The morning people were out in force -- fishing, jogging, throwing pretzels to hungry sea gulls.
"I usually have bread, but I ran out this morning," Oxnard resident Casey Schneberg said with a laugh as she tossed a handful of fat pretzels in the air, to the delight of about 30 Western gulls that screeched and flapped and bounded into the sky as they jockeyed for the crumbs.
It was 7:55 a.m. on a bright late-September Sunday. Saturday had dawned with a bad case of the drizzles, which made Sunday morning's clear golden sunrise all the more special. The beach had that fresh, washed-clean feeling that follows a rain.
Co-worker Gail Fisher and I were in Ventura County taking advantage of fall discount rates at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort. We had arrived with plans for a weekend of heavy-duty shopping at Camarillo Premium Outlets, a 120-store mall along U.S. 101. On the side, we would visit a few of Ventura County's wine bars, do some sightseeing and probably catch some rays. It was a good thing rays ranked low on our priority list, given Saturday's gloomy skies.
No matter. Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor and Kenneth Cole were waiting, and they didn't disappoint.
Our getaway had started Friday evening at the 284-room Mandalay Beach Resort, where weekend rates often exceed $200. We had planned to spend only one night there, but when I called for reservations I found the lowest rate, the $169 "suite retreat," required a two-night stay. At least it did on this particular weekend.
"Pricing varies," marketing and sales director Susan Koehler said a few days later when I asked about the shifting rules that seem to govern the hotel's rates. "If we begin to fill up, the price goes up. If bookings are soft, the price goes down. If you call early, you're more likely to get low rates. We're just like the airline industry.
"And you have to admit we have a very special property here."
She was right about that.
Southern California has few on-the-sand hotels. Some hotels call themselves beachfront but are actually across the highway from the beach or high on a bluff.
Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach is on the sand. If you're in an oceanfront room in Building 3 or 6, your door opens onto a lush patch of grass that melds into the beach. About 200 yards in front of you, waves are crashing, surfers are hanging ten and seabirds are soaring. Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands hang lazily on the horizon.
That doesn't happen if you purchase the $169 fall special. In that case, your room may face an interior courtyard or another building or, in our case, a park-ing ramp.
Chino residents Jesse and Jennie Isom -- Building 6, Room 102 -- knew better.
"The first time we came, we tried the special rate and regretted it," Jennie said as she and her husband sat outside their ground-floor, oceanfront room Saturday night watching waves pound the shore. "Now we splurge. We don't come as often, but when we do, we're on the beach." Their room cost $279 per night that weekend, with a two-night minimum stay required. (In summer, the same room would cost $379 per night.)
The hotel, which opened in 1986, is Spanish Mission style: three floors of tan stucco, dark brown wood trim and red-tiled roofs. There are four waterfalls, two spas and a pool.
Our suite was comfortable and a big 800 square feet. It had two baths, two TVs, a refrigerator, a microwave and a queen-size fold-out bed in the living room. The wraparound veranda made it feel more spacious -- and allowed us to look down into the subterranean parking garage. The carpeting was a bit worn, and some of the wallpaper seemed mismatched, but everything was clean, and I thought the king bed in the master bedroom was comfortable. Gail wasn't quite as enthusiastic about the fold-out; she thought the mattress was lumpy and said it left her with a backache in the morning.
The size of the rooms can make the hotel a good deal for families. But perhaps the biggest boon for parents with kids, and other visitors too, is the complimentary receptions morning and night in the Surf Room next to the pool. A large breakfast buffet, with cooked-to-order eggs, start a guest's day, and mixed drinks, wine, beer and snacks are available for two hours each evening. Saturday night, I had a Cape Cod: vodka and cranberry juice. Or was it two? Probably two, because when Gail and I left the Surf Room we couldn't find our way back to our parking ramp-view room, getting lost in the extensive leafy gardens.
Hotel employees compare the grounds to a Hawaiian resort. That assessment is a bit inflated. While the central courtyard is verdant, it isn't tropical. But the hotel's circular, palapa-style dining room, Capistrano's, would fit in well at any Maui or Kauai resort. We tried it and were happy with the food and service. The tablecloths were crisp, the flowers fresh, the sourdough bread crusty. Gail's Chilean sea bass served with garlic-marinated scallops ($24.50) was a hit. My chicken Caesar salad ($9.75) was light and fresh.
Saturday morning we drove into neighboring Camarillo. Before tackling the mall, we dropped by a newly renovated historic home, the Camarillo Ranch, built in 1892 by city father Adolfo Camarillo. The huge Queen Anne-style mansion endured years of neglect before the city obtained a $500,000 grant from California to restore it. It opened for tours last December; visitors are welcome on Wednesdays and weekends.
Grandeur and glamour
The 17-room house is a snapshot in time, richly decorated with period furniture and photos. Docents in turn-of-the-century attire lead visitors through the 6,000-square-foot building, pointing out the 12-foot ceilings, six fireplaces and two staircases.
The home had been the center of a 10,000-acre ranch that attracted politicians and celebrities, including silent film star Tom Mix and glamour queen Rita Hayworth. Now the 4 1/2-acre property is popular with brides, who pay $2,200 to hold weddings on the grounds. On the day we visited, rain came at just the wrong time for the bridal party. But it didn't drive them inside; they said a little rain brings good luck to a marriage.
Interesting logic, we thought. Perhaps the rain would bring us good luck at our next stop: the Camarillo Premium Outlets.
Let's see, will it be the black wool coat at Barneys New York, discounted from $645 to $419?
How about the slinky $320 red velvet dress with faux fur collar at the Betsey Johnson store?
Decisions, decisions ...
The upscale outlet center, which opened in 1995, draws about 10 million visitors a year. Its sister mall, Desert Hills Premium Outlets in Cabazon near Palm Springs, serves a somewhat higher-end clientele with shops such as Prada, Armani and Gucci. But the Camarillo center has more than enough stores to choose from.
We dodged raindrops as we made the rounds, and then decided a glass or two of wine might be nice to celebrate our excellent purchases.
We were in the right place. Ventura County has developed a thriving wine bar scene, places where oenophiles can choose from a large by-the-glass selection or try small wine samples grouped by region or varietal.
Our first stop was at Wine Lovers in downtown Ventura. This funky club, which opened seven years ago, is the oldest wine bar in the area and was fun the night we visited. Customers can hear live music Wednesdays through Saturdays. Outside the front door is a stairway leading to a hillside patio where you can sit at small stone-slab tables, drinking wine and eating free pizzas baked in front of you in a wood-burning fireplace. The wine list changes frequently; prices range from $5 to $10 per glass. Portions are bountiful.
From there we moved on to J's Tapas, also in downtown Ventura. This small storefront tavern specializes in martinis but also pours 36 wines by the glass. Prices range from $5 to $10.50. Portions are small. We would have liked to try something from the tapas menu, but the kitchen closed about 10 p.m.
That made us realize it was late. It wouldn't do to get overtired. We still had another day to shop.
Rosemary McClure is an editor in the Travel section.