By Juliet Pennington
The words on the arched neon sign that stretches across the ramp accessing the Santa Monica Pier may be misleading, but it is universally recognizable nonetheless.
The West Coast landmark is no longer a “Yacht Harbor,” as the sign suggests, but it is a historical, cultural and recreational destination that is turning 100 years old in September.
SANTA MONICA PIER TURNS 100
To mark the milestone, the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation – a non-profit agency that oversees the preservation of the iconic location – has planned a yearlong celebration, including, on September 9, a party on the Pier, with an over-the-top fireworks display that will illuminate the sky above the Pacific Ocean.
Entertainment will be provided by everything from theater troupes and musicians to contortionists, organizers said – and the public can take part for free.
“It’s important to us that the centennial celebration is open to anyone and everyone who wants to join in on the fun,” said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Pier oversight group, which was formed after two severe storms in 1983 destroyed the western end of the Pier and raised questions about the viability of the landmark’s future.
PACIFIC PARK RIDES
In addition to this and other festivities, visitors can enjoy the enduring Pacific Park rides – including the newly built, energy-efficient Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and the carousel featured in the hit 1973 movie The Sting, which co-starred Robert Redford. (Redford, who grew up in Santa Monica, is involved with Pier preservation efforts and wrote the forward to the recently released James Harris book, Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.)
The Pier, which is visited by more than 4 million people a year, also features weekly classic movie screenings, concerts, and the seasonal “Twilight Dance Series,” held at sunset on the Pier on Thursday nights. The Trapeze School New York, which offers aerial acrobatic classes, opened on the Pier last year and has been a “big hit” with visitors, said Franz-Knight.
“I tried it and wow, what an experience,” he said. “I learned I could do things that I never imagined, like back flips and hanging from my knees.”
PERRY’S BIKE RENTALS
One of the coolest places on the Pier is Perry’s Bike Rentals. For $8 an hour, visitors can rent bikes and meander along the Pier, or traverse the zig-zag ramp down to the 22-mile South Bay Bicycle Trail, a paved beachfront route that is heavenly. Perry’s – which has satellite bike shops and cafes along the coastline trail – also offers guided tours that are so interesting (especially for Hollywood movie buffs!) that you almost forget you’re getting a workout in the process. Lucky visitors will get owner Richard Chacker as their guide. The tan and fit history/trivia buff – who looks considerably younger than his actual age – is charismatic, entertaining, and chock full of interesting information about Santa Monica.
SANTA MONICA PIER AQUARIUM
Located below the Pier at ocean level is the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which offers educational programs, activities and special events dedicated to marine conservation, pollution prevention, and environmental education. There are numerous exhibits featuring marine life indigenous to the Santa Monica Bay, including a shark, string ray and octopus tank. The aquarium was in the news in February when an octopus managed to disassemble a valve in his tank and flood the aquarium with some 200 gallons of seawater.
On the beach next to the Pier are volleyball courts where Olympic athletes have trained and farther south is the original Muscle Beach, which has been featured in many films and is where Jack LaLanne and other famous bodybuilders trained. The recently refurbished open-air gym boasts workout equipment including parallel bars, chin-up bars, rings and a jungle gym.
For those preferring a mental workout, just south of Muscle Beach along Ocean Front Walk is Santa Monica’s International Chess Park. It features permanent chess tables that are free and open to the public – and a life-size chessboard.
And while there is plenty to do on and around the Pier, the city of Santa Monica – just 8.3 square miles – has plenty of other offerings for locals and visitors alike.
Palisades Park, a scenic cliff-top park set on 25 acres overlooking the Pacific, is a relaxing place to hang out. (A word of advice – especially for those with children: Homeless people sometimes congregate there and some of the language and behavior that might be observed is objectionable.)
Views from the miles of trails in the Santa Monica National Mountains Recreation Area are astonishing, and a visit to the new Santa Monica Historical Society Museum – and its interactive exhibits – is fun and inexpensive (admission is $5 for adults, $2 for students and seniors, and free for children 12 and under).
THIRD STREET PROMENADE
One of the most popular places to visit in Santa Monica is the Third Street Promenade, an open-air pedestrian boulevard with an eclectic mix of restaurants, funky boutiques, movie theaters and nightclubs. Street performers keep passersby entertained and celebrity sightings are a given. (I spotted Luke Perry from the 1990s TV show Beverly Hills 90210, strolling by on a recent visit, as well as actor Eddie Velez from White Chicks.)
Kids especially like the large, ivy-covered dinosaur fountains strategically placed in the middle of the boulevard.
Shopping enthusiasts don’t want to bypass Montana Avenue, a quaint, tree-lined street that features upscale, one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes. The trendy R&D Kitchen is a favorite with locals and the frozen yogurt at Pinkberry is out of this world. Also on Montana Avenue is Patty’s Pizza, where I had one of the best slices of cheese pizza ever (thin crust, lots of cheese … yum).
My only complaint about Montana Avenue was that I didn’t have more time to spend there, although I guess it was for the best, as I managed to do a fair amount of damage in the credit card department during the short time I was there. Several of the stores offered more than just items for purchase.
Il Primo Passo is an upscale shoe boutique that offers after-hours gatherings for everything from bridal showers to bachelorette parties. Groups of up to10 are served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and can get massages, makeovers, psychic readings, and “diva walking lessons” taught by a drag queen. The after-hours shoe soiree is “very popular,” said owner Beth Whiffen. “Some women come for a specific occasion, like an engagement party, but others like to just have a fun girls’ night out.”
Also on Montana Avenue is the Aero Theater, which shows an interesting array of classic movies.
MORE THINGS TO DO
Some other must-see and -do sights and activities in Santa Monica include visiting one or more of the city’s three farmers’ markets, gallery grazing at more than 75 museums and galleries (check out Bergamot Station, which boasts more than 40 contemporary galleries), renting a poolside cabana at The Viceroy – another celebrity hangout – eating at Real Food Daily, a wonderful, tasty organic vegetarian restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard, and getting a cupcake (try the Meyer lemon raspberry) at Vanilla Bake Shop on Wilshire Boulevard.
THE SHERATON DELFINA
There is a wide variety of lodging options in Santa Monica. I stayed in three different hotels: The Sheraton Delfina, which is four blocks from the coastline, has recently been refurbished and is more affordable than some of the other hotels closer to the ocean. Rooms start at $239, but better deals can be found online. Visit SheratonDelfina.com for more information.
THE OCEANA SANTA MONICA
The Oceana Santa Monica doesn’t look too impressive from the outside. But looks can be deceiving and this hotel, perched atop a bluff overlooking the ocean, is a great place to stay. The 70 rooms and suites are bright, airy and comfortable, the staff helpful and courteous. Rooms start at $325 a night, depending on the season.
THE FAIRMONT MIRIMAR
The Fairmont Mirimar, located on Wilshire Blvd. at the corner of Ocean Ave., has 300 guest rooms and suites, including those in the 10-story Ocean Tower (great views of the Pacific) and in the six-story Palisades wing. For a truly indulgent experience, stay in one of the 32 secluded garden bungalows. Nestled among tropical flowers, palm trees and tranquil waterfalls, the well-appointed bungalows have hardwood floors and French doors that open onto private patios near the pool. Rooms at the Fairmont Mirimar start at $319 a night and bungalows start at $459 a night. For more information, visit Fairmont.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Juliet Pennington is a freelance journalist who lives in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. She can be reached at Juliet at JohnnyJet.com (replace the “at” with an “@”).