Santa Monica: Walking on sunshine on the California coast
West Coast Cooler
From Muscle Beach to movie locations and farmers' markets, Frank Whelan finds there's more to LA than Hollywood...
A rather unremarkable man, or so his appearance would suggest, is giving a near Olympic-level gymnastic performance on a set of rings on the sand.
He ends his show at the peak of a swing, arcing and landing flawlessly to casual applause from a handful of onlookers. Most are nonchalant, despite my amazement. As it turns out, this is not an unusual sight on Muscle Beach.
This is the original body-building beach, as any proud resident of Santa Monica will tell you (workouts were common here before Arnie and his ilk popularised a location further along the sand).
Today, however, you'll notice relatively few weightlifters among the rings and parallel bars. Routines are about flexibility rather than flexing and strength rather than size, it turns out - one of many preconceptions smashed over the course of my stay.
Santa Monica, a beachfront city on the California coast, is bordered on three sides by the city of Los Angeles. It's often overshadowed by the much larger neighbouring city, but a separate city council makes it a very different experience for visitors.
Los Angeles airport is just a half-hour from pristine beaches, Santa Monica pier - home to the world's largest solar powered LED-lit Ferris wheel - and the official end of Route 66, the closest the place comes to a tourist trap.
After contemplating a remake of that final scene in Falling Down, I pick up a bike at Blazing Saddles (santamonicapier.org), one of many bike rentals dotted about the city but the most convenient for accessing the South Beach Bicycle Trail: at 22 miles, the world's longest beach-side bike path. Despite the other distractions on offer in the city, it's the one activity I'd recommend over all others.
Leisurely cycling along miles of Baywatch beachline, a perfect sea breeze rolling in; I'm in people-watching heaven. It's not all bikinis and beautiful bodies, either. Break-dancing granddads share pavement space with yoga mums. Skateboarders and rollerbladers zip in between cyclists and strollers. The sun shines on all.
Santa Monica is a city to experience rather than a place to tick tourist attractions off a list. It has featured in so many films and TV shows - think Baywatch, Falling Down and Grand Theft Auto V for the gamers - that even residential streets seem familiar. There are plenty of things to do, don't get me wrong, but few are unique to the city. The location is one big iconic special attraction - and for me, exploring it was the best activity.
There's a tendency to lump Santa Monica in with the rest of LA - movies regularly paint the city as 'the beaches of LA' - but it quickly establishes its own identity, one centred on good living and wellbeing.
I found it impossible to bring my usual cynicism to bear on the outdoor yoga, fresh kale shakes and pure belief in the goji berry. There's too much mass buy-in to argue. Everywhere you look, people are jogging, stretching, cycling and starting spontaneous volleyball matches.
I began thinking of it as 'Nice Guy LA', a notion cemented by excursions to nearby Hollywood (tourist trap hell) and Beverly Hills (as expensive as you'd imagine and lacking in life). Further down the cycle trail you'll find Venice Beach, a more interesting place with its buskers and hustlers, but lacking Santa Monica's polish and security. Bikes often go unlocked at the latter, and there's no need for the intricate wallet concealment favoured by tourists in riskier territory.
That wallet may be in for some cruel punishment though, especially with the current exchange rate. It's a tale of one city, two budgets. Rent controls are in effect, so you can find neighbours paying hugely different rents, with long-term residents on much lower rates than the newbies attracted by the 'Silicon Beach' tech industry effect. The mix means you can usually find shops and restaurants catering for both ends of the pay-scale.
The city has all the usual fast food options, but with some of America's best farmers' markets taking place locally, fresh food is king. Back on the Beach Cafe (backonthebeachcafe.com) is a great spot to grab brunch with your feet in the sand. For dinner, The Lobster (thelobster.com), on Santa Monica pier, specialises in seafood with a great view of the ocean and Ferris wheel lights as a side. Both are perfectly placed for a stroll on a full tummy.
West Hollywood is the region's nightlife Mecca, but Santa Monica still has a decent selection. Unfortunately, it's very easy to confuse a trendy dive bar with a regular dive bar and the result makes a round of beers in Temple Bar seem fairly priced.
The Bungalow (thebungalowsm.com) is the hot spot for the young and trendy tech crowd, with quarters resting on pool tables while Ferraris sit in the carpark. Taking full advantage of Santa Monica's weather, you'll find lots of cool outdoor bars and comfortable sofas here.
Overall, Santa Monica leaves me with the sense that yes, I could happily live here and buy into a healthier lifestyle - once I had something deliciously hectic and involving to occupy my time. I doubt I'd ever be a champion of the Muscle Beach rings, but I can't help feeling I'd at least catch the juicing and jogging buzz...
What to pack
Santa Monica is all about good living in the sunshine, so you'll at least need a pair of runners to join in. Bring your coolest sunnies (Hollywood is a 30-minute drive away), and don't forget to slap on the sunscreen - the sea breeze keeps you comfortable, but you'll roast regardless.
Frank flew with British Airways (ba.com), which has two daily flights from London Heathrow's T5 to LAX (BA flights to/from Dublin also arrive into T5).
Public transport in LA isn't great, but the taxi ride from LAX to Santa Monica takes 30 minutes and costs around $35/€32.
More info at santamonica.com.
Where to stay
Frank stayed at Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows (fairmont.com/santa-monica), a four-star with great views set across the road from Santa Monica beach.
HL Los Angeles Santa Monica (hilosangeles.org) is the only hostel in the city and perfect for backpackers or families on a budget. The décor is straight out of Google!
Remember when Forrest Gump reaches the west coast on his cross country run? His last stop is Santa Monica Pier. Recreate the movie and then go for a bite in Bubba Gump Shrimp (bubbagump.com). It's even got a 'Forrest's Surf n' Turf' - a 9 oz sirloin with shrimp, mash and frizzled onions.
Cruise the South beach
The South Beach Bike Trail is 22 miles of people-watching paradise that takes you under Santa Monica pier, past Muscle Beach and the original Barbie beach house (you can't miss the pink and purple, above), ending up at Hermosa or the Pacific Palisades, depending on the direction you take.
Browse the Farmers' Market
On Wednesdays, dozens of Californian farmers set up stall for Santa Monica's downtown market (8.30am-1.30pm; Arizona Av, between 4th and Ocean). Chat to the growers and pick up some delicious treats for a stroll along Ocean Avenue. There's an organic market on Saturday, too.
NB: All prices subject to availability.