Southern California dreamin'

South of the Santa Monica Pier, John Beau practices tai chi. The pier, Southern California's answer to Coney Island, has a Ferris wheel and lots of food spots.
South of the Santa Monica Pier, John Beau practices tai chi. The pier, Southern California's answer to Coney Island, has a Ferris wheel and lots of food spots. (RICARDO DeARATANHA / Los Angeles Times)

Four spots on the Pacific coast offer sand, swimming, shopping, food, and plenty of funky fun.

Posted: August 28, 2011

LOS ANGELES - You could spend a solid year sniffing out cool spots for travelers in Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, and Malibu - scores of hotels, hundreds of restaurants and bars, more than 30 miles of coastline. But you're new to the scene, or you haven't visited in awhile, and who has a year anyway?

Here are micro-itineraries that will lead you to fresh fruit, ancient art, pub darts, magic, gymnastics, Venus on roller skates, and J. Paul Getty on how to be rich.

Veni, Vidi, Venice

That's a loose paraphrase for: "I came, I saw, and boy, are we a long way from Burbank." Venice lies just south of Santa Monica and left of the American mainstream - artsy, edgy, defiant, and occasionally downright dissolute.

Check out Ocean Front Walk on a weekend morning, and bring a fistful of dollar bills to tip the street musicians, magicians, and all-around characters. Don't miss the mural of Venus on roller skates, near Speedway and Windward Avenue. (Maybe you've already seen it, in the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story.)

See, too, the gliding teens at the Venice Skate Park, the cyclists on the meandering beach bike path, and the serious pickup games on the basketball courts. There will be something to amuse you and something to offend you. (Perhaps the cheeky young man seeking contributions for penis-reduction surgery?)

Venice's lovers embrace it as the weirdness capital of Southern California, if not North America. Others take one look at the grit and graffiti and ask: What's so special about beachfront urban blight and cheap sunglasses? Before you pass judgment, inspect the canals just south of South Venice Boulevard and survey the ambitious restaurants, galleries, and shops along Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Sweet swimming

For a memorable pool or a base camp for a beach day with the kids, head to 415 Pacific Coast Highway. There, by wide, sandy Santa Monica Beach, William Randolph Hearst in the late 1920s built a vast mansion for his mistress, actress Marion Davies.

These days, only the big marble-edged pool and guesthouse remain, joined by a sleek complex of changing rooms, fitness equipment, and special-event spaces that was completed in 2009. It is known as the Annenberg Community Beach House, is run by the city of Santa Monica, and is probably the best-looking municipal pool you've ever seen.

Though much of the five-acre facility operates year round, the pool opens only in summer, accepting walk-up guests and reservations (up to three days in advance); its water (four to eight feet deep) is heated to 80 to 85 degrees.

There's a cafe, a cool little playground, a summer-only fitness room (which costs extra), beach volleyball, beach tennis, a pair of beach-soccer fields, and rentable space for parties. A day of pool access (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) costs $10 for adults and $4 for kids 1 to 17. On most Mondays, that price drops to $1 for adults and kids and the pool stays open until 8 p.m.

Because demand can be high, you should show up around 8:30 a.m. with a towel and swimsuit. Pay the $8 to $10 to park your car all day or park your bike free at one of the racks. Then head for breakfast at the neighboring Back on the Beach Cafe (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.). When the pool admission window opens at 9:30, you buy your passes, and when the pool opens at 10, you're ready.

Pier people, parallel bars

You can't overlook the Santa Monica Pier. It starts where Colorado Avenue stops, it dates to 1909, and its Pacific Park amusement zone includes a solar-powered Ferris wheel. You'll find plenty of junk food, several restaurants, free live music on Thursday nights in summer, and abundant people-watching at all hours. This is Southern California's Coney Island.

You'll also notice the bike path that runs near the pier - it goes north to Temescal Canyon, south to Washington Boulevard in Venice - 81/2 miles in all. If you don't mind navigating around Marina del Rey, you can rejoin the beach and pedal to Torrance, about 18 miles south of the Santa Monica Pier.

Stroll over to Muscle Beach, just south of the pier, where dozens of regulars perform gymnastic feats of strength, grace, and daring on rings, ropes, and parallel bars. Once upon a time, Jack LaLanne hung out there.

Sweat, then shop

Check in at Santa Monica's venerable Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, grab a table overlooking the pool, and dig into an early dinner at Fig, an in-house bistro that focuses on seasonal dishes. Splurge on the carbohydrates because you'll be up and out early the next morning in your workout wear, walking, jogging, or pedaling 1.3 miles along Palisades Park to the public stairways on Adelaide Drive near Fourth Street, a.k.a. the Santa Monica Stairs.

You'll find the stairs easily enough - one set is concrete, one is wood, and they'll be populated by fitness fiends panting, stretching, kvetching, and primping, which occasionally annoys the well-heeled neighbors. Once you've retired to the hotel and freshened up, head for nearby Montana Avenue, where dozens of high-end boutiques, service businesses, and restaurants are arrayed from Seventh to 17th Streets.

Art and music into the night

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, Santa Monica's Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave.) was a rail yard. But ever since its revival as a cluster of galleries in 1994, it has been a treasured spot for one-stop art browsing. Along with contemporary painting and sculpture, you'll find a lot of photography, a few artsy shops, a well-shaded patio cafe for lunch or a snack, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. There's your afternoon.

Then head to McCabe's, a beloved music shop and concert venue at 3101 Pico Blvd. The shop is more than 50 years old and has served as a clubhouse of sorts for Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, and many other Los Angeles musicians. Live shows, often acoustic and often Americana, happen on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

The Getty villa

The Romans, the Greeks, the Etruscans - they're all here in Pacific Palisades, surrounded by gardens that have matured nicely since the villa's grand reopening in 2006 after a massive redo. The site is as intimate as the Getty Center in Brentwood is epic - the gardens, galleries, and open-air theater are all crowded together in a canyon near the sea.

Do lunch in the cafe (open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays). There's a cool gift shop, too, with art books and prints, jewelry, pinhole cameras, mood pencils (69 cents each), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English ($20 in Penguin paperback), and, admit it, your secret favorite item, J. Paul Getty's 1965 book How to Be Rich ($6.99, paperback).

The Malibu quartet

First, acknowledge that you underestimated the size of Malibu. Twenty-seven miles of coastline! But at about 23000 Pacific Coast Highway (about 12 miles from the Santa Monica Pier), you will find a handy foursome.

First, the Malibu Pier, where you might buy bait (really, you could) or have a bite at the Beachcomber Cafe. Next, a few hundred yards farther up the beach, have a look at the Malibu Lagoon and imagine living in the Adamson House, a classic Spanish-style beach home that's now part of the state park system. Jump in the ocean if you like. Then head back to the pier and beyond to the Malibu Beach Inn. Enjoy the view over a meal in the hotel's Carbon Beach Club restaurant. (Just remember, non-hotel guests must reserve in advance.)

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