Posh Pacific Palisades

A community in Southern California where transcendent beauty comes with the territory

Matthew Jaffe

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High above Pacific Palisades, the view from Temescal Ridge takes in a vast area of Santa Monica Bay. As the sun drops to the horizon, a hiker pauses to watch the denouement to the day.

"Struck by beauty?" asks a smiling woman passing him as she races down the trail.

Well, as a matter of fact, yes. It's one of those Southern California moments when the light brings the ocean, the mountains, and the city into perfect harmony. "I'm giving in to it," he replies. "Just for a few minutes."

Seconds later the big payoff comes. Along the upper edge of the setting sun, a vivid emerald orb appears ― a variation on the fabled green flash ― that lingers like a spotlight before seemingly dissolving into the sea.

For the record, there are no guarantees that Pacific Palisades can deliver another sunset like that. But in no other part of Los Angeles will you find a community where transcendent beauty just seems to come with the territory.

Local life centers on a commercial area known as the Village, its name a reminder of how residents cherish the Palisades' small-town, family-friendly ways. That was what drew Katie O'Laughlin, owner of Village Books, when she moved here in the early 1980s. A sense of community is also central to her independent bookstore, which has evolved into a gathering place for Palisades residents. "We really are a community bookstore," says O'Laughlin. "The bookstore is a reflection of the Palisades, and we've developed a good feeling for what people like to read. After a year or two here, you get to know everyone by name."

Even with its small-town vibe, though, Pacific Palisades isn't likely to be confused with Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Main Street here is the fabled Sunset Boulevard. And, as O'Laughlin describes it, the annual Fourth of July Parade features not just the usual procession of dressed-up dogs and Girl Scouts but celebrity residents too.

Nor can the average small town boast three major landmarks from three famous folks: the legendary humorist Will Rogers, the spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda, and J. Paul Getty, one of the world's wealthiest men.

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Will Rogers' ranch, now a state historic park, offers an escape into a more rugged Palisades. Filled with Western art and memorabilia, the ranch house sits against chaparral-covered hills where Rogers once rode his horses. Head out on the Backbone Trail, and you gradually leave some of Southern California's most expensive real estate for some of its wildest terrain. "When I go to the ranch, I just get goosebumps," O'Laughlin says. "It's probably the combination of its history and the fact you're so close to the city, but can get out into such a beautiful part of nature."

The ranch isn't the only unlikely retreat found in the Palisades. Set inside a hillside amphitheater on Sunset Boulevard is Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine. Here, along a spring-fed lake, he created an earthly paradise where shrines to the world's major religions inspire meditation and prayer amid sprays of flowers and swaying palms.

With a sarcophagus bearing a portion of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes, it's a deeply spiritual place, but also not without its quirks. In addition to the more traditional elements, such as the Golden Lotus Archway in front of the sarcophagus, you'll find a houseboat where Yogananda sometimes stayed, along with a working replica of a 16th-century Dutch windmill built by a movie studio executive who once owned the property.

Much to the consternation of residents, the Palisades' most famous destination, the Getty Villa, is typically described as being in Malibu ― by a Google landslide. Once knocked for strangely dark spaces and odd flow patterns, the Getty has been reinvented after a $288 million renovation.

Natural light now fills the Getty's galleries, washing over Venetian plaster walls painted in a brilliant, classical palette. As for the collection, with pieces dating back to 6500 B.C., the Getty displays one of the world's great collections of antiquities: Greek, Roman, and Etruscan. The museum brings ancient worlds and cultures alive, as do its gardens, which include fruits and herbs used in daily Roman life.

At the Getty too, it's easy to be struck by beauty ― beauty that has survived the millennia instead of being gone in a flash.

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