An ocean of possibilities in Santa Monica Pedestrians: In this city 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, you can visit beaches, boutiques and restaurants without setting foot in a car.

February 09, 1997|By Amy M. Spindler | Amy M. Spindler,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Here are the usual complaints from friends who have taken quick trips to Southern California: 1. They spent the entire weekend in the car. 2. They never saw the ocean. 3. They didn't spot a single celebrity.

I have often tried to argue away their beliefs, having spent many great weekends there. They remain unmoved. So I recently decided to prove my friends wrong, enjoying a weekend in Santa Monica, 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, without setting foot in a car. On foot, I would force the metropolitan area to live up to its reputation.

This was the plan: Take a cab from the airport to a Santa Monica hotel. Spend three days wallowing in whatever seaside ambience I could get without driving. Then, cab back to the airport. No directional conversations with strangers. No freeways. Never cave in to the car culture of Southern California.

In a metropolitan area famous for not having a center, Santa Monica is quickly becoming one, a district with life beyond its resort reputation. Hip Hollywood is now here in force. Not only are the MGM-United Artists offices, Sony West and the Sundance Institute in Santa Monica, but many independent production companies are, too: Cineville, George Harrison's Handmade Films, Cinergi and Oliver Stone's Ixtlan. Demi Moore and Bruce Willis have offices here, as does Goldie Hawn, as well as the director James Cameron, who hangs out at the coolest chophouse on the beach, Chez Jay.

Fashion insiders have been trying out the Hotel Oceana recently, well situated for keeping their skating-toned bodies in shape.

The Oceana, with its shiplike interior, is on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, with a short walk down a stone pathway leading to the beach, where a four-lane path for biking, in-line skating, jogging or even walking runs 26 miles along Santa Monica Bay from Torrance to Pacific Palisades.

Formerly a family motel, the Oceana was reborn in August after a $4.2 million renovation and now looks like the set for a movie about a hip Hollywood hangout.

Each room has a kitchenette; freezers are stocked with Wolfgang Puck pizzas and other munchies models don't touch; and most rooms open onto a pretty pool or look out at the beach. Everything has been decorated in Cote d'Azur-meets-Ikea style, with bright Adirondack chairs, mattress-ticking striped couches, faux-Miros printed on cloth as bed headboards.

Noisy room

Wolfgang Puck room service was the deciding factor, and we stayed there the first night. But the money spent getting that breezy look hadn't extended to soundproofing the rooms. The hotel is on the nonbeach side of Ocean Avenue, and the traffic is nonstop, cars blocking out waves, exhaust riding on the breeze. Cars also interfere with the view.

Fortunately, we had come to walk, not sleep. Santa Monica has three shopping strips, each with its own character. The Oceana is closest to the chic Montana area, which starts at Seventh Street, about seven blocks from the ocean.

With the exception of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, the highest rent district in Los Angeles is North of Montana, and the shops there cater to the very rich, who treat Rodeo Drive stores like the Gap and are willing to drive their pristine Range Rovers or Humvees only a few blocks. Montana is lined with all too preciously named antiques stores: Room With a View, for instance, or Prince of Wales.

We started here, but not wanting to cart home a brocade English couch, made our way across Third Street to the Third Street Promenade, a shopping strip about four blocks away. To get a feel for the split personality of Los Angeles, a visit to all three of Santa Monica's shopping strips is necessary.

Third Street has a little of the seedy splendor of Sunset Strip. And Main Street, two blocks away from the mall at the end of the Third Street Promenade, is full of the old art deco magic of the city, the mood that made Raymond Chandler spin a dark romance about this area, which he called Big Bay in "Farewell, My Lovely" in 1940.

"Trouble," the chief of police said in the book, "is something our little city don't know much about, Mr. Marlowe. Our city is small but very, very clean. I look out of my western windows and I see the Pacific Ocean. Nothing cleaner than that, is there?"

If the chief looked out his window in recent months, he'd see a little trouble: the vans of every major television network covering the O. J. Simpson civil trial at the Santa Monica courthouse.

And the chief couldn't have imagined the Third Street Promenade, where we went next, with street musicians and a man offering fortunetelling from his psychic cat.

Star spotted

We spotted our first celebrity on the promenade: Michael J. Pollard from "Bonnie and Clyde," looking ready for his cameo in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Our appetites for Hollywood kitsch stimulated, we did the only thing possible. We headed to Schatzi on Main for dinner, the restaurant owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When you make reservations at Schatzi, the maitre d' calls you darling.

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