words + photos by Don Mankin
Someone once wrote that if you tip the United States on edge, everything that’s loose will slide down to Los Angeles. I would add, if you tipped Los Angeles on edge, it will all slide down to Venice Beach.
The best place to see all those loose odds and ends is the “boardwalk,” which has no boards but lots of asphalt. That is the Venice Beach known far and wide – the low rise mix of vintage buildings and radical modern architecture lining one side of the boardwalk and the vendors, entertainers, and champions of obscure causes with provocative signs -- “meat is murder” and “circumcision is worse” -- lining the other. And then there are the people walking along the boardwalk in outfits they would never wear at home.
Few visitors stray far from the boardwalk. Those who don’t miss the best show of all -- the other attractions that make Venice Beach the largest spontaneous outdoor theme park/playground and one of the most interesting communities in the world. To discover the hidden highlights of Venice Beach, just follow this easy, leisurely walking tour. It should take about three hours or more if you want to shop, linger, and eat, or less than three if you are in a hurry.
The first stop is the beach, which begins just a few yards west of the boardwalk and extends for over 100 yards to the water’s edge. On the way to the beach, stop and check out the new skateboard park at the foot of Market Street and watch the boarders sail into the air, frozen in mid flight against a dramatic background of broad sandy beach, crashing waves, coastal mountains and big sky.
From here, you can take off your shoes and shuffle on the sand to the water. Most days the beach is almost empty except for a few sunbathers, surfers, or meditators gazing at the sailboats gliding off shore or, at the right time of year, dolphins playing in the breaking waves. Look south and you can usually see the outline of Santa Catalina Island in the distance; look north and you can get a better look at the background that framed the soaring skateboarders -- a beach curving around a vast bay all of the way to Malibu and beyond. Behind that, the Santa Monica Mountains taper down to the ocean. When visitors tell me that they think that Los Angeles is ugly, this is where I bring them to change their mind. I have never failed to do so.
The next stop is the Venice canals. To get there head back to the boardwalk, then walk south past the basketball courts, paddle tennis courts and Muscle Beach. South of Venice Boulevard the boardwalk turns completely residential – no stores or stands selling T-shirts and sunglasses, no tattoo parlors, no entertainers, just some of the best architecture on the boardwalk, including a house designed by Frank Gehry, one of his earliest commissions. If you know anything about Frank Gehry, you can’t miss it; if you don’t, it’s the one with the faux life guard stand in the front on the second story. Enjoy the relative peace and quiet here, far from the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk several blocks to the north.
Turn left on 27th Avenue, a walk street (not actually a street, just a wide sidewalk between two rows of houses). At the end of the block carefully jaywalk across Pacific Avenue (disclaimer -- I am not responsible for jaywalking tickets, injuries or death). Follow the path on the other side of the street past the very large, very modern, high tech house with big windows – a hint of things to come – for a few yards until you reach the first of six canals. Once home to motorcycle gangs and drug dealers, this neighborhood is now an architectural showcase with some of the most expensive homes in Los Angeles.
Cross the bridge over the canal and head left. Wander along the canals at will, heading generally in a northeasterly direction. Walk up one canal, cross one of the rustic bridges, walk along the other side, cross another bridge, etc. There are no design constraints in Venice, other than height limits, setbacks and engineering requirements. This, coupled with the money, ego, hubris and imagination of the creative community that lives here -- screen writers, directors, producers, successful musicians and artists, and high end professionals -- produces a colorful and eclectic mosaic of architectural styles. The houses, canals and bridges, along with the flocks of ducks and geese that also make the canals their home, provide a picturesque and serene contrast to the crowds of vendors, entertainers, and tourists on the boardwalk.
INLAND WALK STREETS
After you have had enough quirky, cutting edge architecture head to the NE corner of the canals, at Carroll and Ocean Avenues. The next stop is the inland walk streets, a community even more hidden than the Venice canals. Walking along these walk streets is like strolling down an English country lane.
Although it is less than a half mile from the Venice canals, it requires an intricate, seemingly random walk to get there. To avoid getting lost, which wouldn’t be so bad since you would no doubt discover other interesting neighborhoods, just follow these directions.
1.Turn left on Ocean Avenue,
2.Walk one short block to Venice Boulevard,
3.Turn right and walk east along Venice for a couple of blocks to Abbott Kinney Boulevard (AKB).
4.Cross AKB, then turn left and cross Venice Boulevard
5.Walk along AKB for a couple of blocks. Take your time, note the restaurants, galleries, stores, etc.
6.Make a right on Palms Boulevard, walk a short distance on the right hand side of the street to Electric Avenue
7.Cross Electric Avenue, walk a few more yards, then start looking for the narrow pathway through the bushes and trees on your right.
This is Crescent Place, the portal to the inland walk streets. Tall trees and bamboo and overgrown ivy and bushes line the path on both sides and arch overhead. Turning down this path is like entering a wormhole into another universe, or falling into a rabbit hole like Alice on her way to wonderland. Follow Crescent until it ends one block later at Shell Avenue. Shell is marked by a landscaped traffic circle, but with little if any traffic, it is more like an urban park than a traffic circle. Turn right and follow Shell for a block or so until you see the beginning of another walk street, Marco Place, on your left.
This is when things really get magical. Marco, like all of the walk streets, is little more than a sidewalk lined on both sides by houses as architecturally diverse as those on the canals with striking, often whimsical gardens in front. Walk for two blocks until you get to Linden Avenue, make a left, cross Superba Avenue -- a real street, with cars -- then make a left when you get to the next walk street, Nowita Place. From this point on, you are heading back down two more blocks of walk streets to the no-traffic circle at Shell, then to Crescent Place, Palms Boulevard and eventually to Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Turn right and walk down AKB, checking out what are arguably the hippest galleries, restaurants, bars, cafes, and stores in Los Angeles. Walking up and down this street is a constant stream of young men and women tweeting on their Blackberries and IPhones.
After you have had your fill, turn west on Westminster Avenue and walk about three blocks to the boardwalk for the sunset (or walk another block on AKB and turn west on Brooks). If its Friday or Saturday, go to the roof-top lounge of the Hotel Erwin in the heart of Venice (1697 Pacific Avenue, one block from the beach, just south of Windward), appropriately named “High.” Here, you can have a pricey cocktail and observe the mating rituals of twenty and thirty somethings. In the ultimate triumph of hormones over aesthetic appreciation, they seem more interested in each other than the view.
I have been all over the world but this is still one of the most spectacular and memorable views I have ever seen – 80 feet above the madness of the Venice Boardwalk at the height of its insanity in the late afternoon on a clear, warm, weekend day. There may be better views, in more exotic locales. But I doubt that there is anywhere in the world with as rich a stew of people, architecture and scenery as can be sampled so easily and leisurely as the one in Venice Beach.
Don Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. The Wall Street Journal called his latest book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic, 2008), “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year." For more information on Don or Riding the Hulahula, check out his website www.adventuretransformations.com.