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I had opted to stay in Santa Monica when I travelled to California on a recent fly-drive. From here, I figured, I could see most of Los Angeles, before heading inland to stay at Anaheim, to meet The Mouse and his friends. Despite it being part of Greater Los Angeles, if you want to stay in LA, where you stay will probably come down to three neighbourhoods: Hollywood (which despite the heritage is really quite down at heel and grubby); Anaheim (to visit Disneyland) or here.
Judging from what I saw, a large part of the income in Santa Monica itself is based on tourism. Either in the amount of restaurants and cafes and bars there are, and the hotel/motel trade. It strikes me that there isn't really a difference between a hotel and a motel here because from what I saw, they all seem to provide ample parking. We chose to stay at a Days Inn on Santa Monica Boulevard itself as the hotel was reasonably priced but didn't seem tacky from the photos.
Broadly speaking, when it comes to the roads, the Streets run North to South (parallel to the beach) and the Avenues run West to East. Although I'm not the best of navigator's, this did make things easier for me when we were trying to find our way around the neighbourhood in the hire car.
The heart of the town, if that's what you can call it, is the Downtown area. This is from Pacific Coast Highway up to Lincoln Boulevard. The main attraction for tourists, be it shopping, dining out or clubbing is situated around Third Street Promenade, a wide pedestrianised street where you can dine al fresco and people-watch at the same time.
I can't talk about Santa Monica and not mention it's pier. This pier was built in 1909 and in the first building you come to called the Hippodrome Carousel Building, you will find the oldest carousel in the States, dating from 1922. Walk to the end of the pier beyond the usual touristy tatt and you'll come to the big wheel, or Ferris Wheel as the American's call it. You can't go there and not have a ride up in this, you get fantastic views looking up and down the beaches. This is supposedly one of the best locations in LA for watching the sun setting, but we weren't there at nightime, we were too busy tucking into our dinners back at a Third Street Promenade Italian restaurant. You can park on the pier itself at a cost of $8, but we chose to park along the seafront and walk to it.
The beaches themselves are clean and have lovely golden sand. There was a lifeguard on duty the morning that we went there, who has an area marked around him where you aren't allowed to sit. This was presumably to give him clear vision of the sea. I was expecting that this being Los Angeles, home of cosmetic surgery, and this being the beach where they had actually filmed the TV series Baywatch, I would feel out of place and be surrounded by only the most honed and beautiful bodies. I was relieved to find that that wasn't the case at all, it seemed very family friendly judging from the amount of people who had come with their youngsters.
On a more serious note, the only disconcerting thing for me in Santa Monica were the adults we saw begging here, complete with cardboard signs saying why they needed the money. One man we saw whilst we were eating our dinner al fresco in a diner along Third Street had written that he needed $50,000 for an operation. I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable sitting there, after all we were both chowing down on some lovely Italian food without a care in the world, whilst the man not thirty feet from us apparently had nothing to his name and was prepared to sacrifice his dignity to sit on the pavement with a cardboard sign in front of him.
Now, I don't know their personal circumstances, but it's indicitive of a country as big as the US that so many people apparently fall through the net when it comes to health care. I know they have two social healthcare systems in place called Medicaid and Medicare which are meant to cover essential health problems for those who don't have company healthcare plans, but presumably more complex surgery wouldn't be covered. For all it's faults, I've not known anyone to have to pay for the likes of an organ transplant in the UK.
Having spent three days there, and seen most of the other neighbourhoods in LA that we had wanted to see, I would say that Santa Monica is probably one of the nicer areas in the greater LA district that you can stay in. It's nowhere near as expensive as Bel Air or Beverly Hills and less seedy than Hollywood. If you've hired a car, then a short drive of about 6 or 7 miles straight up Santa Monica Boulevard will lead you right to these places for visiting anyway.
The only caution I would advise any travellers is, as when travelling anywhere, you do need to take care if you're out and about after dark. As with a lot of places I've been to in the States, what seems nice and welcoming during the day when it's bustling with people, takes on a different tone after dark. Venice Beach is a prime example of this. Just at the southern end of greater Santa Monica, it is definitely off limits after sunset.
The weather was excellent when we went in July, about 80 degrees with hardly a cloud in the sky and I would imagine that even in Spring or Autumn you would find the weather agreeable. The only potential hazard is the forest fires which spread through parts of LA virtually every year with devastating consequences for locals.
If you're thinking of going to LA at all, I would definitely recommend Santa Monica as a place to visit, or better yet as a place to stay.