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

Our weekly trips to the market are an ongoing education in new fruits and vegetables. We still have trouble telling bacon avocadoes from hass, but we've learned that both make outstanding guacamole to go with our homemade strawberry and guava margaritas.

Santa Monica is not all blue skies and pony rides. Because the city is so left-leaning (critics call it Santa Moscow), the homeless from all around Southern California migrate here, knowing that they won't be rousted from the beach or the parks. (If I were down and out, I'd probably take up residence on Santa Monica's beaches, too.) But visitors are often surprised to see homeless people so close to the fancy hotels overlooking the ocean.

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)

There are other problems too, including noise from the commuter airport and choking rush-hour traffic on the freeway. But these flaws are easily overlooked when you're cruising down Ocean Avenue like some movie star, in a convertible with the top down, sunglasses on, the ocean out your side window and palm trees lining your route.

It's a living, breathing Los Angeles cliche. But the appeal endures because, like Santa Monica itself, it is L.A. at its best.

John Rosenthal last wrote for Travel about Nantucket, Mass.

Details: Santa Monica, Calif.

GETTING THERE: Santa Monica is 10 miles north of the Los Angeles airport, which is served by most major airlines. Round-trip fares from D.C. start at about $230, with restrictions. The No. 3 Big Blue Bus connects the airport transit center with Santa Monica, but most visitors rent a car at the airport.

WHERE TO STAY: Shutters on the Beach (1 Pico Blvd., 800-334-9000, www.shuttersonthebeach.com) is the kind of place movie stars would stay at if they didn't already live in L.A. One of the Leading Hotels of the World, Shutters occupies a prime location on the beach, with restaurants and bars overlooking the sand. Rates start at $350 and increase with the quality of the view.

The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (1700 Ocean Ave., 310-458-6700, www.santamonicaloewshotel.com) is a few doors down from Shutters. It has everything you'd want in a luxury hotel, including a terrific pool and restaurants with ocean breezes. The Loews also caters to guests with pets; ask about the Pampered Paws Room. Rates from $255 a night.

Cal Mar Hotel Suites (220 California Ave., 310-395-5555, www.calmarhotel.com) is a great choice for families. The suites have full kitchens, pull-out couches, free parking and a pool. It's three blocks from the beach. Rates start at $129 a night.

WHERE TO DINE: Valentino (3115 Pico Blvd.) is an upscale Italian restaurant where the owner and staff make everybody feel like family. The food is simple and delicious, especially the osso bucco. Dinner for two is about $120, though you could easily double that if you order wine. Fans of the Food Network's "Too Hot Tamales" can sample the innovative Mexican food at Border Grill (1445 Fourth St.), run by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. Longtime favorites include pan-seared halibut with tomato, jalapenos and olives, and adobo pork chop in cinnamon brine with mashed potatoes and chile dulce sauce. Vegetarian options are available as well. Dinner for two is $80 to $100.

Santa Monica's oldest restaurant is the Galley (2442 Main St.), serving surf and turf since 1934. The heated outdoor patio is charming for dinner or drinks. Dinner for two is about $75. Cha Cha Chicken (1906 Ocean Ave.), a Caribbean/Mexican food stand with outdoor tables, is a great lunch stop near the beach. The jerk chicken enchilada pretty much epitomizes the small but excellent menu. Most everything comes with rice and beans. Lunch or dinner for two is usually less than $20.

ATTRACTIONS: Debbie Merrill's Skate Great USA (888-866-6121, www.skategreat.com) is at Perry's Cafe 2, on the beach at 2400 Ocean Front Walk. Perry's is a good place to grab a burger, corn dog or sandwich with a view of the ocean. Private lessons (for one or two people) are $135 an hour; group lessons ($55 an hour) are held Saturdays from 1 to 2 p.m. You can rent skates and protective gear at Perry's.

The Santa Monica Sunday Farmer's Market (www.santa-monica.org/farmers_market) is at Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Wednesday market, which has more farmers but no prepared foods or rides, is on Arizona Avenue between Second and Fourth streets, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

INFORMATION:Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-544-5319, www.santamonica.com.

-- John Rosenthal

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