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

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By John Rosenthal
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Santa Monica is not Los Angeles.

On any map of the sprawling 465-square-mile megalopolis that is L.A., the independent city of Santa Monica (population 87,162) is little more than a smudge surrounded by the City of Angels on three sides and the Pacific on the fourth.

At the same time, Santa Monica is Los Angeles. Or more correctly, it is a version of Los Angeles. For L.A. isn't so much a single city like New York or Chicago, but rather dozens of smaller cities, of which Santa Monica is but one. If Minneapolis and St. Paul are the Twin Cities, then Los Angeles is the Ten Cities. And unlike many of those 10 cities, Santa Monica doesn't get wildfires during prolonged droughts, and it was spared the floods and mudslides of the recent unseasonable rains.

The various townships and neighborhoods that make up L.A. are linked by freeways, but often little else. Beverly Hills heiresses seldom check out the newest burrito joints in Huntington Park; West Hollywood fashionistas wouldn't be caught dead in staid Pasadena. Compton is as far from Burbank geographically as it is metaphorically.

The residents of all these far-flung boroughs do come together occasionally, but as soon as the Lakers game is over, they all get back in their cars (one per vehicle, thank you) and return to their separate incarnations of Los Angeles.

For visitors, however, tidy, pretty Santa Monica is the most appealing version. It's compact, manageable and pedestrian-friendly, meaning you don't have to learn your way around traffic-choked freeways or get lost in endless suburban sprawl. It's a great base for exploring the art and architecture of the Getty Museum and the rugged canyons and glorious beaches of Malibu. And it's got memorable hotels, upscale shopping and an embarrassment of excellent restaurants.

Most important, it has the ocean. Even landlubbers and the sand-phobic relish the Pacific's moderating effect on the climate. In summer, when it's broiling in the valleys and the mercury hits triple digits in the deserts, Santa Monica rarely tops a breezy 80. And in the winter, the city enjoys brilliantly sunny 70-degree days. So when my wife, Lisa, and I started thinking about a winter L.A. getaway, we had no doubts about where to head.

On our first trip here we were immediately drawn to the Santa Monica Pier, which could hardly be further from Los Angeles. Hip, cosmopolitan, conspicuous-consuming Angelenos would never admit to reveling in something so hokey as this rinky-dink, honky-tonk boardwalk. The whole enterprise would fit in a corner of Disney's Tomorrowland.

But we found it irresistible. We were visiting from New York, the metropolis that sneers at all other cities' attempts at sophistication, so gallery-hopping, stargazing and power shopping on Rodeo Drive held little attraction for us. And because it was January, we were only too happy to dunk ourselves in the sights, smells and sounds of endless summer: Skee-Ball, churros, the Beach Boys on the soundtrack. While friends and family were shivering back East, we delighted in stuffing our faces with corn dogs and cotton candy, riding the roller coaster and knocking over milk cans with softballs.

We didn't win any plush toys, but we were rewarded in a much better way. Because it was a fairly uncrowded time of year, the man running the giant Ferris wheel spun us up to the top and let us linger there while the sun disappeared beneath the Pacific. Under vermilion skies, we marveled at the 360-degree view of the Southern California coast, from Catalina Island to the rugged bluffs of Malibu.

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.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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