Planning our most recent trip to Southern California, my kids envisioned a classic white-sand beach with the Pacific Ocean sparkling blue-green beyond and a gentle white-fringed surf they could jump in to their heart's content. It was ridiculously easy for us to fulfill that fantasy with a lazy afternoon at Santa Monica State Beach (off the Pacific Coast Hwy.). What's not to like? Even on a summer Sunday, this wide strand was blissfully uncrowded; restrooms, yes, tacky food stands, no. We could even bicycle up here on the paved beach path from funky Venice Beach, where the vibe is edgier but the sand and surf not nearly so nice. Santa Monica Beach has big parking lots and nearby cafes. It's one of those cases where hunting for the exotic is a waste of time: Santa Monica Beach is easy to get to, free, and sparkling clean, an ideal place for a quintessential California day at the beach.
Just south of the beach you can visit the Santa Monica Pier, Ocean Avenue at the end of Colorado Avenue (tel. 310/458-8900; www.santamonicapier.org), one of the last of Southern California's vintage seaside piers. The Santa Monica Pier evokes the area's 19th-century seaside resort days, long before Los Angeles became La-La Land. Built in 1908 for passenger and cargo ships, the wooden wharf is now home to seafood restaurants and snack shacks, a touristy Mexican cantina, and a gaily colored turn-of-the-20th-century indoor wooden carousel (which Paul Newman operated in The Sting). A small amusement area perched halfway down, Pacific Park (tel. 310/260-8744; www.pacpark.com), hearkens back to the granddaddy pier amusement park in California, Pacific Ocean Park; this updated version has a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and other rides, right on the ocean's edge. Anglers head to the pier's end to fish, and nostalgia buffs to view the photographic display of the pier's history. This is the last of the great pleasure piers, offering rides, romance, and perfect panoramic views of the bay and mountains.
The fulcrum of a 60-mile beachfront stretching from celebrity-riddled Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Monica is prime real estate, with stylish oceanfront hotels, an artsy atmosphere, and somewhat wacky residents. We never come here without spending at least some time hanging out at the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only outdoor mall lined with shops and restaurants; we dig the Fatburger, an outpost of a legendary Southern California fast-food chain. Might as well go for the total SoCal experience.
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International.
Where to Stay: $$ Hotel Erwin, 1697 Pacific Ave., Venice Beach (tel. 800/786-7789 or 310/452-1111; www.mphotel.com). $$$ Oceana, 849 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (tel. 800/777-0758 or 310/393-0486; www.hoteloceanasantamonica.com).