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At Mandalay

Mexican beach vacation is closer than you think

By CARY ORDWAY

For those who've tried them, Mexican beach resorts are among the most relaxing vacations or getaways one can imagine — long stretches of beach, palm trees, a cerveza or margarita never far from one's grasp. It's easy to drift along like some white fluffy cloud with your only worry being when the next drink server will come along.

But not many folks can afford to do this very often. Today's air fare isn't bad, but flying still isn't exactly cheap. And it's hardly worth going to Mexico unless you can stay a week -- who has a week anymore to just sit and do nothing?

The answer is to find a similar resort that's a little closer and, when you eliminate your airfare, a little cheaper. You need to find someplace where you can just hop in your car and drive a few hours, stay two or three days, and get back home just as refreshed as if you'd been to the Mexican Riviera.

You need to check out the Embassy Suites Hotel Mandalay Beach Resort in, of all places, Oxnard, California. This is a California vacation that feels like you're in the heart of Mexico.

Before we visited the Mandalay Beach Resort, my only recollection of Oxnard was a time when I was 19 years old driving through California with a buddy, eating cans of tuna fish to save money and looking for a place to crash that was just as cheap as cheap could get. We found just such a place in Oxnard, but were too scared of our surroundings to get to sleep.

Fast forward to Oxnard of the New Millennium and, while its tourism infrastructure is not quite complete, the area is fast becoming a popular destination for people who enjoy California beach vacations. About an hour's drive northwest of Los Angeles, the area is close enough to major population areas to be accessible, yet undeveloped enough to feel like you're really getting away from the rat race.

Positioned on some of the best real estate in the Oxnard area, the Mandalay Beach Resort is everything that the Oxnard visitor industry wants to be — it's a waterfront playground that has style, lots of amenities, plenty of wide-open spaces and a wide beach that stretches for miles. And, yes, it has plenty of Mexican beer and margaritas.

Traveling Highway 101 northwest from Los Angeles, you'd never imagine that this resort area was just a few miles off the freeway. The urban sprawl along the freeway is not particularly attractive and most people headed north know that an especially spectacular beachside city of Santa Barbara is just another half hour ahead. So it's no wonder that people just don't think of Oxnard when they think vacation paradise.

But if you take the Victoria Avenue exit and travel across several miles of agricultural fields, you will come to the Mandalay Beach area, one of many beaches along this part of the coast. The Mandalay Bay Resort with its attractive early California Spanish design, is a large complex of several buildings that include 248 suites in all. Tropical plants, giant palm trees of every variety and a series of waterfalls give the resort a feeling similar to many beachside resorts we have visited in places like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Cozumel. An inviting pool is the centerpiece for the courtyard while the resort's restaurant and bar areas are nearby.

We immediately explored the grounds and found our way out to the many paved walking and bike paths that traverse the beach. Parked near the resort's beach entrance were several peddle-cars and bicycles that, as far as we could tell, were getting rented quite frequently by the many families who were staying at the resort.

The beach itself was one of the most inviting we've seenin Southern California. The resort looks out onto an area of sand dunes and, beyond that, the broad beach. Off in the distance we saw the Channel Islands, an easy boat trip from nearby Channel Islands Harbor. Once out to the beach, we noticed that there was plenty of walking -- both north and south -- and, even though this was a warm summer Sunday, not a lot of people compared with other Southern California beaches.

A little bit north of the resort is the Mandalay Beach at Oxnard Park with its sweeping lawns and outdoor facilities. Further south is Hollywood Beach, which was the location for a movie called The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino. Filmed in 1924, the movie needed a location with an Arabian feel and this part of the coast was deemed to have it.

Back at the resort, we settled in for some serious poolside sun tanning and could see that the guests were a mixture of couples and families who seemed typical of the crowd you would find at any Mexican beach resort. For all intents and purposes this was Mexico — just a kinder, gentler version in which you have no worries about the water, the food or the airfare.

The suites at the Mandalay are spacious and comfortable. Our "king suite" had a king bed in one room and sofa-bed in the other room. The unit was apartment-like with a refrigerator, coffee maker, microwave and wet bar — although you won't need a kitchen for breakfast because a big one is offered free for all guests. Our suite opened out to the beach and had a separate table and chairs on the patio with a nearby lawn area.

California beach vacations can include much more than sitting on the beach, and the Mandalay is no exception. There is plenty todo in the Oxnard area including many beach and ocean activities. You can take a trip out to the Channel Islands National Park — either half or full day excursions are offered. Kayaks, paddle boats and motor boats are available for rent. Or, if you just enjoy being around boats, visit the spectacular Channel Islands Harbor, home to 2,600 boat slips, a maritime museum, three shopping centers and some waterside restaurants.

Not far from Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara are great day trips that are quick and easy to reach by car. About a half-hour drive east from the resort is the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which we made a point to visit in Simi Valley. This is a fascinating collection of artifacts, photos and records help us to learn more about our former president.

Located on a magnificent piece of land overlooking the Simi Valley, the Reagan Library is well organized and includes interesting bits of memorabilia at every turn. Outside the library is a piece of the Berlin Wall, as well as Reagan's final resting place. Inside are clothing, jewelry, desks, private papers — just about anything you can imagine — taken from various points of Reagan's life. Photos help us to remember how it was — for example, when you see a dress worn by Nancy Reagan, you also will see a photo of her wearing that dress. Especially interesting was the full-scale replica of the Oval Office — which gives you a real sense of what that room feels like, and how large it is.

So, as it turned out, our trip to a Mexican-like resort actually was much more than cerveza and margaritas — it turned out to be a history lesson as well.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Oxnard is 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles and about 30 miles southeast of Santa Barbara.

WHAT: The Embassy Suites Hotel Mandalay Beach is a one-of-a-kind resort in Oxnard, clearly the crown jewel of the local tourism industry. While the beach is public, the resort is the only major hotel taking advantage of that particular stretch of sand. Hence, the beach is beautiful, but uncrowded. As California beach vacations go, this is in the top tier.

WHEN: Any time of the year. Weather in this part of Southern California is pleasant year-round, although nights will be chilly — and the ocean will be much colder -- in winter. Be sure to check for travel deals and vacation packages that may be available certain times of the year. This resort does not fall under the heading of "cheap vacations" but prices are reasonable.

WHY: The Mandalay Beach Resort is an easy-to-reach, full service resort that is off-the-beaten path but still close to many beach services and activities. It's a great drive-to substitute for a Mexican beach vacation.

HOW: To make a reservation or get more information, phone 1-805-984-2500 or 1-800-EMBASSY, or go to www.mandalaybeach.embsuites.com. For more information on the Reagan Presidential Library, call (800) 410-8354.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for California beach vacations like the Mandalay, be sure and check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, Coronado and Dana Point.

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