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A backyard bargain in Costa Mesa

Times Staff Writer

My favorite cuisine is anything that's free. So imagine my appetite when I heard about a hotel promotion running through summer that includes free dinner certificates to a choice of 18 restaurants.

My husband, Rolf, and I love weekends away, even if they're close to home: a change of scenery, a pool for our son, someone else doing all the housekeeping. But we're classic tightwads when it comes to food. We pack sandwiches, fruit, cereal and drinks, and we stuff them into the mini-refrigerator in our hotel room.

We're not averse to eating at a restaurant. We would just rather spend the money on a nice room. This deal gave us both.

The Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau's "Drive and Dine on Us" promotion gives guests who stay at least two nights in a participating hotel a $40 dinner certificate (received upon check-in) for each night of their stay, plus a $25 certificate for gas (mailed to you later).

When you consider that the hotels start at $89 a night, it's quite a bargain, one that's still good for stays during two periods in summer: Friday through July 13 and Aug. 22 through Sept. 7, subject to availability. (Some hotels will offer the promotion July 14 to Aug. 21 too.)

Lodgings include the Hilton Costa Mesa, an AAA-rated four-diamond property that completed a $15.5-million renovation in March; the 392-room Westin South Coast Plaza, the most expensive of the bunch, where "Drive and Dine" rates start at $129 a night; and Wyndham, Holiday Inn, Residence Inn and Country Inn and Suites by Ayres hotels.

We chose Marriott Suites ($99 a night) for our visit earlier this month because we were taking along our 2 1/2-year-old son, Kai. We could put Kai to sleep in one room and stay up for a TV movie in another. The suites aren't huge — about 350 square feet — but they have two TVs, two telephones, a small refrigerator and a bar with a small sink.

All the hotels are in the business district of Costa Mesa, within walking distance of (or a quick drive to) the enormous South Coast Plaza mall, South Coast Repertory theater and the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Marriott property squares off with the Wyndham and a couple of restaurants, all of which overlook an artificial lake with fountains, ducks, grassy areas and footpaths. The view from our room was lovely and gave the illusion that we were on vacation far from home.

Restaurant options Costa Mesa may not be at the top of most people's lists of weekend getaways, though I did have a friend who used to spend one weekend a month here just to go shopping at South Coast Plaza, home of nearly 300 stores, including Paul Frank and Roberto Cavalli boutiques scheduled to open later this year. (Mall officials say South Coast Plaza logs 23 million visitors and $1 billion in sales each year.)

But the city is close to Disneyland, scenic beaches and other attractions, including the Discovery Science Center, a hands-on children's museum eight miles away in Santa Ana.

We endured Friday night traffic — two hours from the San Fernando Valley to the hotel — and arrived in time for a late dinner. Our options with the hotel promotion included the popular Gustav Anders, Antonello and Royal Khyber restaurants, but we needed a place where we wouldn't disturb other patrons if Kai broke into an aria accompanied by spoon banging. The front desk attendant recommended El Torito Grill: large, noisy and within walking distance.

The next challenge was to use the whole $40 credit, which doesn't cover alcoholic beverages and tax. We ordered two of the priciest entrees ($16.99) on the menu: steak and shrimp for Rolf, pecan-crusted ahi with mango sauce over garlic mashed potatoes for me. Both were excellent, fresh and nicely presented. To use up the rest of our credit, we took a rich, not-too-sweet coconut flan back to the hotel.

From wild to sublime The Discovery Science Center was our first stop Saturday morning after breakfast. Kai is a bit young to understand the scientific significance of the exhibits. Most of the displays are geared for ages 5 and older.

But the lights, sounds and colors dazzled him. He was happy pushing buttons that cause jiggling earthquakes, pulling on ropes that make tennis balls fly, dancing in front of the shadow wall and flinging pingpong balls into vortexes that would "eat" them up.

As at many children's museums, excited kids had pushed some buttons a little too forcefully, so some attractions didn't work or essential balls or blocks were missing. During our visit, five attractions were on the blink. That disappointed Rolf and me (especially because regular adult admission is $11, or $9.75 for AAA members) but not Kai, who was wired.

After two hours we headed back toward the hotel and nearby California Scenario, a serene sculpture garden designed by modernist Isamu Noguchi.

The atmosphere was a stark contrast to the museum. It was eerily quiet, a landscape of granite, sandstone and marble. Water trickling over rocks is the only sound unless visitors talk too loudly. Then their voices echo off surrounding office towers.

Poolside contemplation But my favorite part of the getaway was to laze by the hotel swimming pool, where we ordered hamburgers and salads. The hot tub was a too-hot-to-handle 108 degrees, but the pool was pleasantly warm, and our son could play on its steps.

Kai befriended a little boy named Matthew, whose parents, Becky and Ari Markosian of Bakersfield, mentioned they had heard about the "Drive and Dine" promotion on the radio. After their first night at the hotel, they were satisfied enough to book another weekend in August.

We compared restaurant choices. They were using their dinner coupon for the Wolfgang Puck Café. We decided to try Avo's South Coast Bistro, a Mediterranean restaurant close by that another couple in the pool recommended as kid-friendly.

Rolf's scallops were tender and spiced just right, but my spinach pie, made with filo dough and feta cheese, was soggy. Oh, well. At least the view of the lake with baby ducks was relaxing.

Sunday morning we lounged around the room until checkout time. Our last destination was Crystal Cove State Park, 11 miles south. The beach there is 3 1/2 miles long, with tide pools, a marine park for scuba divers and smooth bike paths along the bluffs. We played on the beach until 3 and then packed up. With sand between our toes — and in Kai's hair — we got back on Interstate 5 for the trip home.

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