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Santa Monica: We Are Not L.A. -- Or Are We?

As we canoodled in the privacy of our car high above the pier, I turned to Lisa and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we lived here?" A year later, we did, abandoning the Big Apple in favor of a cute yellow bungalow in the land that winter forgot.

If the Pier is Santa Monica's top nighttime attraction, the beach is surely its No. 1 draw during the day. The Pacific is too cold for swimming from October to May, but "winter" days are often cloudless and robin's-egg-blue -- perfect for picnicking, sunbathing or simply listening to the waves. And with 100 yards of inviting sands between the parking lot and the water, there are plenty of oases to go around.

Santa Monica, Calif., offers the perfect winter beach: The water may be cold, but the sand's just right for a picnic. (Greg Peterson/Santa Monica Convention And Visitors Bureau)

You'll have no trouble recognizing another L.A. cliche: the bronzed, buff, fitness fanatics in wraparound shades. They're ubiquitous in Santa Monica, especially at the beach.

Our favorite stereotype-watching spot is the corner of Ocean Park Boulevard and Barnard Way. On sunny Sundays, Lisa and I head here to witness a live-action version of the sports and recreation page of some illustrated encyclopedia.

Would-be Shaqs crash the boards at an outdoor basketball court, while pickup soccer games break out on the grass between the swaying palms and the tennis courts. In the beach parking lot, roller hockey teams take wrist shots at overturned recycling bins, and non-contact skaters zigzag along the rec path that parallels the beach. Former Santa Monica mayor Michael Feinstein occasionally whizzes by, in tie-dyed pants no less. On truly marvelous days, Hizzoner and other bladers roll past joggers, cyclists and the occasional skateboard dude, dudette or dudito. In the walking lane, strollers and meanderers mix with power walkers and those being dragged by pulling puppies.

Debbie Merrill, owner of Skate Great USA, is a fixture along this path. She's hard to miss in her trademark red-white-and-blue Spandex outfit, festooned with stars and stripes. A former pro figure skater, Merrill fled to California from New York 20 years ago for an unlikely reason: "I was freezing." The "instructor to the stars" -- Steve Martin's wild ride through the art museum in "L.A. Story" was her handiwork -- has been teaching visitors, residents and celebrities how to "glide with pride" along this stretch of oceanfront ever since.

"The beach is the happiest place in the world. I have an apartment at the beach; I work at the beach. This is my office," she says, pointing to the path, the sand, the ocean and the clear blue sky. "Whenever I get stressed out, I just look out at the ocean and remember that I have the greatest job in the world."

Two blocks in from the beach is another defining feature of Santa Monica: the farmers market. In most of L.A., the number of taco stands, burger joints and doughnut shops belie the myth of California as the land of alfalfa and granola. But Santa Monica epitomizes it, with arguably one of the finest farmers markets in the country.

Shoppers come from miles away for the state's best tomatoes, dates, bok choy and grass-fed beef. I recently overheard a woman stocking up on produce for her weekly trip to New York. The security guards at LAX usually have a good laugh at her expense, she said, but she swore she couldn't find produce this good in Manhattan.

The Wednesday market attracts all the foodies and celebrity chefs. But the Sunday morning edition is more visitor-friendly, with vendors selling crepes, fluffy pancakes, Mexican omelets and kettle corn alongside farmers hawking ripe strawberries, persimmons and arugula. Kids bounce with excitement as they wait to ride on the ponies that shuffle in circles like a real-live carousel, while their folks sip fresh-squeezed orange juice on the nearby lawn.

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