SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - Beautiful views. Fabulous food. Colourful culture. And a great, chic hotel.
This has always been one of my favourite towns, with truly iconic sights and just about anything you could ask for in a vacation spot.
We started our weekend with a visit to the unbelievable farmers market on Arizona Ave. There were organic vegetable of just about type and size; leeks and limes, Japanese turnips, ripe orange persimmons, giant bush-sized bunches of romaine lettuce, crisp apples and strawberries as red as a shiny fire truck. They put a lot of pride on organic products in Santa Monica, which is kinda the Berkeley of Southern California with its liberal attitudes, and the market was filled with free-range this and no-pesticide that.
I saw one group of persimmons that had a big sign attached saying, "WARNING - NOT ORGANIC," so I guess they relax the rules now and then. They also had eggs from chickens that ate nothing but sunflower sprouts and grass for creamy texture, or so the sign said. I also tried a bit of lotion from a stand called Roots Brothers, which had cremes with names like "Ooh La La" and "But Naked." A great place to wander on a Saturday morning and, I'm told, also on Wednesdays.
We kinda did the opposite end of the spectrum for lunch, chowing down on an "Office Burger" at a place called My Father's Office on Montana Ave., a fun strip with high-end boutiques, precious kids' clothing stores and coffee and juice places (organic, of course). It's a very plain spot with wooden panelling and about 65 types of beer from around the world, with one Belgium Ale going for a whopping $74 (but it's 750 ml if that helps). They also had stuff from Quebec, which is nice, and Japan. I tried a "Pistol Whip'd" pilsner from Anaheim and a Craftsman 1903 pre-prohibition lager from Pasadena, which was outstanding for folks who like beers such as Stella or Heineken.
The burgers are the main thing here, and be forewarned there's no substitions and no mayo or mustard or ketchup. They take excellent cuts of meat and grill the burger nicely and put it on a soft baguette with gruyere and blue cheese, caramelized onions and arugula. It's salty and sweet and utterly wonderul, and I don't like blue cheese at all. The steak frites are simply amazing, too; thin and crisp and perfect. A great, great spot that's been around about 60 years now, and likely has changed much at all.
We had a bit of time at the famous Santa Monica Pier, as well, which has been around for a century or so and features cool restaurants and a small amusement park with a beautiful Ferris Wheel, a small roller coaster and other rides, including a classic Merry Go Round that used in the filming of the movie "The Sting" with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The Ferris Wheel offers stunning views of the coastline up to Malibu and down south to Venice Beach, LAX, the Palos Verdes peninsula and the island of Catalina.
We had an appetizer of creamy burrata cheese and lovely prosciutto on Friday night at a new restaurant on the pier called Al Mare, which I would highly recommend.
We also had a chance to check out the Bergamot Station arts district in east Santa Monica, not far from the 405 Freeway. It's a collection of a couple of dozen small building, like old warehouses, that are now funky galleries. One had great visuals of L.A. freeways and gas stations, while others featured wonderful, romantic reflections of Paris windows or scenes showing a man standing on a bed floating in the sea. Very intriguing stuff. But the best was a kinetic art show at one of the galleries, where you could push a button and watch dominoes fall in a clickety-clack pattern or see a fake human hand drumming its fingers or see weird bits of wires and machines whir and hum. They even had a bit where you turned a crank and got to see a re-enactment of New York Yankee Dave Winfield hitting and killing a seagull at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium in 1983, complete with a front page cover of the Toronto Star from the next day. Hilarious.
Dinner was at a sensational, new and very busy spot on Ocean Ave. called Water Grill, where they have their own distribution service (it's part of a chain of places) and so can bring in fresh seafood from all over the world; pink sea bream from New Zealand, oysters from PEI, sea trout from Norway and farmed bass from Colorado, even. We sat at the window and watched the sunset and the passing parade on the street and were highly entertained.
The place attract a buzzy crowd of beautiful people and features lots of dark wood and old-style lighting and a great bar, plus a raw bar. The wait staff is outstanding and so is the sommelier. But it's all about the fish, and it's unbelievably good. The loup de mer from the Mediterranean was char-grilled and just barely drizzled with lemon and olive oil and the sea bass from South America was out of this world good; seared with fine brown bits along the edges and cooked perfectly with butternut squash gnocchi that was to die for.
We bedded down for two nights at the absolutely marvellous Shore Hotel on Ocean; a new, LEED certified, eco-friendly spot with lots of glass to let in natural light but no stuffy, over-the-top feel. It's sleek and chic and beautiful in the daylight but positively glows at night with a dozen or so small torches and blue lights.
The rooms in the main building all have great views of the ocean, facing due west, and of the beautiful park that runs along the blufftop all along Ocean Ave. The pool is small but very pretty, and there's also a hot tub. The back building has 64 units with city, garden or partial ocean views and similar colour schemes and layouts.
Our room was good-sized, about 350 square feet, with nice orange and blue accents; very sunny and perky. Again, there's floor-to-ceiling windows to let in lots of light and a nice-sized balcony to read the paper or sip on a glass of wine or a coffee. A great bathroom with lots of storage space and a glassed-in rain shower that features a sliding panel where you can raise the "curtain" and peek out at the ocean while you clean up, with or without a friend.
Right next door is Blue Plate Taco, with a great patio and killer margaritas (try the Medicina Latina with ginger) and great pork belly tacos with pineapple salsa. And the dive bar (I mean that in a good way) Chez Jay is two blocks south, with colour galore and good beers on tap. Also close by is the Curious Palate, where they do fabulous egg dishes and lovely French Toast dipped in Grand Marnier with chantilly creme and berries. Over on 2nd St., there's killer eggs with bacon, mushroom and onions and wonderful pumpkin pancakes at Jinky's Cafe.
The Shore Hotel is a perfectly situated spotl a half block from the Santa Monica pier, immediately adjacent to fine restaurants and a block from great shops at Santa Monica Place and the Third Street Promenade. And check out nearby Tongva Park for some beautiful landscaping.
Highly recommended, for sure. As is a weekend in Santa Monica; a quiet respite that's maybe 20 minutes from LAX and a half hour from downtown or Hollywood and, of course, right on the beach.
AIR CANADA BAGGAGE WOES
It wasn't a big deal in the scheme of things, but it's really annoying when the airport or Air Canada loses your bag on a direct flight from Toronto to San Francisco. We arrived in SF a 11:40 p.m. last Thursday night and waited 40 minutes before we found out my suitcase was back at Pearson Airport.
I waited another 20 minutes while I filled out my form and gave it to the Air Canada/airport guy, who had two other customers to deal with. We didn't leave SFO until after 12:30 p.m., which was 3:30 a.m. Toronto time. Exhausting, to say the least.
I gave them all the details about how I was driving the next morning to Santa Monica. They could've put my bag on a flight to LAX Friday morning and I would've had it Friday by noon or at least 5 p.m. But instead, and I don't get this, they sent it to San Francisco, and then it went to Oakland. And then the next day it got on a flight to Los Angeles, and was then delivered by FedEx. We were able to track it only because the Air Canada guy, located a half world away in a call centre, finally volunteered to give my wife the tracking number some 40 minutes into a long conversation about the whereabouts of my bag.
Frustrating. 36 hours without a bag isn't a killer in Los Angeles. But it's annoying. And I don't see why it would've taken so long to get here or why they didn't send it on a more direct route. Or how they managed to leave it and two other bags behind at Pearson in the first place.....
WEST JET ENCORE TO TERRACE B.C.
WestJet Encore's new twice-daily, non-stop service between Vancouver and Terrace, B.C. begins today. Nice for travellers out west, for sure.