Get your money’s worth at this Los Angeles playground

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If the Santa Monica Pier carousel horses could talk, they’d tell you about the time they shared the big screen with Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman or Sandra Bullock. Or how Robert Redford saved their lives. And why Marilyn Monroe was their secret admirer. Here in Los Angeles, star power is everything – and these 44 wooden prancers have been stealing scenes from Hollywood’s finest for longer than any movie veteran.

This year they turn 100, but thanks to some subtle workmanship (it’s Tinseltown after all), they look as fresh as the days Santa Monica native Redford rode them as a kid.

The actor loves the pier so much that during filming The bite here with Newman in 1973, he joined a crusade with local Angelenos to save the historic structure from demolition. They won and a thank you note from the horses remains on display at their historic Hippodrome building – a happy ending in Hollywood.

It’s only US$2 ($3) to ride the carousel, an even more impressive bargain when you consider how many famous fullbacks have graced these saddles. In the 50s and 60s there were apartments above the carousel. A star-studded bohemian community thrived at the racetrack and horses rubbed shoulders with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Herb Alpert and many others as life and art faded to the beat of the Wurlitzer.

My Favorite Story, shared by pier executive director Jim Harris, tells the story of a mysterious woman who frequented the Hippodrome at the time, always watching the carousel alone. Eventually, the operator figured out who was under the wig and sunglasses: Marilyn Monroe. “We think this place was his escape from a turbulent life,” Harris says.

For anyone, famous or not, he adds: “There’s a very special and unique feeling to stepping onto the Santa Monica Pier. It’s a step into another world – a world of rich history, electric energy and endless opportunities for fun.”

We see what he means, an afternoon on the 113-year-old pier. Further from the carousel is Pacific Park, LA County’s only free amusement park. Its 12 rides include the West Coaster roller coaster, the somersaulting Whip and the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel. With an unlimited pass for US$32.95, it’s a day of budget-friendly fun, before you even explore the pier aquarium, trapeze school, arcades, shops and cafes, or to cast a fishing line.

As we gaze down the Southern California coast – Venice to the south, Malibu to the north – from the Ferris wheel’s nine-story high point, Santa Monica’s 22 miles unfold below.

The beach is wide and lovely with its blue and gold views of the Pacific. We ride along a path built right on the sand, on bikes rented from another Santa Monica veteran: Perry’s Cafe and Beach Rentals, purveyor of wheels, good vibes and tasty food since 1977. You can rent skates, rollerblades, boogie boards, surfboards, bikes and more from its various outlets along the shore. At US$10 an hour or US$35 a day (kids: US$8 an hour or US$25 a day), Perry’s bikes are an affordable way to ride.

It is also the only means of transport you will need. Santa Monica is a rarity in Los Angeles – a car-free neighborhood. We stroll between the hotel and the beach, walk through the pretty shops and cafes of Montana Avenue, stroll through the shopping center on Third Avenue, then get on our bikes to go further and faster.

Riding along the beach with the breeze in your hair is so liberating that you could continue to follow the coastline along the 45 kilometer Strand Bike Path, passing the beaches of Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice, Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo.

But it’s just as tempting to stay local, especially if food is your passion. Every Wednesday morning, the Santa Monica Farmers Market (also known as the “Chefs’ Market”) attracts Hollywood and Michelin stars; here a Naomi Watts or Tobey Maguire, there an Alain Giraud or our own Curtis Stone. The market’s cornucopia of local produce stretches for about four large city blocks and as we wander around, mesmerized in equal measure by the beautiful crowd and the edible extravaganza, we graze on our fill of delicious samples.

If it’s a dish on any decent LA menu, chances are the ingredients are from here. And if that menu belongs to one of Santa Monica’s more than 400 restaurants, 15 of which are Michelin-recognized, you’re talking food meters rather than miles. A few hours after admiring the rainbow of cauliflower from the market, we savor it a few blocks away at Citrin restaurant, transformed by chef Josiah Citrin into an exquisite mousseline served with egg caviar.

There’s even more indulgence at stylish spots like Calabra, the lush rooftop bar and restaurant at the Santa Monica Proper Hotel; Sugar Palm, the new and fabulous poolside enclave of the Viceroy Santa Monica with its decadent cabanas and Citrin’s two-star Michelin tasting restaurant, Melisse. Although Santa Monica sings for the kid in everyone, grown-up glamor is never far away.

Multi-generational appeal, accessibility, ease – it all adds up to an alluring mix that makes this Los Angeles playground a thoroughly compelling alternative to nearby Disneyland for a family getaway.

You’ll spend less on your fun, thrills, and escape, gain the added bonus of a big, beautiful California beach, and immerse yourself deeper in the local community.

The Santa Monica Pier shows that Mickey doesn’t have a monopoly on LA magic. Ride this carousel back in time, stroll among these famous ghosts, and watch the lights of the Ferris wheel turn the ocean into a rainbow at night, and you’ll see why this enchanting place has captured so many hearts. Hollywood.

THE DETAILS

FLY

United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles (united.com). Santa Monica is eight miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

STAY

Santa Monica has more than 40 hotels for all budgets. Rooms at the lavish Santa Monica Proper Hotel (properhotel.com), cost from US$800 ($1,250) a night; the charming oceanfront Sea Blue Hotel (seabluehotel.com) from US$280; and the family-friendly Sea Shore Motel (seashoremotel.com) two blocks from the beach from US$120.

AFTER

https://www.traveller.com.au/los-angeles

santamonica.com

Amy Cooper traveled with the help of Santa Monica Travel and Tourism.

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