Santa Monica: Blue-Sky Thinking

Santa Monica: Blue-Sky Thinking

A far cry from the sprawling metropolis that is LA, the
independent city of Santa Monica is home to laid-back beaches,
burgeoning start-ups and a wellness culture all of its own. This
article appears in SUITCASE
Volume 20: Homelands.

Smoggy. Sprawling. Superficial. There are many reasons
not to like LA. As a non-driver, my last memory of trying to get to
Santa Monica from Los Angeles a few years ago involved asking my
Hollywood hotel concierge how to take the bus there, only to be met
with a facial expression of such genuine concern, disapproval and
pity that I might as well have asked him where to score crystal
meth. As I approached the second hour of being stuck on a bus on a
traffic-choked highway, I realised why.

Thankfully, getting from Hollywood to downtown Santa Monica
during my latest trip was as easy as piling onto a new Expo Line
train for an air-conditioned 30 minutes. This game-changing – and
long overdue – extension to the LA Metro, which opened in 2016, has
made the slice of paradise that is Santa Monica suddenly accessible
to traffic-fearing Angelenos and visitors alike.

Santa Monica is a city in its own right – part of the county,
but not the city of LA – and as cities go, it seems to have it all.
Yes there are other neighbourhoods that are as upscale and
manicured, Brentwood and Malibu spring to mind, but Santa Monica
has a character all of its own.

It’s so left-wing that locals refer to it as “the people’s
republic of Santa Monica”. Plastic bags are banned, and it’s now
illegal to build a home here that is not carbon-neutral. It has
miles of public beaches, hikeable mountains to the north,
super-cool So-Cal architecture (its many celebrity residents
include the architect Frank Gehry), top-rated schools, parks and
public services as well as a famous pier. No wonder it also has the
most expensive rent in the county. For this trip, instead of
speeding around LA sightseeing (the Hollywood sign is overrated), I
decided to stay in Santa Monica to try to experience what it’s like
to call this place home.

When the painter David Hockney moved to LA in 1964 he set up his
studio in Santa Monica, and the clean lines, wide streets and
aquamarine swimming pools inspired a whole new phase in his work.
He described the place as his “promised land”, and on my first
morning – wandering around the blocks nearest the beach (yes,
people actually walk) – I quickly come to understand how the light
and space here can open the eye to new ways of seeing. Baby-blue,
Baywatch-style lifeguard huts hover over the seemingly endless
stretch of vanilla beach populated by surfers in half stripped-down
wetsuits. Longboarders and cyclists cruise down the bike paths
alongside power-walkers in bikinis and small dogs on skateboards.
Only in California

If neighbouring Venice is the naughty little sister (you’ll
smell the legal marijuana and spot the street art as soon as you
walk south down the boardwalk), then Santa Monica would be the
40-something former surfer who has swapped his bongs for green
smoothies and beach yoga. Speaking of the latter, my hotel – called
Casa Del Mar – offers sunrise classes. And even if I’m only awake
because of jet lag, I still feel smug unfurling my mat on the sand
the next morning, clocking the famous Santa Monica ferris wheel
under my armpit during the downward dog.

Perched right on the sand,
Casa Del Mar
might just be the best-located hotel in town.
Built in 1926 as a beach club for Hollywood A-listers, the design
is California meets the Mediterranean, with mosaics on the ceiling,
plates on the walls and plants everywhere. The rooms minibars have
sachets of vitamins as well as bath bombs that help to combat

Right next door is Casa’s sibling hotel,
Shutters on the Beach
(the two properties are owned by a pair
of brothers). Here the nicest rooms have balconies so close to the
shore that you can practically lean over and build a sandcastle.
They all come with a copy of The Old Man and The Sea, and are
filled with the kind of seaside tchotchkes that you’d expect
Gwyneth Paltrow to have in her beach house – conch shells, bottles
filled with sand and storm lanterns.

A local chef and restaurateur called Rafaelle Lunetta loves
Shutters so much that he got married there. I meet him for brunch
at his light and airy diner Lunetta All Day, where the
floor-to-ceiling windows have been designed to screen out the
traffic and reveal a view of the palm trees – a metaphor for life
in Santa Monica if ever there was one. Rafaelle is tanned, with a
salt-and-pepper goatee and the kind of insouciant vibe that you’d
expect from a former pro surfer. When I say he loves this town so
much that he grew up here and got the T-shirt, I mean that he is
literally wearing a long-sleeve navy T-shirt with a Santa Monica
logo on it.

Over a savoury grain bowl of stir-fried wheat berries, freekah,
farro, marinated greens, blistered red onions and a perfectly
poached egg, Rafaelle tells me what makes Santa Monica so special.
“There’s such a strong little community of residents here, and
we’re very protective of our city. No one wants to see a tour bus
parked in front of Palisades Park,” he says, referring to the
pristine patch of green filled with roses, palm trees and chess
boards that runs parallel to the sea. “At the end of the day we’re
a close-knit beach town. Everybody is into cycling, surfing, yoga
and paddleboarding. Where else can you play tennis on the beach? I
tell all my employees that they need to jump into the ocean at
least once a day.”

LA is known for being health-conscious and fitness-obsessed, but
Santa Monica takes it to the next level. In the 1930s this is where
Muscle Beach was based, before Arnie and the bodybuilders moved it
to Gold’s Gym in Venice. If you stroll up the sand from Shutters
towards the pier then you’ll spot the plaque marking the original
site, along with some modest gym bars now used on Saturdays by a
troop of acroyoga enthusiasts.

During the 1970s Jane Fonda opened her first aerobics studio in
Santa Monica. In the decades since, all manner of
pilates-barre-boxing-core-TRX trends have taken root here. At
health-food cafés like Kreation, pipettes of chlorophyll are
dispensed into water as standard, and at bars like Misfit they
serve kombucha on tap alongside craft beers. On Second Street alone
I walk past a SoulCycle studio, an Equinox gym, and four boutique
yoga studios, all interspersed with paleo cafes and juiceries.

In the changing rooms after a reformer class at Mighty Pilates
on Montana Avenue, I get chatting to Lindsey Simcik. In true LA
fashion she’s an actress, singer, model, podcast host and SoulCycle
instructor, and has the kind of abs that would make it criminal to
wear anything other than a crop-top. We head a few doors down to
Beaming Organic, where I order a”bootie-burn smoothie” (whole
grapefruit and pineapple, coconut nectar, bee pollen and chilli
flakes). “I can’t think of many places in Santa Monica where you
couldn’t wear workout clothes,” says Lindsey, when I compliment her
on her LuluLemons.

Lindsey and her podcast co-host Krista tell me I have to check
out YogaHop (yoga set to hip-hop music), Shape House (an urban
sweat lodge frequented by the Kardashians), and the Santa Monica
Stairs (the gruelling coastal steps that are loved by Hugh
Jackman). Conversation soon turns to dating in the city and an app
called Raya, which is loved by LA’s celebrities and influencers.
“People are calling it ‘Tinder for illuminatis’,” jokes

It’s particularly apt that we’re talking about apps, because
Santa Monica – or “Silicon Beach” as it’s been dubbed – is becoming
the next tech hub. Tinder, Snapchat, Yahoo, Google and YouTube all
have offices here, and you’re now as likely to encounter start-ups
as you are surf shops. While having dinner at Cassius – a busy
French-Asian spot with grilled pig’s tail and jellyfish salad on
the menu -I wind up talking to Patrick Coyne. Patrick moved here in
2013 to launch Black Tuxedo, an online suit rental company
(although he’s dressed in the official start-up uniform of skinny
jeans, a black T-shirt and Converse). He tells me that it’s not
uncommon for tech companies here to give employees beach cruisers
instead of parking spots, and his own office in downtown Santa
Monica has a taco truck as well as a doggy daycare.

“Unlike Silicon Valley, the culture here is that you get your
work done, then you go to the beach,” he says. “The brightest
talent in the industry all want to move here now -it’s a better
lifestyle.” Patrick tells me that the tech-set tend to congregate
at Bungalow on a weeknight – an actual wooden bungalow set up in
the grounds of the Fairmont Hotel. When we cycle there for a
nightcap (on one of his office beach cruisers) it feels more like a
packed-out living room than a bar. There are wicker lamps, Mexican
blankets on the wall and comfy sofas. Hendrix is playing over the
speakers. We order a jug of their “bitchin’ sangria”, made with
pisco and berries from the local farmer’s market and watch the
Silicon Beach-sters shoot pool.

Waking up to another morning of Hockney skies makes it easy to
shake off the pisco haze. I walk from Shutters to a Box Union
class, where I upper-cut my punchbag to the soundtrack of Missy
Elliot and TLC. Endorphins rocketing, I meet up with my
film-producer friend Guy, who’s over from London to surf, and to
scope out a job in the movies. We share the signature “munchies”
breakfast burrito and the sea-salted caramel iced lattes at Dogtown
Coffee. This used to be the site of the Zephyr Surf Shop, made
famous by the legendary Seventies skater crew the Z-Boys. Barefoot
bros trailing boards still come here for their cold-brews

Unlike car-dependent LA, Santa Monica’s bike-share scheme, as
well as the prevalence of Ubers, means that it’s possible to base
yourself here and not ever need four wheels. However, Guy has hired
a silver convertible for the week, and as we glide around listening
to The Cure we quickly realise that only tourists have cars like
this (the locals are all in blacked-out Audis).

When we turn on to the freeway we drive past a man holding up a
sign saying “Anything Green Helps”. It’s not clear if he means
wheatgrass shots, bud, or “greenback” dollar bills. In Santa Monica
there’s a good chance of it being all three.

The Lowdown

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