Wednesday 26 July 2017

California Dreamin' - Olivia Tracey's ultimate guide to the LA coast!

American holidays

View from Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, California
View from Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, California
California dreamin'
A typical scene in California
Fine dingin: Leona at Venice Beach
Hotel Casa Del Mar, hotelcasadelmar.com
Bright lights: Los Angeles

Olivia Tracey

Looking to explore La La Land's coast? Olivia Treacy shares her tips for a fantastic fly-drive...

So you're California beach-bound but caught in a sea of confusion.

I suggest Santa Monica, an upscale community 30 minutes from LAX airport, notorious local traffic permitting! Palm-fringed Ocean Avenue overlooks the expansive beach, while Third Street Promenade offers a pedestrianised strip of shops and eateries, capped by a beautifully renovated shopping mall. Stylish Montana Avenue is another nearby gem.

Yes, there's more to Los Angeles than Hollywood and Disneyland.

With direct flights from Dublin with Aer Lingus and Ethiopian Airlines, and a low-cost service (via Reykjavik) with WOW air, Irish holidaymakers have never had so many routes to jazz it up in La La Land.

Santa Monica beach is the perfect centre to cover a string of nearby resorts. Drive or, ideally, rent a bike and cycle south along the boardwalk to renowned Venice Beach and Marina del Rey. Venice offers serious people-watching by day, while Marina Del Rey presents a more manicured vista of luxury condos and yachts by the bay.

Fine dingin: Leona at Venice Beach
Fine dingin: Leona at Venice Beach

A must is Marina's Cheesecake Factory (thecheesecakefactory.com), with oceanside patio dining serving ultra-generous portions at pocket-friendly prices.

My Venice tips are Leona (leonavenice.com) on Washington Boulevard, Gjelina on Abbot Kinney (gjelina.com) and old favourites Mercedes Grill (Cuban, mercedesgrill.com) and Main Street's sophisticated Chaya Venice (thechaya.com).

Back in Santa Monica, try The Lobster (thelobster.com) for seafood with views, Estate (estate1519.com) for tasty Asian-fusion, ambiance and decor, and for happy hour - 5-6.30pm - drop into Inotheke on Broadway (inotheke.com) for delicious, organic Greek fare with nicely paired wines.

My top Santa Monica secret, however, is poolside lunch at the Loews Hotel on Ocean Avenue (loewshotels.com/santa-monica), with sunset cocktails at nearby Casa Del Mar (hotelcasadelmar.com).

A typical scene in California
A typical scene in California

Another day brings you four miles north to Will Rogers State Beach, where you might spot me soaking up the rays amidst the Malibu coast backdrop. I suggest an early start at this beach (10am-2pm), before beating the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) afternoon traffic to Malibu. Tune into 94.7 The Wave's smooth jazz sounds as you cruise that 22-mile coast past Malibu to Zuma Beach, set of The Hoff's hit series, Baywatch.

 is long and lovely, complete with playground, a wheelchair accessible walkway, and free parking on the PCH beach-side.

The sea air here will soon have you ready for dinner at shabby chic Paradise Cove (paradisecovemalibu.com), 2.8 miles south of Zuma. Dinner at this idyllic setting will also earn you $3 parking validation instead of the hefty $25 rate for non-diners.

Alternatively, try the elegant Geoffrey's for fabulous food and views (geoffreysmalibu.com), a few yards down the road at 27,400 PCH. If wedding plans loom, check out spectacular Rancho Chiquita (ranchochiquita.com) on Topanga Canyon, a hacienda-style estate owned by restaurateur and LA's Irishwoman of the Year 2015, Geraldine Gilliland.

Overall, five or six days should suffice in Santa Monica - especially if you're driving, cabbing or taking the newly opened Expo Line metro into LA for non-beach activities such as Beverly Hills and Hollywood, Universal Studios and lunch/dinner/shopping along Sunset Plaza, notably my regular, Petit Four (lepetitfour.com).

Next stop? A day or two in the affluent Manhattan Beach, 17 miles south of Santa Monica on the 405. Beach time, boutique browsing, and fresh fish lunch at Wahoo's (wahoos.com) with the local surfer dudes makes a good plan.

Hotel Casa Del Mar, hotelcasadelmar.com
Hotel Casa Del Mar, hotelcasadelmar.com

Sunset should find you at The Strand House (thestrandhousemb.com) for ocean views and kale salad, before dropping by Shade (mb.shadehotel.com), a cool hotel lobby where the Lobster Lollipops demand second portions.

Another 33 miles south on the 405 brings you to The OC - Orange County's chichi Newport Beach, lined with multi-million dollar homes along the boardwalk. Once bronzed, continue south on the PCH to Balboa Island, a charming East Coast-style waterside community, before meandering into the aptly named Corona del Mar (Crown of the Sea) neighbourhood. Note however, that the beach is not ideal for the elderly or infirm as it has a steep walkway down from the street.

From here, meander on to Crystal Cove with a stop at Ruby's Shake Shack (rubys.com), its canary yellow exterior making it hard to miss. Catch the sunset from its ocean view patio over a burger ($8.95) and fries or a cone, before winding up 10 minutes south in lovely Laguna Beach.

This OC area promises three or four days of beachside bliss, top-class restaurants, a day at Disneyland, and fabulous shopping in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza, SoCo, or Newport's Fashion Island.

Though difficult to leave this haven, I urge you to head north, about 150 miles (5 N and 101 N) towards beautiful Santa Barbara. The quaint town of Montecito here is the perfect place to stay, notably the old world Montecito Inn (montecitoinn.com), with its white-washed walls and bougainvillea, originally owned by Charlie Chaplin. A five-minute walk brings you to the beach, with its tropical driftwood and the ocean side Four Seasons Biltmore (fourseasons.com/santabarbara), inviting a pre-dinner cocktail.

You'll find restaurants aplenty in Montecito. Tre Lune (trelunesb.com) is an upmarket Italian gem, while Opal (opalrestaurantandbar.com) in nearby Santa Barbara never fails to please. Take a Sideways-style trip inland to Santa Ynez wine country, with lunch on the romantic, wisteria-covered patio of Los Olivos Café (2879 Grand Ave) in Los Olivos village.

California dreamin'
California dreamin'

Finally, wind your way back to the coast for that beachside Southern Cali sunset, and ponder your moments in paradise. La La Land never looked so good.

Driving tips

California is car country. Travel from 9am-2.30pm or after 8pm to avoid the worst traffic. Right turns are permitted at red lights (unless otherwise posted), and don't park in 'red zones'. On downhill slopes, park with wheels turned in. On uphills, turn wheels out. Oh, and drive on the right!

Getting there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ethiopian (ethiopianairlines.com) both fly direct from Dublin Airport to LAX. WOW air (wowair.ie) offers a one-stop route via Reykjavik, Iceland. Olivia recommends April to May or July to October as the best times to visit. Avoid overcast 'June gloom'!

Package deals

Irish tour operators including Sunway (sunway.ie), Tour America (touramerica.ie), American Holidays (americanholidays.com), GoHop.ie and American Sky (americansky.ie) offer a wide range of California fly/drive packages.

For more to see and do in LA itself, visit discoverlosangeles.com.

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