Keeping cool in Santa Monica

ANGELA WALKER
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
santa monica

NO CARS ALLOWED: Santa Monica's pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade is ideal for people-watching.

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SOLAR SUNSET: The ferris wheel on Santa Monica Pier is the only one in the world powered by the sun.

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From muscle mutts on Venice Beach to the world's only solar-powered ferris wheel, Santa Monica is a beachside city with abundant amusements.

TUESDAY 11AM: The breeze wafting off the Pacific as my cab turns on to Ocean Ave is a soothing change from the dry grey air hanging over the Los Angeles freeways. Even more welcome is the Oceana Beach Club Hotel, its mid-century modern glamour tempered by a friendly, laidback feel. My room is bright, breezy and seriously big, with a balcony overlooking the ocean; magazines and books I actually do want to read; the pool just down a flight of stairs and, yes, free wi-fi too. Being LA, there's also the requisite Hollywood connection - in a former life as an apartment building, it was once home to Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. And being a small world, a New Zealand screenwriter is also a guest during my stay.

1pm: It's about a five-block walk along the ocean front to downtown Santa Monica and its famous pier - the full-stop of the iconic Route 66. On the way is Blue Plate Taco, a friendly, inviting eatery inspired by the taco stands of Mexico's seaside towns. Margaritas and the freshest possible guacamole start us off, followed by simply perfect and perfectly simple fish tacos. Next time, because there will be a next time, a visit to its sister diner Blue Plate Oysterette a few doors down will also be on the cards.

2pm: Los Angeles may be the city of cars but Santa Monica is all about bikes. I grab one of Oceana's retro beach cruisers, sign the disclaimer (it is the US, after all) and head to the beach and the South Bay Bicycle Trail. At 35km it's the longest oceanfront beach path of its kind in the world and even if you only manage a few of those kilometres, this has to be one of the ultimate Southern California experiences. The cycle trail - which feels more like a freeway of bikes, it's so well-used - cuts a swathe through the wide sandy shores of the coast, along which you'll witness nearly every physical activity known to man. For the ultimate example of workout meets freak show, the famously preening muscle mutts of Venice Beach are just a couple of kilometres south.

4pm: On the way back to the hotel I detour to the pedestrian-only Third St Promenade, considered Santa Monica's outdoor living room. If you want to give your wallet a bash, there's Zara, H&M, Gap, Anthropologie and plenty more in the way of retail therapy, plus movie theatres and scores of indoor and outdoor restaurants and bars. It's also a very good place to sit down, catch your breath, and indulge in some quality people-watching.

7pm: Dinner tonight is at the contemporary Mexican restaurant Mercado. The room is buzzing, possibly thanks in part to the drawcard cocktail list. The spicy cucumber margarita is worth the flights to California alone. The food - whether deep-fried stuffed courgette flowers or the more classic slow-cooked pork carnitas - delivers class, flavour and surprising twists.

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Wednesday, 8am: A quick poolside breakfast at Oceana's Tower 8 restaurant sets me up for a morning visit to Santa Monica's legendary weekly Farmers' Market. I'm here on the coat-tails of Tower 8's award-winning head chef Josiah Citrin, whose two-Michelin-starred French restaurant Melisse has been a mainstay of the local dining scene for years. There are hundreds of people shopping at the market and it seems Citrin, born and bred in Santa Monica, knows most of them by name.

A conversation with an older woman takes places in fluent French - he worked in Paris after high school. With friends and colleagues, the talk is of surfing, menus, who has the day's best tomatoes, plums and peaches and industry gossip about who's moving where and why. But most importantly it's about seeing what's available and how best it can be used.

"We don't just buy, we shop - we hand-select every piece of produce," says Citrin, as we pass stall after stall of the freshest and most fragrant produce, with the aroma of ripe strawberries and lemon verbena perfuming every step. At one stall there are tomatoes in all colours, shapes and sizes. Some are as small as currants, but today Citrin is looking for ones large enough so that each slice will be the right size for their burgers. We pass the courgette flowers of last night's dinner at Mercado; the peaches that will be grilled and served atop the free-range pork chop I'll be having for dinner later at Tower 8; the brussels sprouts of the accompanying side dish; the salad greens and kaleidoscope of vegies that will become my lunchtime chop salad.

"With Tower 8 it's great to do something different," Citrin says. "It's very Santa Monica so being a local it's fun to put my spin on that. And the place of this market is really important. This place is like home to me. We get to know the farmers and the passion they put into it and I want to align myself with that." I leave him to his huddle of chefs and their two-metre-high stacks of crates stuffed with herbs, fruit and vegies and head back to the stall selling peaches. "These," Citrin had said earlier, "are the ones."

2pm: Navigating downtown Santa Monica by bike proves less challenging than I'd feared. I head first to Fred Segal, a large selection of boutiques under one roof - think Auckland's The Department Store. Next stop is Santa Monica Place, a three-storey outdoor mall with high-end department stores Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, Tiffany, Coach and a host of other "name" shops. Best of all is the rooftop dining deck and The Market, which features two cooking schools, artisanal cheeses, wines and beautifully crafted kitchen items. On 4th St I discover West and Elm, a more contemporary take on Pottery Barn and the like, and TJ Maxx, where you can find label clothes - Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, etc - at discount prices. If there's room left in your suitcase, head upstairs to the homewares and kitchen department for some great buys. A few blocks further south, turn right on to tree-lined Montana Ave, a favourite beauty-salon-visiting and shopping spot of celebs. By now it turns out the afternoon's real challenge is how to ride a bike while balancing an overflowing basket and shopping bags in each hand.

5pm: The hotel pool offers a perfect pre-dinner pick-me-up. At the surrounding tables and cabanas, children play, couples relax, businessmen and women talk deals while juggling phones and laptops. I could be trying to work out how one hotel manages to juggle so successfully the cool, the classy, the casual and the corporate but right now I'm more concerned with how many more laps I can fit in before having to shower and dress for dinner.

Thursday, 10am: I'm 40 metres above Santa Monica Pier on the world's only solar-powered ferris wheel. Below are all manner of shops selling tourist T-shirts and tatt; purveyors of the worst hot dogs imaginable; an aquarium and the five-storey-high West Coaster, the only roller coaster on a pier on the Pacific coast and certainly more fun than fearful. This may be the end of the road but it's hell of a good way to go out.

Angela Walker travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau, santamonica.com.

Fact file

Staying there

Oceana Beach Club Hotel, 849 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, hoteloceanasantamonica.com

Eating there Blue Plate Taco: Bright and breezy Mexican standards with an ocean view. 1515 Ocean Ave, blueplatesantamonica.com/bpt

Mercado: Upscale Mexican with a modern twist. 1416 4th St, mercadosantamonica.com

Tower 8: Inspired Southern California cuisine with a focus on fresh and locally sourced ingredients. 849 Ocean Ave, hoteloceanasantamonica.com

Being there

Santa Monica Farmers' Market: One of the largest and most diverse farmers markets in the US. Arizona Ave and 2nd St, smgov.net/portals/farmersmarket

Pacific Park: Family amusement park on the pier, pacpark.com

- Sunday Star Times

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