Surf and sand at L.A.-by-the-sea 

With nearly perfect weather year-round, I always wonder why I don’t head south to L.A. more often. But somehow, I always remember why: Clogged freeways, the smog and the city’s auto-centric culture can be, well, maddening. But is it possible to enjoy L.A. without relying heavily on a car?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. And the best part is that you need only fly into LAX, rent a car or take a shuttle just five miles west to one of the airport’s nearest beach towns: Marina del Rey, Venice or Santa Monica, each of which is interconnected by a beachside promenade that is perfectly geared toward walkers, roller skaters and cyclists.

Each town definitely has its own character. For a quiet, romantic experience, Marina del Rey offers a haven for boat lovers. For the bohemian at heart, Venice is a neighborhood filled with artists, surfers, writers and eccentrics. Santa Monica, the most sophisticated of the three sisters, is an oceanfront community with luxury hotels, a pier with an old-fashioned Ferris wheel and the area’s biggest share of shopping, restaurants, yoga studios, bars and coffee shops.

And when you need a break from the sun, the city’s cultural offerings are endless — from the new Noah’s Ark exhibit at Skirball Cultural Center to the breath-taking grounds of the Getty Museum. For film buffs, don’t waste too much time looking for stars. Instead, take advantage of L.A.’s homage to the movie industry: Take the V.I.P. tour at Warner Brothers, which includes an intimate visit to the studio’s back lots, sound stages and the props museum, which has an impressive section devoted to the Harry Potter movies. Or spend an afternoon at the Griffith Park Observatory, which has served as a backdrop to many films, such as "Rebel Without a Cause," "Back to the Future" and "Bowfinger."

Where Bohemia meets boardwalk and beach

A rarity for Los Angeles, Venice is one of the few neighborhoods where you want to walk — along its beachfront boardwalk, through its tree-lined streets of Craftsman bungalows, along its famous network of canals or through Abbot Kinney Boulevard’s strip of eclectic shops, restaurants and cafes.

And though Venice has morphed from hippie haven to celebrity scene (Julia Roberts, Frank Gehry and Angelica Huston are among homeowners here), the neighborhood has always remained authentically bohemian, quirky and laid-back. Pack a pair of sturdy flip-flops for Venice — leave your Manolo Blahniks at home.

No gondaliers here: In 1905, Venice had approximately 16 miles of canals; today, only six canals remain.

If you go

» A VISIT TO JOE’S

Whether it’s your first or last night in Venice, no visit to this beach town is complete without a meal at Joe’s Restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. A winner with locals and visitors alike, Joe’s consistently is one of the best restaurants on L.A.’s west side. Featuring Cal-New French cuisine, the eatery’s food is fantastic, the service highly professional (but laid-back), and the price, for such a high level of quality, quite reasonable. A best bet: lunch (the three-course prix fixe meal starts at $17 and changes daily).

Info: 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; (310) 399-5811;

www.joesrestaurant.com.

» SWEAT, STRETCH AND GO

For those who love to sweat early in the morning (and perhaps catch a star sighting or two), sign up for a class at YAS Yoga and Spinning Center. Foundedby triathlete Kimberly Fowler, who was originally looking for a way to make yoga more relevant to athletes, the studio combines yoga to improve athletic performance — as well as spinning to help students build flexibility and endurance.

Info: 1101 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; (310) 396-6993; www.go2yas.com.

» THREE SQUARE MEALS

Start your day with great espresso, savory little scones and petite quiches at 3 Square Cafe + Bakery, located on the corner of Abbot Kinney and San Juan. The bakery, which just opened in spring, features German and Austrian pastry with a slight California twist.

Info: 1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; (310) 399-6504; www.rockenwagner.com/cafe.html.

» STROLL ALONG THE CANALS

In 1905, Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney, modeled the town after its Italian namesake, with 16 miles of canals. Today, only six remain. A stroll through the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is a must. Don’t expect gondoliers — rather, canoes, rowboats, foot bridges and lots of ducks. Start at Grand Canal, located at the foot of Washington Boulevard, just four blocks from the beach.

» CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

Let's face it, you haven’t really lived the Southern California dream until you’ve roller-boogied in a string bikini along the Venice Boardwalk. For everyone else, however, a stroll along the two-mile, beachfront boardwalk is the next best thing. Here, check out the Terminators-in-training at Muscle Beach, street performers mimicking out-of-towners and sun worshipers soaking in the local color — and the sun. Note: weekends, just about year-round, are packed — which makes parking near the boardwalk a challenge (and expensive).

» WHERE TO SLEEP

What it may lack in high-end luxury amenities, the Venice Beach Suites & Hotel makes up in location, affordability and the staff’s friendly service. This hotel might seem to be in a very busy section of the boardwalk, but the noise level here completely dies down at sunset. Nonview rooms start at $130 per night; oceanfront rooms start at $258 per night.

Info: 1305 Ocean Front Walk; (310) 396-4559; www.venicebeachsuites.com.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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