Like many other women in the area -- and even some men -- I've been looking forward to the opening of the Paragon Outlets mall. But when I heard about the crowds and personally experienced the freeway delays just trying to get to Livermore, I decided I could wait a few days before checking out the latest bargains.

So after the crowds died down, I got a good night's sleep, had a hearty breakfast, dressed in sportswear and athletic shoes (Life is Good T-shirt on sale at Marshall's, jeans on sale at Kohls, Converse All-Stars on sale at Target) and headed for the El Charro Road offramp an hour before the doors opened.

Naturally, I got there in 15 minutes. There was very little traffic, and there were no tie-ups on Interstate 580 the day I went, so I had plenty of time to circle the parking lot and find a space. I hung around near Saks until the witching hour when they finally let me inside, despite my suburban-grunge-chic outfit and Disneyland-decorated purse.

I browsed Saks for a few minutes until I realized I couldn't even afford a pair of half-off socks, let alone something that covered up more skin. Trying to act cool as the sweat beaded on my forehead, I dashed to the other side of the store -- and out into the open-air mall.


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The place is huge. I didn't count them, but I'd heard there were at least 130 stores, everything from Armani to Yankee Candles (surprisingly, nothing for the letter Z.) Many of the brands I'd not heard of, but then, I'm not used to shopping on Rodeo Drive or wearing anything that costs more than my house payment.

The stores I had heard of -- Barney's, Bloomies--were out of my league, so I didn't have the courage to even step inside. Instead I looked for brands I'm used to.

While they didn't have any Life is Good T-shirts or Tom shoes or even Victoria's Secret underwear (not that I wear them), I did find a nice Converse store, a Ghirardelli Chocolate outlet, and a Chico's shop. Unfortunately, I already own plenty of athletic shoes, leftover Halloween candy and arty-looking tops, so I spent an hour walking by windows and searching for the food court.

There were half a dozen mini-restaurants to satisfy the hungry customer, but all I wanted was a bakery treat and coffee, so I ducked into Cinnabon for something called "Center of the Roll," which means they just sell you the good part in the middle of the cinnamon roll (with extra sugary icing). Yum. I figured after all that walking, I'd burned enough calories to eat it guilt free.

I never found the bargains I was looking for, but then my tastes are limited to cotton, denim, and fleece. A friend of a friend had hit the Prada -- or was it Coach? -- outlet and got a purse for half off. Of course, the purse was $2,000 to begin with, so half off still wasn't within my budget.

But the Cinnabon was tasty, the walk was good for me, and aesthetics were pleasing. Plus, I didn't have to spend two hours in my car trying to get off the freeway.

I'd call it a bargain.

Contact Penny Warner at www.pennywarner.com.