SANTA MONICA — Sometimes you have to stand back to see something right in front of your eyes, like the way this pretty city of 87,000 on Santa Monica Bay has emerged as a top tourist destination. That should surprise no one because Santa Monica's attractions are obvious: a beautiful broad white beach, a recently renovated 1909 pier with a vintage carousel, the festive Third Street Promenade and now an unprecedented four luxury hotels right on the sand.
The most recent to open are historic Casa del Mar, which made its debut in October, and Le Merigot Santa Monica Beach Hotel, in a building completed in December. They join Casa del Mar's well-known older sister Shutters on the Beach, and Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, which started the ritzy wave on the shore when it opened in 1989.
I can now boast to friends that I know all of them because I recently spent one night in each hotel to see how they stack up. In each, I booked a medium-priced double with partial ocean view (which seems to me the whole point of staying at the beach). I did not mention I was a reporter, and I tried to sample as many of the hotels' amenities as possible, using health clubs and pools, chatting with concierges and valet parking attendants, and ordering room-service breakfasts. I also looked at other hotels near the ocean but not on the beach. (See story on Page L12.)
About 3 million people visit Santa Monica each year, including increasing numbers of Europeans, who have contributed to the city's sophisticated veneer and seem undeterred by the homeless drifting along Ocean Avenue or the fear of crime. (In 1998 a German tourist was killed during a robbery behind Loews, and a local resident recently was mugged in the same neighborhood while walking from a beach parking lot to her apartment.) The shops, galleries and restaurants of the Third Street Promenade are part of the draw.
Nearly a third of out-of-towners are business travelers, mostly in the high-rolling entertainment, advertising and high-tech industries, according to the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau. They favor it for its proximity to LAX and started booking rooms in Santa Monica when many Hollywood production companies moved to the beach in the early '90s.
Many travelers also choose Santa Monica for its diversions, extending business trips for a little Southern California-style rest and recreation. So it's sometimes hard to tell workers from frolickers, and hotels tend to be as full on weekends as during the week.
Room rates in Santa Monica average $175, says PKF Consulting, a hotel accounting firm. The foursome on the beach, however, are considerably pricier, as much as $575 a night, especially if you want a room with a full ocean view.
Choosing from Loews, Le Merigot, Shutters and Casa del Mar isn't easy, because the members of this select beachfront club offer a high level of comfort and service. But as I discovered by trying them, there are differences, sometimes glaring, sometimes subtle. I have listed them in order of my preference.
Shutters on the Beach
I had stayed in Shutters on the Beach in years past, and it remains my favorite of the four. The rates are daunting (doubles from $330 to $525, with partial ocean view rooms like the one I occupied priced at $385), and the movers and shakers are so thick around the fireplaces in the lobby that it's no wonder staff members have a little attitude.
Those fireplaces signify what Shutters, in a gray and white Victorian whirligig of a building at the foot of Pico Boulevard, wants to be: a beach house instead of a conventional hotel. In this it mostly succeeds, though I have a few caveats, including its proximity to an unlovely fenced storm drain on the beachfront (because of polluted runoff, it can be dangerous to swim nearby just after a storm); its expensive but undistinguished main restaurant, One Pico; its small exercise room; and its convoluted layout, with two buildings connected by a walkway over Appian Way.
Still, the rooms are divine nests, winning in every detail, from the Rainforest Essentials toiletries in the baths to the reading matter, a complimentary copy of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." The magazine caddies are full of Vogue and Town & Country. The lights are on dimmers, and there are CDs and videos, homey framed pictures of people you do not know, fish prints on the walls, shells and other bric-a-brac. The overstuffed beds wrapped in soft duvets look dreamy made up in white sheets with baby blue piping.
But the baths are the coup de gra^ce, with separate chambers for the shower and toilet, two sinks in the vanity and double-size marble whirlpool tubs. There are candles, whimsical rubber ducks and whales, piles of fluffy white towels and a shuttered window that opens onto the sunset visible through the sliding glass door.
Casa del Mar