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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Schwarzenegger's movie posters -- including one from "Pumping Iron" -- adorn the walls of this big restaurant.

Breakfast on this strip is a local ritual. Besides Schatzi's, there is the quaint Omelette Parlor, the friendly Joe's Main Street Diner and Noah's Bagels, which has a line outside starting at 8 a.m.

Bikes and skates can be rented all along the beach, all year. My two-hour skate on Saturday morning took me past surfers

washing their boards in public showers, groups of people meditating, nannies teaching children to ride bikes, sleeping drunks, a beach volleyball game, a woman skating behind her stroller. It took me to Venice, past the squalid Muscle Beach, and dozens of cafes and vendors catering to the sandy, sweat-drenched masses.

We had breakfast at Back on the Beach, which is open for breakfast at sunup and dinner at sundown. Tables and chairs are stuck into the sand, and lots of families bring children, who dig and run around outside while the parents eat. This is the place to get the sort of hearty egg-pancake-bacon meal you work so hard to work off. Shutters on the Beach, another fairly new and trendy hotel, also has a breakfast room, with fancier fare (corned beef hash or spit-roasted chicken or watercress salads) but with the same good view of everyone else working out while you're eating away.

Pier renovated

From anywhere on the beach, the Santa Monica pier, built in 1909, is visible. The city just put $45 million into its renovation, and the center of it all is a nine-story Ferris wheel that rises over the ocean and is said to be the best place to kiss in Los Angeles.

We decided to abandon the Hotel Oceana for a bungalow at the Miramar Sheraton. The Miramar, too, is across from the beach on Ocean Avenue, but we figured that if President Clinton had stayed there 11 times in four years (not that anyone is counting), it must not be as noisy. It isn't. We opted for one of the classic bungalows in the courtyard. The interiors are swank, with big Jacuzzi tubs, lots of mirrors and shiny brass fixtures.

The Miramar estate was built in 1889 by the founder of Santa Monica, John Percival Jones. Greta Garbo lived here in the 1920s. The gardens still have the sumptuous feel of a secluded grand estate.

Hunger dragged us away to Chinois on Main, Wolfgang Puck's famous restaurant, with its Chinese-Japanese-California mix. The food is all served family style, to do away with the plate swapping such cuisine invites.

After lunch, we toured Main Street stores, like Ouchywawa, a hot-sauce specialty shop.

Old movie costumes

Then there is Star Wares, which sells old movie costumes and props. Christian Slater's torn and fake-bloodied sweat shirt from "Broken Arrow" was going for $650. A burned photograph from "A Time to Kill" was $850. Rod Stewart's old shoes were $450.

I went out skating again to prepare for dinner at our favorite restaurant, the Ivy at the Shore. The first Ivy, on Robertson Boulevard, was the setting for the deal-making scene in "Get Shorty." It has buzz and romance and makes you feel as if any minute someone is going to seize you and make you a star. The food is great too: Fred Flintstone-sized prime rib cooked Cajun style, lime chicken and some of the best crab cakes in Los Angeles.

We spent our last morning at the beach. With a red-eye flight out Sunday night, we had enough time to take a long walk and remark on the lack of stress not using a car brought.

I had succeeded in proving my friends wrong on all three counts. (No driving, plenty of ocean, and Michael J. Pollard.)

We did not, however, get the essential area souvenir: a three-picture deal. For that, I'm afraid, you'd need a car.

If you go

Where to stay: Hotel Oceana, 849 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, Calif. 90403. (310) 393-0486, fax (310) 458-1182. Double rooms, including breakfast, start at $215. A one bedroom suite with an ocean view is $245.

Miramar Sheraton Hotel, 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif. 90401; (310) 576-7777, fax (310) 458-7912. Standard doubles range from $200 to $240, bungalows from $260 to $375.

Where to eat: Schatzi on Main, 3110 Main St.; (310) 399-4800. Open for dinner every night, lunch Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday brunch ranges from $6.95 to $14.95. Dinner for two with wine averages about $80.

Chinois on Main, 2709 Main St.; (310) 392-9025. Open seven nights a week for dinner, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for lunch. Lunch for two, about $45 to $50.

Ivy at the Shore, 1541 Ocean Ave.; (310) 393-3113. Dinner for two with wine, between $70 and $100.

vTC Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Ave., (310) 395-1741. Lunch Monday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner seven nights. Lunch for two, $25. Dinner for two with wine, $40 to $50.

Back on the Beach, 445 Pacific Coast Highway; (310) 393-8282. Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to sunset. Breakfast for two, about $15; dinner for two with wine, $30.

Shutters on the Beach, 1 Pico Blvd.; (310) 458-0030. Breakfast for two, about $25.

For more information: Call the Santa Monica Visitors Information Center, (310) 393-7593.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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