The city of Santa Monica seems the perfect antidote to an animated week exploring Los Angeles. I'm quite ready to trade my walking shoes for flip-flops and wile away the hours languishing on a picturesque golden beach with the Pacific Ocean as my only companion. But even as I snuggle down into my beach towel, mandatory book in hand, I'm wondering what else the city has to offer me and whether I'm missing out on compelling discoveries while soaking up the sun and reveling in the ocean's conversation.
What to do in Santa Monica
Santa Monica has one of the most beautiful and interesting coastal cycle paths in America and no doubt a delight to ride, but once again I'm let down by my inability to ride a bicycle (re-learning to ride a bike is not as easy as they say). It's fortunate then, that I love to walk, but I promise myself, on my return to London I will persevere in my endevour to learn how to cycle. With a bike trail that extends 22 miles, north towards Malibu and south to Torrance, there's plenty of beach and beach activities to explore. Santa Monica also offers tailor-made Biketineries. You can choose from a whole host of themed cycling routes, from arts and wellness, to vintage shopping and sustainability.
Ride north and visit the Annenberg Community Beach House. It's America's first (and only) public beach club and a city landmark, inviting locals and tourists alike to enjoy its incredible pool, array of beach recreation equipment, an enclosed picnic area and a two storey beach-house. This is no ordinary community beach house, however. What I love about it is, its amalgamation of stunning Art-Deco to mid-century architecture and the story and romanticism that lives within it. The historic guesthouse and mosaicked pool I learn are original aspects of a luxurious mansion, bought by William Randolph Hurst for his lover, the silent movie actress, producer, screenwriter and philanthropist Marion Davies. Tours of the guesthouse are free and very much recommended. The Annenberg Community Beach House may very well be the best use of a magnificent historic building; I love that it's open to all, that if offers a rich cultural and recreational experience and can be enjoyed by everyone and not just society's elite.
For a taste of local life, I take a stroll along Main Street, Santa Monica's 'Green Light District', with its abundance of certified green businesses, community garden and diverse shopping parade. It's like venturing upon a vibrant urban village, with lots of scope for people watching. I could spend all afternoon here, enjoying the art galleries, browsing the wealth of independent boutique stores and thrift shops, admiring the wares at the antiques stores, flicking through second-hand books and vinyl records and breaking only for an expertly brewed coffee or revitalizing fruit smoothie at one of Main Street's many cafes, bars and restaurants. This followed by a much-deserved organic manicure at Alchemie Spa.
If you're after sharing breathing space with the stars, shopping on Montana Avenue will likely find you in close quarters with a celebrity or two. Imagine, a pretty tree lined street, lined with posh boutique shops, cafes, home décor shops and spas & salons - the community hub of the Santa Monica gentry.
A visit to Bergamot Station will deliver an ebullient shot of Art. Once an old trolley station, it now houses 40 different galleries exhibiting an array of dynamic art. If you're not that into art, it's worth visiting simply, to marvel at the station's industrial and rudimentary architecture.
The outdoor shopping mall appears to be a 'new wave' sort of shopping experience in L.A and though I'm averse to most shopping malls, the new Santa Monica Place feels strangely less commercialised. There's a fantastic collection of high street and designer stores, but it's 'The Market' that peaks my interest; a delicious collection of organic, artisanal and gourmet food and gifts. My lovely Santa Monica guide and I breakfast at The Curious Palate, a kitchen and café that serves farm to table fare. The service is friendly and sincere and the breakfast burrito is exquisite. As it's Santa Monica, a raw food restaurant is prescribed, and Santa Monica Place boasts the excellent raw food restaurant and food education centre, M.A.K.E.
Visit in September and enjoy GLOW, the United States' first all night arts event. Santa Monica beach is transformed into a world of interactive and engaging contemporary art installations.
If you relish the popular tourist venues, Third Street Promenade is where it's at. Here you'll be in the animated embrace of street performers, movie theatres, gift & souvenir traders, high street store, art galleries and more.
A trip to Santa Monica would not be complete without a wander around the pier and visiting at night is especially lovely. Take in the bright lights of the Ferris-wheel against the silent sky, leisurely amuse yourself at the arcade and gaze out over the pier at the gently swaying sea.
Where to Eat
I love brunch - probably because I love breakfast and brunch is really a sumptuous extension of breakfast, right? Well, at the Wilshire Restaurant, they know how to do Sunday Brunch and I promise, you will leave with a full stomach and a hypnotic expression of satisfaction. I'm pleased to have reserved a table, as the restaurant is brimming with hungry diners and meandering my to the table requires a squeezing past tables and begging the pardon of some of the diners. My guests and I are presented with a selection of breakfast juices and one of my friends cautiously orders the Wilshire's bottomless mimosa. The coffee falls short of my expectations, but I'm soon blissfully contented after a visit to the brunch buffet table. The cheese board calls out to me, but I resist and start with something healthy instead. The smoked salmon with horseradish crème fraiche is delicious as are the salads: Field greens with beets, hazelnut and feta and roasted red pepper, burrata and rocket with aged balsamic. This is followed by a bowl of vanilla bean yoghurt and La Brea Bakery granola. I contemplate the excellent cheeseboard, but I'm afraid it shan't be appreciated on an already full stomach, so instead I silently promise to return on my next trip to Santa Monica and devour more of Chef Nyesha Arrington's sophisticated yet seasonal concoctions.
Lunch at Ocean & Vine! I request a table in the magnificent atrium, overlooking the beach and order the seafood chowder (it's a little chilly out, so this is an apt choice) - it is divine - so so good. The service is warm and attentive and it's no wonder the restaurant is full.
I enjoy a relaxed and luscious evening at One Pico restaurant. The dining space has the ambience of an opulent beach house dining room, complete with bar and wood-burning fireplace. The seasonal market menu delivers simple yet sophisticated dishes, all cooked and flavoured to perfection. My guests champion the steaks, declaring them to be amongst the finest steaks they've had the pleasure of devouring and express pointedly that I'm missing out. I'm hoping on my next visit to Santa Monica, One Pico will offer Halal or/and Kosher meat.
Pamper yourself - After all, you are in Santa Monica
In the Green Light District on Main Street, sits this expanse of positivity - the organic local spa retreat, Alchemie Spa. My busy and explorative adventure in L.A has left me feeling exhausted and a little icky and my skin is screaming out for some TLC. Most of the premium Santa Monica hotels house their own signature spas, but desiring a more local experience, I opt for the magic of Alchemie. I'm greeted with the infectious Santa Monica charm and made to feel welcome straight away. Within seconds I'm sipping a glass of fruit infused water and observing the local customers weave out and in. I'm treated to a gorgeous (and much needed) tropical body scrub which leaves my skin revitalised, moisturised and smelling totally edible. My esthetician is quick to inform that I'm storing a lot of stress in my abdomen and is helpful in providing me with essential reading. Next, I'm treated to an express organic facial, customised to my own needs. As the treatment draws to an end, I'm ready to fall into a deep slumber. My morning at Alchemie concludes with an organic manicure, using polishes free of DBA, Tolueme, Formaldehyde, Paraben, Phalate and No Animals testing. I choose Bossy by Butter London, a shade and brand that now takes pride of place in my collection. I leave Alchemie spa, feeling pampered, rejuvenated, inspired and happy.
If you prefer to rest under the sun, with the sea lapping at your feet and your requirement for cold refreshments and fresh, tasty snacks sated at will, you might like to take advantage of VIP service, Perry's Beach Butler. Need anything, just communicate via walkie talkie and have it delivered straight to your chaise lounge.
Where to Stay
Stepping into the revolving doors into Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, the smell of childhood summer days fills my nostrils and lungs - there has to be a Mr Whippy ice-cream cart in the lobby - I can't wait to get inside! But alas! This supreme scent disappears as soon as I'm in and if it weren't for the impressive atrium before me, my disappointment may have formed into a sulk. My room is spacious and homely and the balcony gifts a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean. Large hotels rarely endear me, but the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff creates a cosy, boutique hotel atmosphere.
My last night in Santa Monica (and L.A), is spent at Shutters on the Beach, a palatial boutique beach house hotel, a popular retreat for many a celebrity. The enormous bed, adorned with a John Robshaw comforter and pretty cushions, punctuates my room here and the quaint balcony invites me to enjoy the beach without leaving the hotel. The marble bathroom, with its whirlpool bath, complimentary candles and sweet smelling amenities wins me over immediately, but one night cannot do the accommodation justice.