Market, especially in the summer when you can indulge in what could be the area’s most famous delicacy: fresh cherries. While you’re there, stop by the legendary Cheese Lady Store, where the selection is almost as fantastic as the store’s name. READ: Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon CULTURE CLUBS Grand Rapids’ South Division, a longtime commercial corridor, is in the throes of a massive revitalization and it’s all about the arts, what with the arrival of artist studios and funky little shops. In fact, the district has even taken on the name Avenue for the Arts, and during the monthly first Friday, there’s an open studio with local artists’ work, from paintings to leather and wood items on display. The Frederik Meijer Gardens, another stop Dana encourages, blends art and nature in its amazing sculpture park and botanical garden. Plus there’s a five-story tropical conservatory with more exotic plants than you can shake a branch at. And, of course, Dana has plenty of reasons to endorse his museum. Not least among them is the fact that it’s free all day on Tuesdays and on Thursday nights from 5PM to 9PM. Get it on the right day and you can catch a lecture or a yoga class. And every Thursday night in the summertime they offer free outdoor concerts. Plan to hang out a while and indulge in everything the food trucks and bar have to offer. (Food and drink are for purchase, we regret to inform.) On Sundays in the fall and winter there are classical music concerts. Other fun things to note: museum tours are free with admission and on Saturdays there’s a hands-on open studio for anyone with an urge to unleash their inner artist.   Speaking of free, there are movies in the park throughout the summer and in the spirit of democracy, the movies are decided on by public vote. READ: Locals Know Best: Cleveland TRAVELING WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CITY The public transportation in Grand Rapids is terrifically easy to navigate and, what’s more, it’s free. DASH is a free shuttle service throughout the downtown area. There’s also the Silver Line, which is more like a trolley. It’s free within designated city limits, but there are routes that will take you far beyond for a small fee. Like so many other cities these days, bike-sharing services are on the rise in Grand Rapids, and if you’re in heading there, take note that the trails beyond the city are an embarrassment of riches. “They say you can get all the way to North Dakota if you’re persistent,” says Dana. For help navigating, the Michigan Trails website has all the nitty gritty details of anywhere you could want to go. One of Dana’s favorite routes is about a 20-mile mostly flat ride from downtown to Rockford, a hub of riverside restaurants that offer food as delightful as the views. Wanna explore the area beyond the city on four wheels? Head out to the towns around Lake Michigan. like the adjoining Saugatuck and Douglas. They’re Dana’s top picks, not just for the bucolic beaches. Douglas features terrific galleries to wander through and excellent restaurants while neighboring Saugatuck is known for the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which features regional theater groups and notable musicians.

Inspiration

Luxe-for-Less Lodging: Hotel RL Wants to Entertain You

It’s probably the best worst-kept secret in Hollywood—and the music industry, too: overhaul your look and people will notice you all over again. Some might even say that an image makeover generates more attention than a flawless performance. It seems that the RLH Corporation is borrowing a page from show business’s playbook—in more ways than one, in fact--with the introduction of Hotel RL, a hipper and edgier take on the familiar hotel chain. The first of these slick new boutique hotels opened in Baltimore last year and other ones have since popped up in Brooklyn, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Omaha, and more. Designed with a mind towards community and socializing, each hotel’s airy, colorful lobby has a performance stage (more on that in a second) and food and coffee purveyors. As far as Bill Linehan, CMO of the RLH Corporation who helped design the concept, sees it, this is where boutique hotels haven’t dared go before. “Boutique hotels are increasingly prevalent and, more and more, that means a focus on design, high-design. I don’t think that’s necessarily the millennial mindset,” he said. “As a company, we’re focused on being conversation-friendly and more relevant. There’s a creative mindset that exists within the millennial population, so it's important to come up with a lobby concept that’s different.” READ: "These Unique Hotels Transform Travel" The result? The Living Stage, which gives the hotel lobby not just a chill, artsy coffee house vibe, but a connection to the local community.  The performance space hosts musicians, speakers, artists, and a variety of other creative types, each from the resident city. And it’s not just about entertainment. In Omaha, a mayoral candidate held his election night event at the city's Living Stage. There was a Black Lives Matter event at Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor. And TED Talks-style events happen all around. Each hotel provides its Living Stage schedule in each guestroom. “With technology these days, all you need to do is walk up to the front desk and summon someone who’ll look up and give you the key,” said Linehan. "We want to make the lobby more activated and energetic, more of an authentic place than a space where you stand in line to get a key." READ: "Oops! How Not to Embarrass Yourself in a Foreign Country" But that’s not all. Each Hotel RL showcases its own local installment of Project Wake Up Call, which features local photographers’ shots of the city, and not always the glamorous aspects. In fact, part of the goal of the Project is to bring attention to each area’s homeless blight. Photographs are auctioned off and donated to each hotel’s chosen local charity.  "Hotels have very much have lost their way on being part of the community,” said Linehan. “There are just so many opportunities for locals to project their creativity as well as advocacy, awareness, and innovation. We want to be a community’s stage.” 

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