Cruising Santa Monica

A family-friendly trip through Southern California

A sunset sail in Marina del Rey. (Photos courtesy of Santa Monica Tourism Board)

By Madeline Scheier

Sometimes, you just have to grab the kids and go. As a busy family of four and no stranger to the daily grind of work and school, a rare week with no classes or business meetings was just what we needed to get away. With warmer weather in mind, we set our sights on the West Coast, specifically the areas of Santa Monica and Los Angeles. We decided to forgo the typical kid-friendly destinations like Disney and Universal Studios in order to check out the other charms Southern California has to offer.

After fueling up for a day that promised a lot of walking, we headed west from our hotel in Marina del Rey and walked along the marina until the stunning Venice Beach Pier came into view. There, the view of the Pacific Ocean is truly amazing as the water, mountains and clouds merge together like a gorgeous postcard.

It’s not just the scenic views that make the pier unlike anything else. Venice Beach takes people-watching to new heights. The beach welcomes surfers, selfie-taking tourists, rollerbladers and people from all walks of life. Inclusivity is something ingrained in the sand. Nowhere is more exemplary of that than at Muscle Beach, which got its start in the late 1930s when a young couple began lifting weights on the beach. Soon other exercise enthusiasts, gymnasts, weightlifters and bodybuilders followed suit. Today, Muscle Beach draws quite an eclectic crowd.

Santa Monica Pier (Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Tourism Board)

A three-mile walk later, we arrived at the landmark Santa Monica Pier and Pacific Park. Slightly more upscale than funky, laid-back Venice, the Santa Monica Pier is home to the iconic Pacific Wheel. Bright and commanding, it is the world’s first solar-powered ferris wheel and truly the star of Pacific Park. If the ferris wheel looks familiar, it should. It’s been featured in more than a thousand movies, television shows, commercials, music videos and ads. The nearby Third Street Promenade is a worthy stop. The open-air pavilion is a hub of outdoor shopping and dining that comes alive with street performers.

Check out the Venice Canals when you’re visiting Venice Beach. The canals were the brainchild of New Jersey businessman turned LA transplant, Abbot Kinney, who purchased the land to build the canals in 1905. It’s a little bit off the beaten path but promises to be unlike any other neighborhood you’ve ever visited. The canals are tucked away among homes and connected by footpath bridges. Each one has a different personality, and the homes are unique, as well. We self-toured and afterwards hiked over to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, (named after the businessman). The mile-long strip is home to trendy restaurants, bars, art galleries, ice cream spots and funky boutiques. It’s very hip with plenty of vegan spots and food trucks (that our 20-something sons enjoyed) that line the street. At Salt & Barrel, an ice cream shop that whips up its flavors by hand with local ingredients, we waited on a line that wrapped around the corner. I had Chocolate Gooey Brownie, and it was worth the wait.

Kayaking on Marina del Rey’s Mother’s Beach is a great opportunity to relax and bond with nature. At this peaceful 12-acre lagoon, Daniel from Pro SUP Shop set us up with kayaks and gave us a push off. You can also choose to do stand-up paddle boarding. Kayaking along the water mid-morning was serene, as we watched the boats come and go and kept our eyes peeled for the sea lions that hang out at the dock. We didn’t see any that morning, but we heard they’re regulars and they enjoy sunbathing on the docks and diving in and out of the water.

Catch some waves. (Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Tourism Board)

We had to include some touristy activities so we ubered over to The Hollywood Walk of Fame where the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre holds court. It was renamed TCL Chinese Theatre in 2013, but still resembles the glamorous and glitzy theater that opened in 1927. The 15 blocks that encompass the Hollywood Walk of Fame (a good starting point is at the Ghirardelli Shop at 6834 Hollywood Blvd.) were teeming with tourists so we joined the crowd, checking out the stars at our feet. It was fun to see the Hollywood stars from our childhood days (Lucille Ball), teen years (Phil Collins) and present day (Billy Joel). The whole scene is truly a spectacle with all walks of life, including street performers, tourists and even some creative entrepreneurs who will personalize a Hollywood Walk of Fame star with your name. It’s like Times Square; you must visit at least once.

High up in the mountains, at 1,134-feet is the beautiful Griffith Observatory, which sits atop Griffith Park. It’s the most-visited public observatory in the world (1.5 million visitors a year) and admission is free. At the top of Griffith Observatory is the absolute best vantage point to see the world-famous Hollywood sign and take in the enormity of what lies below: Los Angeles. It’s open until 10 p.m. for night-time stargazing. To get to the observatory, start out at the bottom of Griffith Park. We chose to hike the Boy Scout Trail, which hugged the mountain on one side and the other offered a dizzying view of Los Angeles. Be careful hiking up, there’s no guard rail to protect you from tumbling down. After the 20-minute hike, we were rewarded with the beautiful observatory, which includes a state of the art, immersive planetarium, free telescope viewing, a mountain-top café, and endless jaw-dropping grounds to stroll around. Check out the original 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope. It’s located on the rooftop dome of the building and best for nighttime viewing, more than seven million people have put their eye to the sky.

What is In-N-Out Burger’s secret, and why is it such an LA thing that so many famous actors and actresses admit to scarfing down a burger after the Emmys or Oscars? We were determined to find out. Lucky for us, there was an In-N-Out Burger a few miles away from our hotel in Marina del Rey. We skipped the drive-thru and dined inside the retro-looking shop (made to look like the originals, which were founded in 1948). We ordered our double burgers and fries “animal style.” Animal style consists of lettuce, tomato, pickle, cheese, tons of grilled onion and extra spread, which is a special sauce that tastes like Thousand Island dressing. If you want to feel like a true LA local, make a detour for In-N-Out and order up some fries and double burgers, animal style.

California is family-friendly. (Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Tourism Board)

One day, we rented a car and took a road trip to Santa Barbara. Tucked away about 90 miles from Santa Monica is the idyllic city named “The Queen of Missions.” Sitting pretty between the mountains and the sea, history-filled Santa Barbara boasts Spanish Colonial and Mexican-era adobe structures. Check out the landmark 1,950 foot Stearns Wharf (California’s oldest working wharf and the world’s longest deep-water wharf between San Pedro and San Francisco), as it stretches out over the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the pier, you can dine at several restaurants and enjoy a view that goes on for miles. Put your sneakers on as Santa Barbara is a walking town with more than 225 shops and a myriad of restaurants. History buffs can check out the Reagan Ranch Center for all things President Ronald Reagan. You can’t touch it, but you can visit an important piece of world history—a huge 5,000-pound section of the Berlin Wall, which was torn down almost 30 years ago, sits just inside the Reagan Ranch Center. Admission is free.

About a 15-minute Uber ride from our hotel in Marina del Rey, we hit up Manhattan Beach, which is a beautiful community of shops, restaurants and pristine beaches. Manhattan Beach is rumored to be the new Malibu for spotting celebs. We admired the gorgeous multi-million dollar homes that are nestled practically on top of the ocean and caught a stunning sunset. These lucky folks have a front-door view of the Pacific Ocean 24/7.

Madeline Scheier is a freelance writer and New Yorker writing about travel.

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