Story by Debbie Franks, ITMI Certified Tour Director, Guide & World Traveler.
The seemingly endless rains of Seattle and Portland. Dallas and Phoenix’s encroaching heat. New York and Atlanta’s oppressive humidity and bugs—or Chicago or Boston’s blizzards. Wherever you’re from, there are times of the year when you seek an escape from your usual climate, a place where you can embrace the new while feeling comfortable in your own skin. If your mind has begun wandering to travel, visiting Santa Monica, California just might fit the bill.
Why Santa Monica?
With average high temperatures in the sixties and seventies year round, fun both casual and classy at its doorstep, and easy flights from around the country to several major airports nearby, Santa Monica maintains a timeless appeal. Whether you come for a full-on family vacation, meetings with a client, or just a long weekend alone to unwind, you’ll find yourself relaxing into that Southern California vibe, smiling at little things and delighting in throwing on your simplest shorts with a colorful top or a breezy cotton dress during the day, perhaps some heels and your latest fashion statement at night—all while feeling relaxed, in tune, and somehow clearer about what it all means.
Where to stay
Lodging in Santa Monica is plentiful and varied. I’ve tried both the Fairmont Santa Monica Miramar Hotel and Bungalows and the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, both right on Ocean Avenue and short strolls to the Santa Monica Pier and the water. Both feature brisk, attentive service, room choices that include many with ocean views, and airy, pleasant common spaces designed to be enticing enough for time spent over drinks and conversation or just people watching. I love the Loews’ glass-filled atrium and outdoor pool overlooking the beach—cocktails available at either—and its rooms’ fresh designs, featuring blues and mirrors and ample tech connections.
At the Miramar, it’s the lobby lounge’s outdoor tables and firepits I find memorable, out back by the pool and the bungalows, which are also available for your stay: it’s like a secret little world there, and peaceful despite any celebrities or movers and shakers to be seen inside (Arnold Schwarzenneger was spotted at breakfast last time I was in town). There, you can choose either Classic Fairmont style rooms, with their elegance and roominess, or more modern tower rooms with their small balconies and “peek-a-boo” views of the ocean. Both hotels have restaurants and room service, spas with regional specialty treatments and conference rooms to offer, as well.
What to do
Santa Monica is the perfect center for scheduling day trips in the area, and you don’t have to face that infamous LA traffic yourself to enjoy them. Karmel Shuttle can help you arrange a day at Disneyland or Universal Studios—no, you won’t be the only one there sans children if you’ve come without them—or down to Long Beach for the hour-long ferry to Catalina Island, there to spend the day exploring shops, restaurants, and flora and fauna by foot or rented golf cart.
Or the regional experts at Malibu Discovery can show you Venice Beach and its canals plus other secrets of adjacent neighborhoods, or bring you up the coast a little to tour the burgeoning wine scene, an experience that will not only educate your palate and understanding of the industry but place you for the day in the environs of Lady Gaga and other notables who’ve made Malibu their home.
Santa Monica is just a Metro Expo ride on the new line from 4th and Colorado into downtown LA, or a cab ride to Hollywood, the archaic riches of the Getty Center or Getty Villa, or the scientific curiosities of the La Brea Tar Pits. Griffith Park is not far either, with its observatory, zoo, and miles of trails, where you just might catch sight of famous resident P-22, the wild mountain lion who “maintains” his own Facebook page. You’ll catch glimpses of California’s vast valley farmlands even on the edges of this 10 million plus metropolis of which Santa Monica is the gem.
After a full day of meetings with colleagues, sightseeing like a trooper, or re-centering yourself, walk two blocks inland to the Third Street Promenade, a multi-block pedestrian expanse where the shops are open late and the restaurants and bars later and the street entertainers are sometimes surprisingly good. Santa Monica Place, at the end of the street, is anchored by Barney’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom to keep you busy on the rare chance it’s raining—but that hasn’t happened to me yet while visiting Santa Monica.
Where to eat
Then it’s time for nourishment, alcoholic or otherwise. You’ll see the young, fashionable, and frenzied set intermingling with families out for a special occasion at local favorite The Lobster, just at the foot of the Santa Monica Pier where Route 66 ends; try their homemade pasta with shellfish, generous with its clams, mussels, calamari, and crab; fresh grilled or steamed lobster; seasoned roasted chicken; or the sheer indulgence of French or Russian caviar, all alongside a lovely house-crafted mojito or a Hawaiian ginger negroni. Strawberry trifle or citrus olive oil cake with mascarpone and macademia nuts will round out your meal.
I’m also fond of Locanda del Lago, back on Arizona between 2nd and Third. Always bustling but with more of a grown-up feel, it prides itself on warm, professional service, a solid wine list with expert advice to match, and northern Italian cuisine made with locally sourced meats and produce. The menu varies with the seasons, but you might start with the housemade burratta, some of the best I’ve had, served with slices of beefsteak tomato, or try the innovative Tuna Tartara di Tonno, served with ripe avocado and crispy plantain curls. Follow with the simple, fresh Tagliatelle Bolognese or the special salt-baked, wild-caught Chilean sea bass. Finish with dessert and a coffee or lemoncello. It’s the perfect spot for indulging a little before you wander back to your hotel past the other merry-makers and sleep in the next morning.
When visiting Santa Monica, you’ll find you are at a convenient jumping off point for Las Vegas. It’s a quick flight or a 4-1/2 hour drive through the Mojave Desert away–for now. In the next few years, the Bullet train from LA to Vegas will become a reality. Just up the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, visit Santa Barbara or Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea, or even continue on up to San Francisco, for six hours of some of the most beautiful driving imaginable, whether inland or along the coast. Of course LAX offers multiple daily flights to Hawaii.
But as long as you’re here, don’t forget to spend a little time strolling along the 9-mile beach right here in Santa Monica. There are boardwalks and bike paths for long stretches, but the sand itself is clean and fine. The Pacific surf is usually a little chilly, but go ahead, take off your shoes and let the water lap over your toes while you breathe in the salt air and look far out over a soothing sunset. The lights of the Ferris wheel will soon ignite their own man-made glow out on the Pier, and the mild breeze will stir your hair and revitalize your face and limbs. You’ll be glad you came.