California Dreaming – Santa Monica

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CALIFORNIA DREAMING: TINA BEXSON gets her kicks at the end of Route of Route 66

It’s a sight to die for. The Pacific Ocean looms into the distance, its gentle waves glistening in the rays of dawn sunlight. In the distance a dozen soldiers on an early morning training session are ploughing through the wet sand, the sea breeze waking them from their deep slumber. In a few hours time an abundance of equally beautiful people will be playing volleyball in rows and rows of public courts running along the coast line, while skaters and roller bladers whiz past.  With an offshore breakwater keeping the surf fairly gentle, many more will be tempted to take the plunge with a spot of bodysurfing and boggie boarding. Perhaps they’ll all think they’re extras in Baywatch. After all, the Santa Monica State Beach was the inspiration for the beautiful people television series. But it’s still early and until the bodies arrive, it provides a rather more tranquil view, one we are currently treasuring from Palisades Park, a long narrow strip of lawn and benches perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. This too will soon be full of people. The T’ai Chi practitioners are already executing their slow graceful movements amongst the swaying palms and rustling eucalyptus trees, and the dedicated chess players are carefully setting their pieces on the table. Welcome to Santa Monica, a creative town at the Pacific Ocean end of the original route 66, with a unique style of its own. It’s got the air of a small town but the sophistication of a great city. But most of all, it’s the quintessential Los Angeles beach town and has been since the early 1900’s when the original ‘pleasure pier’ was the bayside beacon for long days of southern Californian style fun in the sun. Today the pier is a bizarre combination of old and new with its 1922 carousel and modern five-story coaster ride. We decide to give the fairground rides a miss so soon after breakfast and once down by the sea, walk south of the pier, to step upon California’s original muscle beach. This outside gym provides the fitness fanatics the opportunity to flex their muscles over an assortment of chinning bars, parallel bars, and rings rising up out of the sand. We momentarily look on in horror before swiftly slinking away to sip strawberry smoothies on Ocean Front Walk. Watching the dazzling array of bikes, from top of the range racers to tandems and unicycles, glide effortlessly past on the South Bay Bike Trail, is much more relaxing. That’s the thing about Santa Monica, its generally so relaxed and low key. Nothing like the \rmore style conscious, self-aware Los Angeles. Having said that if you spend any time here you are just as likely to spot a splattering of celebrities – be they the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme and Robert Downey Jnr excitedly exiting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s restaurant, Schatzi, on Main Street; the brilliant but slightly crazed Dennis Hopper strolling along the beach near his heavily guarded house on Venice Beach; or any number of Hollywood’s leading actresses on an outing away from their expansive homes in the Santa Monica Mountains. If you do they will undoubtedly be shopping. There’s the curvy colourful mall designed by local architect Frank Gehry, who was also behind the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao; there’s the 3rd street promenade, which features the best in pavement performance artistry – percussionists, singers and comedians – as well as an excellent variety of cinemas, shops, and bars. The Stars though are most likely to be a few blocks away at Fred Segal, a group of buildings that look like a bus depot but which stock some very expensive clothes and accessories that are responsible for setting many American fashion crazes. Of course southern Californian’s are a contradictory bunch and seem to go for extremes. When shopping no longer fills a gap or gets too stressful they may well nip into any one of the towns art galleries, esoteric book shops or museums, or perhaps the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine on Sunset Boulevard for a spot of spiritual enlightenment. The Shrine was used as a movie location before Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the autobiography of a Yogi, bought the 10 acre site in 1950, dedicated it to the universality of all religions, and opened it to the public. I’m very glad, despite being agnostic. It’s one of the most beautiful, peaceful places I’ve experienced, with not a squeeky beach babe in sight. We dampen the desire to bathe in the luxuriantly landscaped spring fed lake, and walk through the Golden Lotus Archway to the Court of Religions. Here each of the five principal religions of the world is represented by a monument that bears its symbol: a Cross for Christianity, a Star of David for Judaism, a Wheel of the Law for Buddhism, a Star and Crescent for Islam, and the Sanskrit character, Aum, for Hinduism. Paramahansa created the Court to recognise the unity of world brotherhood. He said that while dogmas may differ, the goal of every religion is the same – direct experience of God. I wonder if the various worshippers seen praying through the open doors of the Windmill Chapel are ‘experiencing God’ or not. Either way they couldn’t be in a more serene location. The picturesque chapel is an authentic reproduction of a 16th century Dutch windmill, its sails reaching high into the sky. The Shrine also provides many suitable spots for meditation not least at the Gandhi World Peace Memorial. A brass coffer containing a portion of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was enshrined in this stone sarcophagus at the dedication of the Lake Shrine. On either side of the Memorial is a marble statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. A Buddhist monk sits down by one of the statues and seems to instantly fall into a deep meditation. We’re exhausted and sit up on a bank behind him to attempt something similar. After the shrine you may have the urgent desire to get back to reality or at least to a different form of non-reality. If so why not exit and turn right onto Sunset Boulevard, drive up to Beverely Hills, and guide yourself around a tour of the Star’s homes: those sprawling Spanish haciendas, stately Tudor mansions and French provencal farmhouses. Return via the Beverely Hills Hotel, which in recent years has recaptured its ability to seduce the powers that be. But I’ve had enough of Sunset Boulevard. Earlier in the trip I crashed into a black convertible Ford Mustang driven by a grumpy redneck – warning of what can happen on slippery roads when it does actually rain. I much prefer the mountains so turn left onto Sunset and seconds later am on the Pacific Coast Highway heading towards the Santa Monica Mountains in my second brand new rental car. With its glorious 150,000 acres, the Santa Monica Mountains are the world’s largest urban national park. They are also the chosen playground of LA residents and offer another possibility of celebrity spotting. The hillsides on the drive up to the Topanga Park area are full of architecturally challenged spiritual homes for Topanga people who mostly consist of actors, artists, musicians, poets, writers and screenwriters. Though in all honesty you are more likely to spot a bobcat or a rattle snake. We were very privileged with a sighting of the former as it sunned itself on a large rock somewhere in the middle of the Topanga Canyon. Topanga means ‘the place where the mountains meet the sea’. We take the backbone trail and amble along ridge tops, and through dense woodland that is completely otherworldly. It’s a long hike and involves crossing a small river by rope alone, but a four hours later we reach Will Rogers Park and the dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Bay. Apart from a hot shower, food is the first thing you’ll crave when you eventually drive back down to civilisation. We feast on chicken grilled over oak flames sitting on the side walk terrace of Crocodile Café on Santa Monica Boulevard. You cant beat the view of those legendary ocean sunsets. But Santa Monica is an eating city and deserves its reputation as the dining room of choice for the whole of Southern California, so you’ll be spoilt for choice. Just make sure you bring a credit card or two, and don’t fill your belly’s too high or you won’t be able to dance the night away. The best of the blues can be captured at Harvelle’s on 1432 4th St. Established in 1931, its the oldest bar in Santa Monica and features a long narrow room with engraved mirrors and high ceiling fans. The eccentric owner, Dr Rainer Beck, a white haired environmental scientist ensures its originality is maintained and only the top local bands perform. We drown tequila slammers and attempt a bit of feet shuffling to Guitar Shorty, and The Flamingoes. My only gripe is that I’m up at 6:30 in the morning, but not for that leisurely stroll along the beach before bagels in Palisades Park, oh no, I’m going home tomorrow. Damn, Santa Monica was my kind of town.