The Daily Telegraph - Travel
Why life’s a beach in LA
We ride the new train line to the sea at Santa Monica
All over Los Angeles chirpy slogans have been cropping up on billboards, strategically placed near congested freeway entrances: “Basketball to Beachball”, “Skateboard to Surfboard”, “Work Hour to Happy Hour”. You might wonder what the fuss is about. Everyone knows LA is flanked by one of the loveliest stretches of the Pacific Ocean. Why do Angelenos need to be reminded to get out there and enjoy it?
The reality is that while LA may have much to recommend it – firstclass entertainment, incredible restaurants, almost unbroken sunshine – unless you are lucky enough to be in one of the seaside communities, a day at the beach is about as unrealistic as it is from, say, London. Gridlocked roads and limited parking have traditionally made the prospect of visiting Santa Monica, arguably the best of its beach outcrops, more of a slog than a pleasure.
But with the opening of the $1.5billion (£1bn) light rail extension to the Expo Line, which previously only ran as far as Culver City, Angelenos can finally connect with their beach. Seven new stations have been added and the final one stops just short of the beach in Santa Monica. Perhaps that should be “reconnect” with their beach. Until 1953, the Pacific Electric red streetcar ran the same route: “I heard from my grandparents what it was like to get on the red car and go to the ocean,” said LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, on a test ride of the new train last week. “It was a rite of passage on a hot day.”
In the 46 minutes it takes to make the journey, it feels like you have almost changed countries. I board the train at Metro Center in downtown Los Angeles, which is gritty, high-rise and intense. Dominating the skyline is the 73-storey US Bank tower. Nearby is the elegant art deco Central Library and the ultra-hip Standard Hotel. People in business suits rush by clutching Starbucks and talking urgently on their mobile phones.
The jaunty yellow train runs smoothly west past the Staples Center, the Natural History Museum and through sprawling residential neighbourhoods while we smugly watch the struggling traffic. Slowly the concrete urban landscape gives way to glimpses of the Santa Monica mountains, purple-flowering jacaranda trees and cleaner streets. I am expecting to see the sea when I alight in Santa Monica but it is blocked by Sears department store. That and a phalanx of overexcited transport officials, heralding the mayor’s arrival.
But as you leave the platform, the Pacific becomes visible, glittering on the left. The tallest structure on the horizon is the solar-powered Ferris wheel on the pier, trumped only by a few palm trees in the foreground. Beach bums in wetsuits stroll by toting surfboards and sipping cold-pressed vegetable juices. The beach is so wide that it takes several minutes to reach the sea, where children play in the surf and sandpipers skitter at the water’s edge.
The Expo extension opens to the public this weekend with platform parties and introductory free rides, as this carloving drive-thru city tries to change its ways (tickets will cost $1.75/£1.20 from Downtown). Third Street Promenade, just a block from the pier, is already pedestrian-only and the streets are often filled with musicians and magicians. On the day I visit, a crowd has gathered to watch a young boy, who looks not much older than six, belting out Prince songs. Twice a week it hosts a farmer’s market where it is not unusual to spot actresses Jennifer Garner or Jessica Alba picking through the strawberries and cauliflower. Beyond the Promenade are the tree-lined streets of Montana Avenue or Main, where boutiques and art galleries are the norm. I linger over some overpriced candles in Limonaia before my 10-year-old daughter drags me into Ivivva, which caters to small Lululemon fans with big wallets.
That is the drawback to Santa Monica: everything is expensive. But at least the beach is free. Later we take a bike ride (bikes are easy to rent near the Downtown Expo stop) south to Venice Beach, a mile away, where the boardwalk teems with hippies and “green doctors” touting medical marijuana. The beach bike path runs for 22 miles, through wildly different pockets of Los Angeles, south to the undulating Palos Verdes peninsula hills and north to Pacific Palisades.
In the early evening, after a happyhour mojito at The Lobster on the pier, you can brush off the sand and take the Expo Line back, perhaps to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or to watch Adele at the Staples Center (she has concerts there from August 5 to 13).
Or, if you are so seduced by the charms of Santa Monica that you want to extend the experience overnight, you can check into the majestic Casa del Mar, which, as its name suggests, has direct access to the beach. The rooms, designed like a romantic beach villa, are decorated in blue and ivory with large bookcases holding vintage tomes, sea shells and even a pair of binoculars for gazing out to sea. The ambience of the hotel might be nostalgic but there is nothing old-fashioned about the hydrothermal massage bathtubs and flat-screen televisions. Many of the rooms have full or partial ocean views, with windows that open so you can fall asleep to the crashing of the waves. A seafood restaurant, Catch, is incorporated into the vast lobby overlooking the beach. Here you can dine on black cod caught up the coast in Morro Bay, or Day Boat scallops a la plancha.
When the Los Angeles Times recently asked readers to create the perfect slogan for the Expo extension, one wag came up with “Smog to Fog”. True, when the sea mists roll in Santa Monica becomes almost invisible. Yet when the fog lifts, you could scarcely ask for a finer destination. Pick up a coffee from the hotel lobby and stroll along the beach, watching the surfers showing off and pods of dolphins curving through the water. And if you glance back towards the shoreline, you may catch sight of a train disgorging another batch of Angelenos, some of whom have never visited their ocean.
For more information, see santamonica.com. For a full review of Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, see telegraph.co.uk/casadelmar.