South Coast Plaza
Costa Mesa offers cash to lure getaway shoppers

In a competitive travel market, sometimes the thing that will lure visitors better than anything else is cold, hard cash. Just ask the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau, which last spring and summer shelled out rebate checks to thousands of visitors who took advantage of an offer to get partial travel reimbursement and credit toward meals. It's one of the most unique travel packages around.

The "Drive and Dine Package" now has become something of a fixture in Costa Mesa. It is aimed at getting residents from all over California to forsake their local shopping centers for a couple of days and visit South Coast Plaza -- the "Ultimate Shopping Resort." The offer is simple: come stay in one of Costa Mesa's nine luxury hotels and get a $25 reimbursement for travel expense, as well as $25 toward dinner at one of the 21 participating restaurants. It's offered before and after Christmas season.

While no one is going to retire off these savings, they may represent just enough of a break to prod someone into booking a hotel in Costa Mesa rather than nearby Anaheim or Newport Beach - both loaded with tourist attractions and easily accessible from a base camp in Costa Mesa. As it happens, Costa Mesa does have a lot to offer on its own - especially if you're passionate about shopping and the arts.

At this point we must include a disclaimer. Exceedingly frugal husbands and boyfriends may not want their significant others to read the following graphic details about shopping in Costa Mesa. South Coast Plaza is world-class shopping and, while not just for the rich and famous, it can cause a certain giddiness in shopping-prone people that usually is only remedied by some sort of purchase.

Our trip to Costa Mesa was a quick drive up the Interstate from our home in the San Diego area and, for those who don't know exactly where Costa Mesa is, it's one of the more gleaming cities in Orange County. It's just at the southern edge of the Los Angeles basin, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles. It's a densely populated area, to be sure, but the infrastructure all seems relatively new and clean.

We checked into the Hilton Costa Mesa, one of a handful of major luxury hotels in the city. The Hilton is just about a mile from South Coast Plaza - Ground Zero of any shopping expedition to Orange County -- and, with its seven-story enclosed atrium and glass elevators, this hotel immediately gives one the impression of luxury and attention to detail. Lobby areas are expansive and hallways are wide and it's clear the Hilton is both a city getaway and a popular choice for business travelers and conferences.

The luxury hotel is part of the experience. There are times and places where cheap - or shall we say, "value" - motels are a good choice for most average getaway travelers. Costa Mesa, with its parade of fashion boutiques, art houses and big-time performing arts complexes, is really not the time or place. If you're looking for cheap vacations, there are options other than Orange County.

Another way to get immersed in Orange County culture is to take in one of the shows presented at the Orange County Performing Arts Center or the South Coast Repertory, both located just a block from South Coast Plaza. During our visit, we saw the South Coast production of La Posada Magica.

The South Coast Rep isa modern, comfortable playhouse that includes two stages and, while we were there, two shows running at the same time. La Posada Magica was performed on the intimate Julianne Argyros Stage, where audiences feel like they are almost on stage with the actors. This particular play, a festive, yet emotional musical for the Christmas season, was presented by a group of highly talented actors and musicians. Reading the Rep's program, we learned that many of these actors are involved in TV and film work as well as numerous live theater productions in Southern California. The musical talent was especially impressive - Musical Director Marcos Loya wrote the entire score and led the show's stellar ensemble performance.

Following this matinee it was on to nearby South Coast Plaza, clearly the centerpiece for Costa Mesa's Holiday Drive and Dine package. When we first moved to Southern California several years ago, it didn't take long for someone to point out that South Coast Plaza was considered one of the biggest and best shopping centers in the world. So while a getaway to a shopping center might not seem like much of an escape to some, true shoppers - and, yes, even a few of us men have the shopping gene - consider a trip to South Coast Plaza a kind of return to Mecca. Every serious, card-carrying shopper wants to do it at least once.

Some of this is probably the direct result of the 38 years Werner Escher has spent promoting South Coast Plaza. Now the director of domestic and international markets, Escher has lent his marketing genius to the center by creating the nation's first shopping center concierge and valet parking. That was 20 years ago, but he has not lost his touch: Retail sales at South Coast this year are up an astounding 26 percent over last year.

Escher clearly considers South Coast Plaza a getaway experience - and there is some justification for that. If you combine South Coast Plaza with the nearby restaurants, performing arts theaters and the upscale Westin Hotel right across the street, the area becomes a kind of shopping-and-entertainment theme park where you'll find fascinating discoveries around every corner.

In terms of quality stores per acre, South Coast rivals anyplace in the country. It's known for an amazing selection of upscale stores and boutiques including Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Versace. It took my wife about 10 minutes before she was in the fitting room of one of these stores trying on clothes in the same price range as a car payment. But then that's part of the fun - it's a chance to choose among some of the finest garments found anywhere in the world.

My shopping preferences lean toward gadgets, and there are plenty of stores at South Coast Plaza to find the latest electronic gizmos. So we split up to visit the stores we each enjoy the most and then met back at one of South Coast's sidewalk cafes.

We ended our shopping day at Metro Pointe at South Coast, where we enjoyed dinner at Karl Strauss Brewery and Restaurant, one of the eateries participating in the Costa Mesa dining certificate program. We'sre actually longtime fans of the Strauss restaurants, having tried many different entrees and never being disappointed.

Karl Strauss is just one of several diverse restaurants participating in the Costa Mesa travel packages  - a program that last year added a million dollars to the Costa Mesa economy and gave local promoters a million reasons to do it again right after the first of the year.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Costa Mesa is in Orange County at the southern tip of the Los Angeles basin. It's easy to reach from anyplace in the Los Angeles area, and only an hour's drive from San Diego.

WHAT: Costa Mesa is home to South Coast Plaza, one of the world's largest shopping centers. Nearby are performing arts and luxury hotels, with many other tourist attractions within a 20 minute drive. If shopping is to be a big part of your Southern California vacation, South Coast Plaza definitely needs to be included.

WHEN: Costa Mesa will offer their travel packages at various times of the year. Generally, the offer has included $25 dinner vouchers and $25 in travel reimbursement, no minimum stay.

WHY: The dinner vouchers and reimbursements help, but the real reason to visit is South Coast Plaza and the opportunity to see top-notch performing arts nearby. It's a great California vacation for those who want to see Orange County culture up close and get some great shopping bargains at the same time.

HOW: For more information about the special Costa Mesa reimbursement programs, call 800-399-5499 or visit www.travelcostamesa.com. Hotel rates start at $89. These programs only involve participating Costa Mesa hotels; however, for a list of recommended Orange County lodgings, please click here.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a trip to Costa Mesa sounds like your kind of a California vacation, be sure and check out California Weekend's articles on Palm Springs, Sausalito and Dana Point.

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