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Thursday 8 December 2016

Travel: California dreaming by the Pacific Ocean

Thinking of next year's ideal sun-drenched holiday? Go west to the playground of Santa Monica, writes Mark Evans

santa monica1
santa monica1

FROM sea to shining sea, the US National Anthem goes. And those Pilgrim Fathers stepping foot on Plymouth Rock - and their pioneering descendants - left the best to last when they reached the glittering ocean and shining sands of southern California.

You mightn't have heard of Santa Monica, but you've definitely seen it. It's the end of the road in the continental United States. The place where the famous Route 66, all the way from Chicago, grinds to a halt. Its historic pier and Ferris wheel is where Forrest Gump finally decided to stop jogging. It's where Michael Douglas's character shot his brains out in Falling Down. It's where the first great whites landed in the classic movie Sharknado.

Voted one of the top 10 beach cities in the world, Santa Monica's just a half-hour drive after touchdown at Los Angeles International Airport. Grab your bags and you can be on the boardwalk in the afternoon looking down on the crashing waves of the Pacific.

South Cal is the home of funky lifestyles and sports - the original Muscle Beach, where big guys pump iron - is just off the pier, where I picked up my bike from rental store Blazing Saddles to take in a bit of the South Bay Bicycle Trail, at 22 miles the longest oceanfront beach path in the world.

The views here are stunning - the celebrity playground of Malibu is to your right, with the sands stretching down to Palos Verdes in the distance to the left. Cycling from Santa Monica to nearby Venice Beach, with LA Woman or California Girls on the headphones, passing by surfers, rollerbladers and Baywatch-type bodies, is not on many 'things to do before you die' lists. It should be.

ba a380
ba a380

Cycling builds up an appetite, and that's the genius of things around here. Forget sambos and Tayto on Dollymount, you don't have to leave the beach to eat well in these parts. Back on the Beach Cafe (www. backonthebeachcafe.com) is totally funky with great breakfast/brunch favourites, including a few local delicacies including chicken chorizo and eggs ($14) or breakfast burritos ($13). Or just grab a quick, cheap snack with bagels at $2.50 washed down with a coffee or juice.

The LA region (Santa Monica is its own city, surrounded by upscale Beverly Hills and Marina Del Rey) is sprawling, but the locality here is nice and compact, the one area where you don't need a car to get around. I started to ease into the laid-back, healthy scene with a kale juice from Nektar, on Second Street, for a spot of shopping.

A block away is Third Street Promenade (www.3rdstreetpromenade.com), a long pedestrianised street that's a shopper's paradise: Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, and scores of individual stores. The big drawback is the dollar, which is slowly getting better, and you'll have to drive if you want a huge outlet mall. But if it's normal main street chains, at prices still much lower than back home, you'll be happy.

fairmont hotel santa monica
fairmont hotel santa monica

And Third Street is the perfect place for people watching - a kind of Grafton Street, only with dazzling sunshine and no litter. Its crowing glory is the mall (www. santamonicaplace.com), with a host of rooftop restaurants and wine bars.

You can even cook your own food here, and I tried my hand at Italian cuisine at a cookery school (www.thegourmandiseschool.com).Classes start at $85 for a few hours in a massive kitchen with an expert chef (our French chef could even turn me into a dab hand), and I learned how to make cheese (easier than you think) and fresh pasta (a little trickier, but not much). Within the space of an hour or two, you'll have a feast of your own making, and a smug sense of accomplishment!

If you're not a fan of your own cooking, head back to the beach. If you want to indulge yourself, hire a beach butler - yup, complete with suit and bow tie - to reserve your sun loungers, deliver your drinks and take your food orders, while all you have to do is slop on some suntan lotion. The service, available from www.perryscafe.com, costs $50 a head without food, or $100 with the works, but it's worth it for a full afternoon of decadence.

Mark Evans santa monica
Mark Evans santa monica

Whatever's funky or new usually has its origins in California - whether it be strands of yoga, keep fit or nutrition. Now you can add circus training to the list.

Right beside the funfair on the pier, you'll find the latest craze as you learn to trapeze in the space of a few hours. Having an abiding fear of heights, and hatred of circuses, I dreaded this. You get strapped in, climb high (very high) up a ladder and peer over the safety net, which seems a very long way down. After a few bungled attempts, I did manage to dangle upside down - albeit for a microsecond or two - so anyone can do it. Check out http://losangeles.trapezeschool.com

Santa Monica is the ideal family holiday place - it's safe and friendly, big enough to be interesting, small enough for getting around, and the beach, and seafood restaurants like The Lobster, are fabulous. Throw in the amusements on the pier and you're on to a winner.

mark evans santa monica
mark evans santa monica

There's plenty of nightlife too, and the Bungalow (www.thebungalows.com) is the hottest place in town. Which was handy, as it adjoined my hotel, the Fairmont. Long queues develop to get into the beach bar/club so arrive early. It's full of the beautiful people, but has the added advantage of having the area's most famous happy hour. And if you want to live the high life, the nearby Shangri-La does rooftop dining and drinking at Suite 700, but get there on time to catch the beautiful Pacific sunsets.

As a base, I enjoyed the Fairmont Hotel - just three minutes' walk from Third Street, and even less to the ocean. The pool area is chilled out, the spa and gym are enormous and the rooms are American-style massive.

And after a night on the tiles, get to Sunday brunch for an omelette and hangover-easing Bloody Mary at the Fairmont. Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a regular, and likes it so much he says "I'll be back" each time. I second that, Arnie.

mark evans santa monica
mark evans santa monica

Mark flew from Dublin to London Heathrow's Terminal 5, which is handily the departure terminal for the twice-daily flights to LA. Even better, you'll get to fly on the double-decker A380 (catch stunning views of Las Vegas along the way). Inflight entertainment will eat up the 11-hour flight time, with a range of movies and cool 3D maps of your route and what's below. Fares from Dublin to LA start from €538.67 including taxes, charges and fees. For info/bookings, log on to www.ba.com or contact your local travel agent. Check the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows website (www.fairmont.com/santa-monica) for offers, or ask about packages with your travel agent. For destination info, see www.santamonica.com

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