Secret Side of Santa Monica Summer

SANTA MONICA, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- It's one of Southern California's largest and most famous beach towns, forming L.A.'s western front and jutting out into the Pacific with its historic Santa Monica Pier.

To the north, the exclusive neighborhoods of Santa Monica Canyon are home to celebrity villas and CEO compounds; in the south its Main Street neighborhoods are home to artists lofts and bohemian yoga compounds.

While many pack it into an afternoon visit while in L.A. or just a trip to the beach during summer, Santa Monica has grown into its own travel destination -- especially for those who know how to avoid the tourist masses.

Santa Monica has a wide variety of overnight options, ranging from historic to boutique chic, but many don't know it has as many five-star hotels as Beverly Hills. The city's most luxurious hotels are directly on the sand, including Hotel Casa del Mar.

Once the city's hottest beach club, it now lures guests with an oceanfront pool, direct beach access -- don't get run over by passing inline skaters and bicyclists -- and hospitality. A cadre of local surfer dude valets offering a "Welcome to Casa del Mar" with each opening of the doors under an iconic brick facade.
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Once the hottest beach club in Santa Monica, Calif., the Hotel Casa del Mar now lures guests with an oceanfront pool.

The California elegance just starts there. A lobby designed by L.A. architect Charles F. Plummer oozes 1920s Hollywood, replete with handpainted tile floors and Art Deco and Moorish design influences. The two-story reception area captures historic Santa Monica unlike any area hotel.

Another appealing Santa Monica hotel experience supplements beachfront location with residential charm: Hotel Oceana. Not really part of a chain, unless you count its Santa Barbara sibling, it's on a residential stretch of Ocean Avenue of Santa Monica Pier fame, on a grassy bluff above the city's main beach. A light-filled lobby is pure California design -- stone floors and cheery pastel walls under a glass atrium, with head-on views of blue Pacific horizon. And the rooms feature bright Palm Springs-meets-Palm Beach decor with touches of a private home: scattered chessboards, Frette sheets and bathroom fixtures by Waterworks. Best of all, the hotel is in walking distance to locally loved Montana Avenue, with its high-end shops and cafes.

Days in Santa Monica are about being active, best experienced atop a rented bike or pair of inline skates and outside the confines of a rental car.

Start your day on a mat at one of the city's vast array of yoga centers. Yogis Anonymous is one of the city's newer donation-based studios, which allow yogis to pay what they can. It attracts a cross-section of students and advanced practitioners. Yoga Works, one of America's leading yoga chains, has its flagship studio on Main Street. With such teachers as Kia Miller and Vinnie Marino, it regularly fills to capacity. Follow up your downward dog with a visit to Planet Raw, where the specialty is veggie cuisine, never cooked above 120 degrees, from raw superstar chef Juliano. He's fed holistic-minded celebs from Lisa Marie Presley to Woody Harrelson.

For those who prefer a more passive morning, the best beaches in Santa Monica for sunbathers and swimmers are to the north and south of town, away from the pier. A short walk down from Hotel Casa del Mar is the Ocean Park entrance to Santa Monica Beach, a favorite of locals and those seeking a decent set of breaks for intro-level surfers. To the north, Will Rogers Beach is home to the new Annenberg Community Beach House, which is in the former estate of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. There's a new swim club and casual cafe there that complement an in-house public art gallery.

Shopping comes in two forms in Santa Monica, namely the big chain boutique retailers such as Zara and Abercrombie & Fitch ( ANF) on the Third Street Promenade, and the smaller one-off retailers of Main Street and nearby Abbott Kinney that take a local to find. The Promenade offers a five-block outdoor pedestrian mall flanked by this year's planned late-summer opening of a renovated Santa Monica Place. Fancier types should seek out Obsolete Gallery on Abbott Kinney, with its spooky-chic curiosities of industrial antiques and custom-made furnishings. It's a hidden secret of L.A. decorators and Hollywood set designers.

By night, Santa Monica comes alive as a culinary destination. Some highlight restaurants: The two-star Michelin-rated Melisse with its formal French menu, or the more playful Ivy at the Shore, which isn't nearly the tabloid trap of its West Hollywood sister eatery. For an even glitzier option -- Victoria Beckham is a regular -- try Via Veneto on Main Street, with its pied-a-terre dining room and regional Piedmont cuisine. It's one of the toughest Saturday-night reservations in the city.

After dinner, check out the Twilight Dance Series on the Santa Monica Pier, with its summertime lineup of weekly outdoor concerts rotating themes of Bollywood artists, Italian pop stars and Rickie Lee Jones every Thursday through Labor Day.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.