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Hidden gem

Westlake is an ideal base for LA daytrips

By CARY ORDWAY

Sometimes a getaway to Los Angeles really is meant to be a trip to see Los Angeles attractions, and not necessarily to experience first-hand the grid-lock that now is present almost any time of day on certain L.A. freeways. The solution? Choose a base of operations just a little outside of the city and focus on the attractions in that particular area.

If such popular destinations as Malibu, Santa Monica and the Reagan Library are on your must-see agenda, then we've discovered a hidden gem that you can use as your weekend headquarters. The Westlake Village Inn, located about 12 miles north of Malibu, near Highway 101, is a surprising oasis of class and style that is situated right in the middle of a group of suburban communities little more than a half hour's drive northwest of Los Angeles.

The surprising part is not that it's upscale - the cities along this stretch of the 101 are among the area's wealthiest - but that the inn really is a destination unto itself. Wedding planners long ago discovered the lush, thickly vegetated, well-manicured grounds that are perfect for wedding pictures that seem almost like they were taken at a tropical plantation on some South Seas island. With its recent renovation, the hotel is betting that more tourists will make the same discovery.

The first thing you notice driving into the inn is the expansive golf course, part of 17 acres altogether that are devoted to the inn and its grounds. If your room or suite is not looking out on the golf course, it likely will have a garden, lakeside or pool view - anything but ordinary, given the inn's spectacular setting. Although there are several units in each one, the buildings look like Italian villas with graceful European-style architecture and gardens, fountains and waterfalls scattered throughout the property. There's a small picturesque lake right on the property, and a couple of gazebos that are popular sites for wedding photos and functions.

The recent make-over has spruced up the rooms and suites to the point that they can compete with the nicest upscale lodgings. They include such touches as fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, Jacuzzi bathtubs, double sinks and plasma televisions along with something we've come to really appreciate: free wireless and high-speed internet. While we didn't get a chance to sample them on this particular trip, the two restaurants at the Westlake look promising: Bogie's, a place that is popular for cocktails and dancing, and the Mediterraneo, a classic bistro.

You could just hole up at the Westlake and have a great weekend, but one of the property's true advantages is that it is close to some prime L.A. area tourist attractions:

Malibu

Less than 20 minutes away is the 27-mile-long coastal community of Malibu, home to the movie stars but also available as a playground for mere mortals. As you drive down the canyon from Highway 101, you pass hiking trails and recreational areas along the way where, if you wanted to spend some time exploring the Santa Monica Mountains, you could. Then, in just a few minutes, the view opens to the vast Pacific Ocean and soon you'll be taking a right or left turn onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

The Malibu coastline has a few patches that look like a real town with shopping centers, restaurants and other commercial buildings but, by and large, the drive along the coast is 27 miles of beaches, beach "colonies" (with movie star homes) and state beaches. It's one of the most scenic drives in California, so it's no wonder that real estate in Malibu is some of the most expensive in the state.

Most people come to Malibu to enjoy the beaches, which are quite accessible in some areas. In other areas, the perfect beach might be hidden from visitors by the expensive homes and bungalows that line the beach. Many of the rich and famous are not tickled that tourists can walk the beach and end up on what they like to consider their private beach front. Some have gone so far as to erect barriers to make it more difficult to reach "their" particular stretches of beach.

But no matter. There are plenty of beaches to go around in Malibu.During our brief visit, we stopped by Zuma Beach which, on a weekday, did not have the crowds of beach-goers you should expect on a Saturday or Sunday. With plenty of parking, it was just a short walk to a beach that seemed to stretch for miles.

Santa Monica

Just 12 miles down the coastline from Malibu is Santa Monica. The words "trendy" and "hip" seem to pop up a lot in the descriptions of the some 400 restaurants packed into this little piece of real estate. Throw in a few art galleries, some luxury hotels and - oh yes - celebrities, and you have the makings of an eye-popping getaway.

Santa Monica is a great place to soak up Southern California sunshine. The views from Palisades Park are breathtaking and take in not only the expansive beaches but such distant features as Catalina Island. It's no wonder that half of L.A. seems to be down here jogging or walking. Wide, tree-lined and well-landscaped Ocean Avenue stretches along the coastline offering about as pretty a downtown street as you'll see considering this is all modern office buildings and not historic mansions.

The Santa Monica Pier is the dominant feature on the water's edge - and also over the water - and is a favorite for families. We lingered with our five-year-old in Kids Cove, the part of the pier's Pacific Park that has kiddie amusement rides and, when all was said and done, our daughter declared her time on the pier "the best day ever!"

Just up from the pier are blocks and blocks of shopping in the popular Downtown Third Street Promenade, an area where city fathers have taken a street and turned it into a pedestrian mall. There are fascinating shops and an unusual number of movie theaters along this walkway that seems to attract people from all walks of life - young and old, wealthy on down to the homeless. On weekends there is always an assortment of street musicians and entertainers willing to do just about anything to get a tip and a warm round of applause.

If you're looking for trendy - oh, there's that word again - the place in Santa Monica to look is Montana Avenue. There is a 10-block section of this street that has become the center of the universe for celebrity-watchers -- a kind of an eclectic collection of specialty stores and quiet little sidewalk cafes and more nail salons per square mile than anyplace west of New York City.

Reagan Presidential Library

About a half-hour drive northwest from Westlake Village is the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which we made a point to visit in Simi Valley. The library is a fascinating collection of artifacts, photos and records that 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. 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. And if that's not enough, consider the aircraft parked on the library property - the real Air Force 1 used during the Reagan presidency.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Westlake Village Inn is located in Westlake Village, one of the upscale suburbs northwest of L.A.

WHAT: Westlake Village Inn is a classy, European-style hotel that is ideally located for short daytrips to L.A. area cities and attractions.

WHEN: Year-round. The Southern California sunshine is bright and Westlake Village is just far enough inland that it is enjoys warm temperatures year-round.

WHY: It's an alternative to staying in busy downtown L.A. where there will be more traffic - yet it's close to many attractions north and west of the city.

HOW: For more information on Westlake Village Inn, phone 800-535-9978 or visit www.westlakevillageinn.com.

Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

Captions, from top: Swimming pool at Westlake Village Inn; a real lake and lush landscaping give inn's grounds a tropical feel; a state beach just north of the Malibu city limits; Santa Monica is trendy vacation stop.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Los Angeles, Beach Boys hometown, Huntington Beach and Getty Museum.

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