Santa Monica and Muscle Beach; old Route 66 brings us to the sunny Pacific

Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Ocean and the end of historic Route 66 come together in one pretty picture (photo courtesy of Santa Monica Travel & Tourism).

After more than two-dozen trips to the LA area in several decades, one of our “must stops” is always Santa Monica on the Pacific Ocean, due west of central Los Angeles. I originally discovered the town, at age 14, on a trip with my parents from Ohio – following Route 66 from Chicago all the way to its terminus in Santa Monica.

Explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrilio dropped anchor in 1542 in Santa Monica Bay. In the early 1800s, Mexico divided the area into three land grants covering Santa Monica and surrounding areas. Colonel Robert Baker purchased 38,400 acres in 1872 for $54,000 while his spouse purchased nearby Pacific Palisades for $40,000. Two years later, Nevada Senator John Jones purchased control of the rancho for $462,000, and began to develop the town.

Santa Monica Beach, with Pier in background, is a favorite of both sunworshipers and surfers (photo by Tom Garing).

Our nation’s first ‘interstate’ added to the growth of Santa Monica. The 1946 hit “Get your kicks on Route 66” celebrated historic Route 66 which began in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads created the first Federal Highway by linking existing local, state and national roads.  The result was a winding 2,400 mile highway that began in Chicago, IL and crossed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ended in Santa Monica, CA.

About the same time, Hollywood stars discovered Santa Monica’s charms; Will Rogers purchased 342 acres in 1922 for a horse farm and polo fields for pals Spencer Tracy, Robert Montgomery and Walt Disney.  William Randolph Hurst built a palatial mansion for Marion Davies and Greta Garbo made the city her first US residence. With more families headed west on Route 66; California, with 5.68 million people in 1930, mushroomed to 20 million by 1970; many of the new residents taking the “Mother Road” to Santa Monica!

Ocean Lodge on Ocean Avenue, just blocks from the Santa Monica Pier, is a throwback to the glory days of Route 66.

Old Route 66 ended at the Santa Monica Pier; Ocean Avenue still sports historic motels, like the Ocean Lodge, just a block from the Pier, where new arrivals, could, indeed, “get their kicks on Route 66”! Head east up Santa Monica Boulevard past classy old theaters, the stately Mayfair Residences; here the city’s popular Third Street Promenade crossed the old Mother Road and it retains the character of the city in the 1930s.

Today’s Santa Monica retains its historic and beachfront charm and has stayed current with the times with numerous city upgrades in the last 20-some years. It’s a city with distinct neighborhoods and tourist hot-spots. Here are our favorites:

Santa Monica Pier, Beach and Muscle Beach: Route 66, which brought millions of people to California beginning in the 1920s, ended at the Santa Monica Pier and oceanfront. The pier celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2009 and remains popular with amusement rides, theme park and Ferris wheel and offers the Pacific ocean, sandy beaches, bike path extending both north and south and sunsets to sooth the soul.

Just south down the bike path from the pier is Muscle Beach and the neighboring town of Venice, where you can watch LA’s weightlifters practice their craft right on the beach. Plenty of funky retailers and interesting, reasonable restaurants line the bike and walking trail. You can also drive south on Ocean Avenue, lined with top-level to more economical hotels along the waterfront to reach Venice. Just north, the town of Malibu is home to many of Hollywood’s favorites.

Crowds of locals and visitors begin to gather on the Third Street Promenade, a shopping Mecca (Tom Garing photo).

Downtown Santa Monica and the Third Street Promenade: Just a few blocks to the east of the pier, across Ocean Avenue, you’re in the heart of shopping and dining options anyone will love. Stop for a snack or dinner at Ocean Avenue Seafood, one of our favorites.

The Third Street Promenade opened in 1989 with an open-air, pedestrian-friendly mall featuring scores of retailers, boutiques, nightclubs, street entertainers, outdoor events and farmers market options. Check neighborhood landmarks like the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Georgian Hotel to see lively reuses of venerable old buildings.

Don’t miss other districts like Montana Avenue, known as a more laid-back option to Rodeo Drive. It offers upscale retailers, chi-chi restaurants, an historic movie theater and people-watching opportunities on the high end.

Cafe 50's, on Santa Monica Blvd., serves up breakfast and lunch in the Route 66 tradition.

A mile long stretch of Main Street offers old town charm and nearby Pico Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard are also worthy of touring by foot or by auto. For lodging, Pico offers both upscale and economy choices galore, as does Ocean Avenue.

If you want to tour the historic Route 66, snap a picture of the historical Route 66 sign at the Santa Monica Pier and retrace the venerable highway heading eastward up Santa Monica Blvd., then onto nearby LA-area towns.

Discover Santa Monica’s Café 50’s, 11623 Santa Monica Blvd., offering a great selection of old Americana breakfast and lunch specials. Moving further east, reach Pasadena where the old route now follows Colorado Boulevard. Find the Angels Theater, repurposed to a new retail use, the nearby historic Pasadena Playhouse, built 1925, still boasts an active local arts and theater scene and many other buildings dating to the 1920s.

Santa Monica Pier on a hazy, perfect Pacific Ocean morning.

Monrovia, with the old Mayan Revival Aztec Hotel, circa 1924, and Azusa, with the old Foothills Drive-in Theater sign (now part of Azusa Pacific University) offer tantalizing tidbits of the former highway route. Route 66 continued into Glendora and exited California into Arizona at Needles, which has captured much of their historical essence. The Needles Chamber of Commerce offers a brochure, highlighting the grand old El Garces Hotel (an old Harvey House Hotel built in 1906) and other notable remnants of the ancient highway’s heyday.

How to get to Santa Monica: From Stockton, take I-5 south, continue south on I-405, then head west on I-10; it’s about 340 miles and five hours.

For more information: Santa Monica Travel and Tourism, SantaMonica.com or call (800) 544–5319. For historic Route 66: nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/; the California portion, route66ca.org.

A Santa Monica sunset ends another day in surfer's paradise.

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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