Take a walk along Santa Monica's retro and ritzy Ocean Avenue, where city meets sand

Santa Monicatravel planner: activities, restaurants, and hotels

Lounging on the veranda of the art deco landmark Georgian Hotel,I'm watching women with large sunglasses stroll down Santa Monica'spalm-lined Ocean Avenue when I overhear a screenwriter eagerlypitching her idea for a movie. This spot, where urban glamourcrashes gorgeously into nature's awesome domain, is the CaliforniaI pictured as a kid.

Tony restaurants and hotels line one side of the broad avenuejust two blocks from Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade,while Palisades Park, running atop sandstone bluffs, drops straightdown to the sandy beach on the other. The Santa Monica Pier blinksand whirs and stretches into the ocean. From my perch overlookingthe blue Pacific, I feel as though I'm sitting on Los Angeles'front porch and taking in all the action.

Even though I've lived in L.A. for more than a decade, I havenever, until today, actually stopped to take a stroll throughPalisades Park, where twisted Australian tea trees creep along theground near a cream-colored statue of St. Monica. Benches withviews of the sparkling Pacific are sprinkled among patches of grassand towering palms. There are no bikini-clad roller-skaters, butthere are plenty of people out enjoying this peaceful strip at theedge of the metropolis.

Although this is my first daytime visit to the park, I havespent plenty of time on Ocean Avenue after the sun sets. That'swhen the locals show up for the stylish, sophisticated dining sceneat Boa Steakhouse or for a cocktail by the pool at the super-trendyViceroy Santa Monica. Chic new restaurants sprout up all the time,keeping things fresh. Sushi spot Tengu arrived in January with itsZen crunch rolls (tempura-style spicy albacore rolls) andto-die-for macadamia-nut tortes. The latest addition, AbodeRestaurant & Lounge, features biodynamic wines and chefDominique Crenn, who worked as the first female executive chef inIndonesia before moving to Los Angeles. "I love it here," she says."I can walk out of the restaurant and the ocean is right there. Ifeel integrated in nature."

Of course, not all of Ocean Avenue is this up-to-the-moment andposh. There are still a few places that remind us of a time whenSanta Monica was more lazy beach town than "it" crowd hangout.Sure, Ivy at the Shore has always attracted its share ofcelebrities for grilled vegetable salads in a tropicalbeach-bungalow setting. But down the street, the dive bar andsteakhouse, Chez Jay, remains unchanged since it opened in 1959.Sawdust and peanuts still cover the floor of this tiny shack, withits red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, and co-owner JayFiondella, a raconteur and former balloonist and treasure hunter,still holds court. "I'm happy to still be here," he says. "This isbecoming restaurant row."

Across the street is another throwback. At the Hotel California,where anyone who checks in with a surfboard gets a 10 percentdiscount, you still can find a room by the ocean for less than$200. Bring your own pink champagne on ice.

GETTING THERE

Take I-10 west to the Fourth St. exit. Turn left on Fourth, goright on Pico Blvd., and take a right on Ocean Ave.

WHAT TO DO

Carlyle Design Shop for unusual imports like an antiqueTibetan monastery cabinet. INFO: 1541 Ocean; 310/395-6667.

Santa Monica Pier Ride the carousel, play arcade games,or visit the aquarium. INFO: Carousel closed Tue; aquarium closedMon, $5, free ages 12 and under; Ocean at Colorado Ave.;310/458-8900.

WHERE TO EAT

Abode Restaurant & Lounge Local, sustainable food anddecor. INFO: $$$$;1541 Ocean Ave.; 310/394-3463.

Boa Steakhouse Japanese Wagyu to organic New York strip.INFO: $$$$; 101Santa Monica Blvd.; 310/899-4466.

Chez Jay So dark, you can barely see your beer. INFO: $$; 1657Ocean; 310/395-1741.

Ivy at the Shore The restaurant grows most of its ownveggies. INFO: $$$; 1535Ocean; 310/393-3113.

Ocean Ave. Seafood Finish up a day at the beach with theoyster and wine sampler. INFO: $$$; 1401Ocean; 310/394-5669.

Tengu Try the special Mizore roll and a sake flight. INFO: $$$; 1541Ocean; 310/587-2222.

WHERE TO STAY

Georgian Hotel Ghosts supposedly haunt the speakeasy ofthis recently renovated blue beauty, built in 1933. INFO: From$250; 800/538-8147.

The Hotel California A small, family-friendly hoteldecorated with painted surfboards, climbing vines, and a relaxedattitude. INFO: From $199; 866/571-0000.

Viceroy Santa Monica For the hip and well-heeled; enjoya meal inspired by the chef's global travels at the hotel'srestaurant, Whist ( $$$$).INFO: From $429 through Aug 25, from $400 after Aug 25;866/891-0947.

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