Winter Getaways
Great places to warm up in sunny California

Nothing like the dead of winter to pull up stakes – for a weekend anyway – and head off to someplace that really makes you forget about cold weather. Southern California is loaded with resorts and destinations that are ideal for just such an escape.

Here are three of our favorite places for chasing those winter blues away:

Resort at Indio

What better way to escape winter than to go to the desert? Southern California has plenty of deserts to choose from but maybe no place is more popular than the Coachella Valley - better known as Greater Palm Springs because it comprises several cities adjacent to the grand-daddy of all California desert vacation spots, Palm Springs.

The cities of this valley have made good use of irrigation water piped in to transform the harsh desert environment into a cornucopia of luxury resorts, golf courses - some 120 at last count - upscale shopping boulevards and palm trees as far as the eye can see. The fertile green lawns are carefully overseen by an army of landscapers and a drive through the neighborhoods of places like Palm Desert and Indian Wells is a window into the "good life" enjoyed by well-to-do retirees as well as upwardly mobile professionals.

Yet never far away from these meticulously maintained homes and estates is the raw desert - a place where you can finally put space between yourself and other people, and enjoy what passes for a back-to-nature experience, even though minutes later you'll most likely be luxuriating in modern, upscale accommodations designed to pamper you from head to toe.

On our most recent trip to the desert we based ourselves a few miles east of Palm Springs in Indio, a comfortable neighborhood, but perhaps less extravagant than some other parts of the valley. Out on the eastern edge of the Coechella Valley cities, this area is now undergoing a major transformation with several new housing developments that feature modern, spacious homes set alongside man-made lagoons and canals, all five minutes from the freeway. It is in this same area that a major new resort complex - the Resort at Indio - was built just in the last few years.

This group of condo-style buildings includes 453 units altogether, built around what almost looks like a water theme park full of swimming pools, whirlpool spas, giant sprinklers for the kids, ponds, canals and even a man-made river to float down on a resort-provided inner-tube. There are a couple of huge swimming pools - the largest being almost 5,000 square feet. The resort also includes tennis courts, a basketball court, a recreation center with pool, ping-pong and other games, and a modern workout gym. Golfers need go no farther than the Terra Lago golf course adjacent to the resort.

Given the recreational opportunities, it's not surprising that the Resort at Indio is especially popular with families. During our visit, family groups large and small were taking full advantage of the pools and other facilities. With hundreds of deck chairs and plenty of space to accommodate them, families were spending hours poolside. Come mealtime, many would walk the short distance back to their condo units and fire up the barbecues available on their decks and patios.

As you might expect, the accommodations are really vacation rentals, not hotel rooms - each unit comes with a complete kitchen, multiple bedrooms, living and dining room areas. Since the resort is almost brand-new, everything is in top shape with the latest appliances, colors and decor.

For more information on the Resort at Indio, phone 800-867-2095 or visit www.greatpricedcondos.com/id/.

Mandalay Beach

For a taste of a Mexican beach resort in winter, 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.

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 seening 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.

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.

To make a reservation or get more information, phone 1-805-984-2500 or 1-800-EMBASSY, or go to www.mandalaybeach.embsuites.com.

Manchester Grand Hyatt – San Diego

Those looking for a sunny seaside getaway complete with Big City attractions could hardly do better than a trip to San Diego, a long-time favorite among travelers of all ages. With dependable weather, a vibrant waterfront and many excellent choices for lodging, the city consistently ranks at or near the top of U.S. vacation destinations.

The mega hotels along San Diego Bay are situated in one of the best, most centrally located visitor areas you'll find in any of California's major cities. Not only do they look out on the water and gorgeous Coronado Island, but they also are just a five-minute walk from the Gaslamp District where sidewalk cafes, interesting shops, busy nightspots and historic architecture all combine to offer the visitor a feast for the senses.

There are several excellent hotels in this area but, on our most recent trip to the city, we booked a two-room suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a four-star urban resort that is a fixture on the San Diego skyline. On previous visits we've cast glances skyward at the hotel's two towers (33 and 40 stories), always wondering what it would be like to stay at the top of the city so close to the San Diego waterfront. We finally got our answer – and it was just as exhilarating as we imagined it would be.

Just as in any real estate, the key variable for a hotel is location – and the Manchester Grand Hyatt has one of the best. From our 20th floor suite we opened the curtains to a southwest view of Coronado Island, San Diego Harbor, the gleaming waterfront area near the city's Convention and Visitor Center, a major boat marina and, just below, a fun grouping of shops and restaurants known as Seaport Village. With a view like that, we just kept our curtains open all the time – well, almost all the time. Directly below us on the hotel property we could see the hotel's spa deck and lap pool, and, on the east side of the property, the roof-top tennis courts and other sports areas. The first impression was this was like one of those giant cruise ships – everything you need was right here within walking distance. With 1,625 guest rooms altogether, that comparison is not far off the mark.

Another thing re-enforcing that impression was the grandiose nature of everything at the hotel, starting with the main lobby with its ultra-high ceilings and ornate architecture – more like Union Station than a typical hotel lobby. Stroll through the hotel and you encounter numerous shops and restaurants – not just knick-knack shops, but places that sell the finest clothing and ultra-expensive artwork and sculptures. There's a little bit of Las Vegas in this hotel with all of its opulence, and that's one of the reasons you would choose this hotel: to do something that is bigger, grander, more spectacular than those things you do in your everyday life.

We found our suite to be as welcoming as you might expect with plenty of deluxe amenities such as both wireless and wired internet, a 25-inch TV with cable programming in each room, luxury bath products and beds that were among the most comfortable we've experienced in a hotel room. But with so much to do in this part of San Diego, we really only spent a few evening hours in our room – the rest of the time it was off to enjoy the sights and experiences.

One of those is a stroll through Seaport Village, a colorful well-designed mini-town along the San Diego waterfront where you can stroll along the waterfront or enjoy a coffee and pastry in the Village Café, or a draft beer in the waterfront pizza place, or have a Greek lunch nearby. The specialty shops here are diverse and packed to the rafters with interesting items, many of them perfect for San Diego souvenirs.

Just a few blocks away is the Gaslamp District, where you'll find dozens of dining opportunities - literally all types of cuisine, each restaurant offering a twist to bring people in the door. Options here run the gamut from the messy ribs at Dick's Last Resort to the impeccable presentations offered at George's on Fifth, from exquisite Persian cuisine at Bandar to the bar food at Gaslamp Tavern. Sidewalk cafes are big in the Gaslamp District – every night of the week, the streets are alive with groups of party people, X and Y generation couples and even many families. The best place to observe all of this is from a table right out on the sidewalk.

To make a reservation or get more information, phone 1-800-233-1234 or go to www.manchestergrand.hyatt.com.

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