Above a booth at Uncle Bill's Pancake House, a small mural celebrates the glories of a summer day in Manhattan Beach.
Glance from your macadamia nut pancakes and you'll see artist Sarah Napolitano's painting of a sailboat out on the bay. Nearby, surfers ride waves that roll onto a broad, sandy beach sectioned off by volleyball courts.
An early-arriving family carrying a cooler treks across the sand, looking to settle in for the day, and bicyclists on the Strand oceanfront walkway cruise past a bikini-clad roller-skater with a ponytail poking out of her baseball cap.
Walk down to the beach after breakfast, and the mural comes to life. Volleyballers dig and spike as a parade of humanity ― pedaling, sprinting, strolling, and rolling ― passes by a lineup of beachfront dream homes. Homeowners here trade a bit of privacy for views that make the area's outrageous real estate prices seem not so crazy after all.
Joining the procession is a canine cavalcade ― an endless stream of golden retrievers, puggles, and other designer dogs. Even the mutts seem to know how lucky they are to have landed in this purebred Southern California beach town.
Most of us will have to content ourselves with visits to Manhattan Beach rather than permanent residence. But with a pair of hotels ― including the newly opened Shade Hotel ― just a few minutes from the Strand, you can get a taste of what it's like to live here.
Even if you just come for the day, you'll find Manhattan Beach offers not only a vibrant beach scene but also a walkable downtown filled with boutiques and restaurants. Downtown's also home to the long-anticipated Metlox project, a new upscale retail development that's changing the face of the city.
Summer by the sea
One advantage of staying overnight in Manhattan Beach is that you don't have to worry about beachfront parking. Even with a number of downtown structures, a late arrival otherwise means you're more likely to experience endless circling instead of endless summer.
Mornings have their own appeal as neighbors greet each other along the pedestrian-only "walk streets" that lead down the Strand, still uncrowded and slow to wake up under lingering fog. As the morning progresses and the sun comes out, so do the throngs. The bike path gets as clogged as the 405 freeway, crowds line the pier to watch volleyball games on the beach, and barbecues begin on beachfront patios flying the colors of USC and UCLA in roughly equal numbers.
Celebrated as it is for its beaches, Manhattan Beach once struggled with an ironic problem for a beach town: too much sand. The town was built on a shifting system of dunes, which meant that roads sometimes disappeared. And so in a Pacific variation on the "coals to Newcastle" concept, sand from Manhattan Beach was eventually exported to Hawaii ― to help resupply Waikiki Beach.
Historic dunes and modern retail
The dunes are all but gone from the Manhattan Beach of today, but the short, steep, paved climb from the beach to the downtown follows the contour of the old dunes ― a reminder of the original topography. And the city's Sand Dune Park, northeast of the downtown pier, preserves a small patch of the original dune system. With its precipitous face and difficult footing, the park's surviving dune has evolved into yet another crowded workout destination for this fitness-crazed community.
The dunes have also been memorialized at the newest addition to the Manhattan Beach scene, the Metlox project, built on the site of the Metlox Potteries ceramics factory that operated in town for 62 years. With its clean, modern lines and central plazas, Metlox avoids the cartoonish nostalgia of so many Southern California developments. Instead, quotes from residents reminiscing about the city's early days are inscribed underfoot in a garden plaza, and a large brick sculpture evokes the factory's kilns.
In the 1920s, when Metlox Potteries was just starting out, the pleasures of Manhattan Beach were simple ones: blooming lupines, hunting for rabbits, and sledding down sand hills. But for all the crowds and multimillion-dollar homes of today, it's still the basics that define summer at Manhattan Beach: the ocean, the broad sand, and that warm California sun.