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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Playa del Rey, the natural way

Wetlands, the beach and a relaxing inn make a pleasing destination amid L.A.'s urban sprawl.

September 21, 2003|Laura Randall | Special to The Times

Playa del Rey — The plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies was a nice touch. So were the down pillows and the feathery comforter on the bed. But it was the view from the balcony that made us want to linger in our room at Playa del Rey's only hotel.

From here we could see the saltwater marsh and grassy fields that make up the Ballona Wetlands. In the background, sailboats floated through the Marina del Rey channel while the distant outline of the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown high-rises reminded us that we had never left Los Angeles city limits.

It's an unusually encompassing view for an urban bed-and-breakfast, and my husband and I spent as much time observing the ecosystem from our tiny balcony as we did sunning ourselves on the nearby beach on an overnight visit earlier this month.

Realizing that summer was almost over and we had taken only one measly day trip to the coast, John and I headed toward the Pacific for a quick escape from our weekend routine. We chose Playa del Rey, about an hour's drive from our home in Toluca Lake, for its easy ocean access and laid-back vibe. The panoramic view of Los Angeles County's largest remaining wetland was an unexpected bonus.

By car, it's easy to dismiss Playa del Rey as a sleepy bedroom community that hasn't changed much since the 1960s, when engineers filled part of a lagoon to create the resort community of Marina del Rey to the north. Playa del Rey's proximity to Los Angeles International Airport, which borders to the south, doesn't help either. Nor does its main street, which lacks the colorful boardwalk of nearby Venice and the boutiques of Manhattan Beach.

Compared with its neighbors, it's quiet and low key, though that may change. Playa Vista, the new master-planned community on Playa del Rey's eastern side, includes offices, stores and plans for more than 5,800 houses, condos and apartments. But for now, before the masses have fully moved in, anybody who appreciates the healing powers of an easy getaway and a beachside burger can still enjoy this place.

Pleasurable amenities

We pulled up to the three-story, gray-shingled Inn at Playa del Rey early Saturday afternoon, figuring we'd leave our bags and go to the beach because it was well before the 3 p.m. check-in time. Instead, a pleasant desk clerk ushered us to a room immediately.

All 21 units are tastefully furnished in beige, blue or yellow, and prints of beach scenes and birds adorn the walls. Brochure rates for standard rooms, which face the street or alley, start at $145 a night; third-story "view rooms" and suites start at $185. Weekend visitors can expect to pay more.

The clerk, unaware that I was on assignment, upgraded our $175 standard unit to a view room because the inn wasn't full. The space wasn't much bigger, but it came with extras such as a gas fireplace, Jacuzzi tub and French doors that opened onto the balcony.

Other amenities awaited on the building's main floor. A cozy public living room offered bird-watching books, a video library, binders stuffed with maps and menus, and pitchers of lemonade.

The inn stands at the eastern edge of Playa del Rey on Culver Boulevard, about three blocks from the beach. On our way to the water, we stopped for lunch at Outlaws, a busy bar and grill with red-checkered tablecloths, a cactus-fringed deck and a giant sign out front featuring a cowboy kicking back with a beer. The service was slow, but the Pancho Villa burgers we ordered were worth the wait -- thick, juicy and topped with jack cheese and avocado.

We spent the rest of the afternoon reveling in the beach time we had missed earlier in the summer. The sparsely populated area at the north end of Dockweiler State Beach was a good place to read and swim, despite the occasional roar of a plane overhead. Closer to town, volleyball games, kite flying and small kids ruled the stretch of sand between the jetty and the hillside homes overlooking the beach.

As we walked back to the inn to shower, Playa's nicer restaurants (few open for lunch on weekends) were starting to show signs of life under the dropping sun. We had made reservations at Chloe, the neighborhood's newest and hippest bistro, which hummed with activity when we arrived. Despite a 20-minute wait for a table, it was a good choice. Our entrees -- pan-sauteed eastern skate wing with lemon couscous, and seared venison in a roasted eggplant tart -- were delicious.

We skipped dessert in favor of martinis at the mahogany bar of La Marina, a dimly lighted steakhouse whose red-jacketed waiters and traditional menu (oysters Rockefeller, linguine Sinatra) seemed more fitting for old Hollywood than a beach enclave.

The next morning, after a light breakfast of quiche, blueberry bread and fresh fruit in our B&B's sunny dining room, we dusted off a couple of bikes (free for guests) from the storage closet and joined dozens of weekend exercise hounds on the South Bay Bicycle Trail.

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