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Santa Monica's greatest moment.

Southern California's premier beach town has never been more exciting - don't miss it

Interstate 10 ends its 3,000-mile cross-continental journey as it sweeps through a tunnel, reaches the beach, and morphs into Pacific Coast Highway at Santa Monica.

Up the coast, a line of mountains drops down to the Pacific, following and accentuating the curving shoreline. A broad beach spreads out before meeting the rolling surf, while out on the restored 1908 Santa Monica Pier, a Ferris wheel spins laggardly above the break.

Santa Monica may be at the end of the road. But it is here that a peculiarly American journey also rolls on. Embodying the region's timeless beach allure, its diversity, and its growing glamour and sophistication, Santa Monica has become Southern California's destination of the moment.

In 1875, orator and newspaperman Colonel Tom Fitch declared, "We will sell a southern horizon, rimmed with a choice collection of purple mountains, carved in castles and turrets and domes; we will sell a frostless, bracing yet unlanguid air, braided in and out with sunshine and odored with the breath of flowers."

And they did. Santa Monica was incorporated in 1887, and it developed into a major tourist destination. Crowds thronged a beachfront lined with honky-tonk attractions, while roller coasters and turreted ballrooms formed its skyline. But by 1976, the last of the great seaside attractions, Pacific Ocean Park, had been torn down.

Ruth Seymour, general manager at public radio station KCRW (89.9 FM), arrived in Santa Monica in 1973 and remembers the way the town was then. "This was a sleepy little seaside village," she says, "with politics to the right of Genghis Khan."

Within a few years, Santa Monica again underwent a transformation, when artistic types and progressive-minded seniors shifted local politics significantly. And now you could drop $2,000 on an oceanfront hotel suite, then go out for dinner and order up a $20 plate of purple asparagus at Capo, one of the best of the city's new restaurants.

While there is concern that Santa Monica will lose its edge and become some kind of high-end Pleasantville-by-the-Sea, Seymour believes that the city's funky beach-town soul will endure.

"You lose something and gain something else," she says. "But you can't go backward. It's still attracting artists, but now they're people in the kind of arts that pay big, big dividends."

Actually, Santa Monica is attracting just about everyone. And on some nights, they all seem to descend on the Third Street Promenade. Once a moribund pedestrian mall, Third Street was reborn in the early 1990s as a retail and entertainment center.

The Promenade has evolved from a local destination into a major regional attraction, as well as a national model for urban rebirth.

If it is in some ways a contrived place, the Promenade is made real by the people who come here, whether the residents who visit its twice-weekly farmers' market (one of the West's best) or the nightly infusion of newcomers, who marvel that such a scene could exist in Southern California. You know, where no one ever walks.

At the end of the day in Santa Monica, heavy surf rolls onto the beach as offshore winds peel back a veil of spray from each wave's curl before it crashes ashore. Daylight dimming, the red, green, and gold neon starburst of the Ferris wheel lights up. The sun descends on a collision course with the wheel and then passes through its gaudy spokes before disappearing behind the seaward-sloping ridge, 20 miles distant.

Trying to capture the beach and the light and the sunsets of Santa Monica is inevitable, yet somehow doomed to failure. In one 1931 pamphlet, an anonymous writer said of the view, 'Artists have pictured it, photographers have illustrated it, and poets have written of its marvelous glory, but no adequate description or reproduction has yet been produced. It is beyond human ability to portray."

No matter. As one shop owner says unsentimentally of Santa Monica in 1999: "It ain't the '50s here anymore. But it's still good."

Santa Monica travel planner

It has become a pattern. When asked where to Stay in Southern California, I always say Santa Monica; it's the perfect summer destination. With the end of "June gloom," you can expect clear, comfortable conditions. Improvements to Palisades Park and the beachfront should be done by the end of July.

If you stay near the beach, you won't even need the car, although boutique-lined Montana Avenue and art-enclave Bergamot Station, with its 5 acres of galleries (see Best of the West, June, page 16), are also a must for any Santa Monica visitor.

Santa Monica is 7 miles north of L.A. International Airport on Pacific Coast Hwy. (State 1). For more information, contact the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau; (310) 319-6263 or www.santamonica. Com. Area code is 310 unless noted.

* Third Street Promenade and downtown

The success of the jammed and jumping Promenade has spilled over onto nearby streets. Parking garages fill up quickly on weekend nights, so arrive early and settle in for the show. Or catch the farmers' market (9-2 Wed, 8:30-1 Sat).

Dining

Blueberry, Hip, homey, and hoppin' breakfast and lunch spot. 510 Santa Monica Blvd.; 394-7766.

Border Grill, The loud and colorful landmark updates Mexican and Central American dishes; try the green corn tamales or skirt steak. 1445 Fourth St.; 451-1655.

Remi. The Promenade is crowded with Italian food; with its Venetian specialties, this is the standout. 1451 Third St. Promenade; 393-6545.

* Ocean Avenue

Running along the bluff-front, with Palisades Park and Pacific views, Ocean Avenue has developed a restaurant row and is lined with a number of hotel choices.

Dining

Capo. Rustic and understated yet elegant, with large selection of pasta and grilled specialties. 1810 Ocean; 394-5550.

Chez Jay, Legendary hangout notable for its atmosphere and always interesting crowd. 1657 Ocean; 395-1741.

ZenZero. Topflight Pacific-Asian New Waver in an attractive minimalist setting. 1535 Ocean; 451-4455.

Lodging

Hotel Oceana. Gorgeous and colorful spot is a modern take on classic beach style. From $290; (800) 777-0758.

Hotel Shangri-La. Miami Beach-style moderne with ocean views at a reasonable price. From $130; (800) 345-7829.

Don't miss

Palisades Park. Linear blufftop park is undergoing major improvements. Feeling like Europe with California sunsets, it's hard to beat, although the homeless agree. Hidden away in the senior center on Ocean, Camera Obscura (458-8644) is one of the best free attractions in town.

* Waterfront

The Santa Monica waterfront is posher and nicer than ever. The bike path has been upgraded, new hotels including Le Merigot Beach Hotel and Casa del Mar are opening this summer, and legendary Muscle Beach is on its way back.

Dining

Lavande. Provencal-style in Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel with ocean views. 1700 Ocean; 576-3181.

One Pico. Open airy room in Shutters on the Beach (see below) with impressive beach views and terrific food, including a simple but memorable puree of Roma tomato soup. 1 Pico Blvd.; 587-1717. Lodging

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. Large beachfront hotel has new Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa. From $245; (800) 235-6397.

Shutters on the Beach. Stylish and understated, Shutters offers a high level of service with just the right level of beachy casual. Pedals Cafe is a good eatery. Best views look north toward pier and Malibu. From $330; (800) 334-9000.

Don't miss

Santa Monica Pier. The renovated 1908 pier has a small amusement park, a vintage carousel, and the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center (393-6149). The stairs at the far end of the pier offer a terrific perch for sunsets. The Thursday Twilight Dance Series during summer is Santa Monica at its best, with acts from reggae to country.

South Bay Bicycle Trail. Still the way to experience the beach, with several rental shacks for bikes and in-line skates along the way. Best in mornings before the wind and crowds pick up.

* Main Street

The definitive Santa Monica street. Funky and artistic with fewer tourists than the Promenade, it's great for strolling and hanging out.

Dining

Amici Mare. Italian newcomer with seafood emphasis, notable for a delicious fish soup. 2424 Main; 314-2119.

Chinois on Main. Wolfgang Puck's pioneering fusion restaurant. 2709 Main; 392-9025.

Rockenwagner. Great breads, grilled meats, and crab souffle at Main Street mainstay. 2435 Main,' 399-6504.

Don't miss

California Heritage Museum. Small museum in the house of Santa Monica founder John Percival Jones emphasizes decorative arts. The exhibit Monterey Furniture-California Spanish Revival continues into January. $3; 11-4 Wed-Sun. 2612 Main; 392-8537.

Edgemar. Frank O. Gehry design houses stores, a restaurant, and a cafe. 2435 Main.
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Title Annotation:Southern California's premier beach town; includes a Santa Monica travel planner
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:1426
Previous Article:Dig locally, think globally.
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