Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

Sunday Drive: Splendor in Santa Monica

December 10, 2010
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Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel

Before the birth of La Verne Online, Colleen and I literally traveled thousands of miles hunting down out- of-the-way bistros, boutiques and cafes from California to Indiana (after 40-plus days we were running low on time and money, so we hurried back home). We could have satisfied that same wanderlust for both the elegant and eclectic and the charming and the charismatic by traveling just 50 miles from La Verne to Santa Monica, an 8.3-square-mile seaside oasis bordered by Malibu to north and Venice to the south.

It seems such a silly idea, but we truly believe, it would be easy to spend a week’s vacation here and never be bored. For playing, eating, shopping, relaxing or just plain hanging it out, Santa Monica is cooler than cool.

Eddie's Italian Eatery

Where to stay

That’s a hard choice, not because there is a paucity of places to unpack your suitcases but because there are too many.

That said, you won’t go wrong settling at the Embassy Hotel Apartments (not to be confused with the Embassy Suites) at 1001 Third St., a block north of Wilshire and one block up from Ocean Ave.  An example of Moorish-influenced Mediterranean Revival Architecture, the Embassy has been in continuous operation since 1927 when it served as a watering hole for families looking to escape Los Angeles’ heat. We found relaxing in the hotel’s lush courtyards and gracious lobby an extra special treat before venturing out to explore the nearby Third Street Promenade, Palisades Park and the Santa Monica Pier. Rooms start at about $169 per night. For more info, visit www.embassyhotelapts.com [1].

If you’re somebody who absolutely, positively has to be down by the water, try The Hotel California (1670 Ocean Avenue; 310-393-2363; www.hotelca.com [2]. It’s a surfer-style hotel, with 35 rooms, all recently updated with flat-screen TVs. If you like the Hard Rock Café, you’ll probably like this place, with its surfboard headboards and guitars slung on the walls.  Doubles start at $189.

If you’re looking for something more chic and contemporary, which also boasts great beach access, treat yourself to Lowes Santa Monica Beach Hotel (www.SantaMonicaLoewsHotel.com [3]) Rates start at about $325 a night, but if you book a three-night stay, the hotel ususally offers a discount or package deal.

What to do

For a city little more than 8 square miles in size, there’s about 800 things to do. Let’s start with the obvious first:

Hit the beach

You can walk it, roller-blade or our favorite, pick up a couple of bikes from Perry’s Café and Rentals (2600 Ocean Front Walk; 310-452-7609; www.perryscafe.com [4]) and enjoy the scenery along the South Bay Bicycle Trail. Plan on anteing up about $25 for a day-use rental bike. Pedal south to funky Venice, a Sunday Drive all its own, or pedal north to the century-old pier and ride the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel. The pier also features Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, an historic Hippodrome and hand-crafted carousel.

On the pier, you’ll also find the Trapeze School New York, where you can practice some aerial acrobatics. The school offers two hour classes for $65, where you will be a taught a number of Cirque du Soleil-style tricks over giant nets and under professional supervison.

If you haven’t lost your lunch, you might as well pick one up. You don’t have to walk or pedal far. Located directly on the pier is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. They offer a zillion thirst quenchers, like Lt. Dan’s Pomegranate Punch and Louisiana Lemonade and scores of seafood favorites like popcorn shrimp, Cajun shrimp and shrimp Po’ Boys.

Another choice is waiting for you just south of the Pier at Hot Dog on a Stick, the original hot dog stand in the famous chain. With your hot dog, order a cherry lemonade.

Back on the bike

Take the Braude Trail north about 1.5 miles to the new Annenberg Community Beach House (415 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310-458-4904; www.annenbergbeachhouse.com). This is the place where William Randolph Hearst, the same media mogul who built Hearst Castle, commissioned a 110-room mansion for his mistress, Marion Davies. The original mansion burned down, but the new structure incorporates historical design elements such as a deck with panoramic views of Santa Monica Bay. In summer, you can take a dip in the pool, a scaled-down version of the opulent pools at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif. Docent tours are conducted a couple of times of week, where you learn about the goings-on of some of the compound’s famous guests, like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford.

Retail Therapy

Santa Monica is a shopping Mecca. That’s why you really need a week here. Favorites include Santa Monica Place (395 Santa Monica Place; 310-394-5451; www.santamonicaplace.com), Third Street Promenade and the magnificent Montana Street. We enjoy all of those places, but our favorite is Main Street, an eclectic collection of restaurants, boutiques, cafes, and various services stretching for about a mile from Pico south to the Santa Monica City limit. It’s the anti-mall, within walking distance of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where twice a year we attend the Contemporary Art Show. With its independent and avant-garde shops and edgy couture, Main is sort of the Melrose by the sea.

Where to eat

On Main, we tried La Vecchia Cucina (2654 Main St.), which has a casual, neighborhood feel, but it’s cool and classy, too. Colleen, always in search of the perfect meatball, tried the spaghetti vecchio mondo with hand-rolled meatballs in a pomodoro sauce. To start, she had a baby mixed greens salad with tomatoes, cucumber, celery, radish, and carrots tossed in a classic balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was solid. As for the sauce, she’s still in search for the perfect meatball. It was tender, moist, but something was still missing.

I opted for the capellini allo scoglio, a pasta tossed with diced jumbo shrimp (which made them less jumbo) garlic, basis, bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, scallions and green peas in an olive cognac sauce. For salad, I opted for the insalata alla tiburcio, featuring baby mixed greens tossed in a raspberry vinaigrette, topped with roasted pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and crumbled goat cheese, of which I can never get enough. Everything was delicious.

Here’s the craziness, we also stopped at Wildflour Pizza (2807 Main St.), which friends also told us about. While the staff was preparing our House Special pizza (pepperoni, sausage and the usual suspects like onion, peppers and mushrooms) to go, we spent the half-hour surfing more shops. Like our marriage, it was good and gooey union of ingredients, and after sharing one slice, we saved and savored the rest for later.

Elsewhere for dinner, the hot new restaurant in town (and this is a city that boasts fabulous restaurants like Michelin favorite Melisse) is Fig (www.figsantamonica.com), in the Fairmont Miramar. Chef Ray Garcia, who grew up in east Los Angeles and trained to be an FBI agent before his culinary calling, prepares quinoa salad with orange blossom vinaigrette; red beet risotto with carnaroli, asparagus, crème fraiche and dill; and a whole host of creative and appetizing entrees.  What we really like about this place is its happy hour, called “Fig at Five.” Everything on the menu is half off from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. 

For breakfast, the Huckleberry Bakery and Café (1014 Wilshire Blvd; 310-451-2311; www.hucklebrerrycafe.com [5]) is a great way to start the day. Huckleberry offers homemade artisan breads, morning pastries, breakfast items, soups, salads, sandwiches, rotisserie chickens and deck oven flatbread pizza. Produce comes from the local farmer’s market, and the café uses free-range, hormone- and antibiotic- free meat, poultry and dairy. So you can feel good about your gastronomic gluttony.
Where to drink

Don’t get us started. Happy hour is a happy and thriving tradition in Santa Monica extending from downtown and the Third Street Promenade to Main Street, Mid-City, Montana Ave., Ocean Park Blvd, Pico Blvd, Santa Monica Pier/Ocean Ave, to Santa Monica Place.

For a bit of tradition, try Ye Olde King’s Head at 116 and 132 Santa Monica Blvd. The authentic British pub that’s been around about 30 years offers $2.50 pints and special price appetizers Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

On Fridays at the Hotel Shangri-La, (1301 Ocean Ave.; 310-394-2791), you can join the poolside crowd for $5 well cocktails and $5 appetizers. We tried the $5 goat-cheesed stuff dates. If you’re on a first date, you might want to take a pass on these, however.

If you find yourself down by the pier again, roll into Rusty’s Surf Ranch. The Blue Iguana house margaritas for $3.50 go down easy.

We feel guilty because we’ve just scratched the surface on what Santa Monica has to offer. It’s down-home luxe by the bay. It’s not celebrity-crazy Malibu just up the highway; it’s not grungy, viby Venice; it’s down home Santa Monica, where you’d be proud to take your mom, your kids, your spouse, or even yourself for a day or a week or longer.

Tell us our your favorite Sunday Drive or Weekend getaway.

Story first appeared on LaVerneOnline.com on August 1, 2010

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