There's an African guy dressed in an oversized singlet, dollar-sign chain necklace and stiff baseball cap loping by the skate bowls on my left. A dark-haired woman in pink rollerskates and knee-high socks whizzes by on her haunches next to the palm trees on my right. Ahead, the sunbaked boardwalk is lined with jugglers, acrobats, musicians, mystics and bikini-clad babes, an eclectic hive of activity on this glittery Sunday afternoon.
Yep, this is Los Angeles' Venice all right. As much an icon of the city as the Hollywood Sign or the Walk of Fame, known as much as a hangout for LA's creative and artistic communities as for its skater bros and basketball pros. This is where Arnold Schwarzenegger toned his muscles, where Jim Morrison conceived the Doors, where Jean-Michel Basquiat kept a studio in the '70s, and where Beat Generation poets including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hung out in the '60s. It's exactly as I'd expected it to be, too, with Hulk-like men flexing and twisting their sweaty, overworked bodies at the famous Muscle Beach outdoor gym, dudes shooting hoops at the basketball courts with the gently sloping beach as their backdrop, the skinny 400-metre Venice Fishing Pier reaching out into the ocean, and those three-storey psychedelic murals towering above it all.
What I hadn't expected, however, was to discover that Venice is actually a tale of two cities. Walking just a few blocks away, I discover the chi-chi shops and hip organic cafes of Abbot Kinney boulevard, Venice's boho-chic enclave that feels worlds away from the raw grittiness of the beach. I wander through bespoke handmade kimono store Open the Kimono, browse Japanese teaware (tea has become painfully hip in LA) at design store Tortoise, and vintage-inspired cruisers with matching leather saddles and waxed cotton saddlebags at Linus Bike. I buy a dairy-free, sugar-free coffee mixed with ghee (clarified butter) at the hole-in-the-wall Another Kind of Sunrise cafe, and some biodynamic, organic, handcrafted chocolate from ZenBunni, another hole-in-the-wall styled to look like the inside of a tree. The cafes I pass are mostly vegan, gluten-free, organic or Ayurvedic. And don't even get me started on the people – so tanned! so thin! so perfect! – whom I blame for making me buy a $400 pair of jeans to make me look as good as they do, but which turn out not to.
At this point, I meet up with my friend Vanessa, who was born and raised in Venice. I tell her how surprised I am by Abbot Kinney. By how sophisticated, how new age, how un-Venice it seems.
"It never used to be like this, you know," she says with a sigh as we dawdle along the stylish, seemingly art-directed strip. "When I was growing up here in the '80s, almost everything on this street was boarded up. It was crack addicts, skaters and gangsters, mostly. There were none of these shops here, no one gave a shit and it was super relaxed, now it's just…" She drifts off, but I know what she means. Gentrified. And it's only getting worse. I later discover that Google set up a campus nearby in 2011, and Snapchat in 2014, bringing in the kind of money that's causing real-estate prices to skyrocket. Money that's rapidly pushing longtime residents, along with their beatnik, counterculture vibes, out.
Not that you can blame anyone for wanting a piece of the Venice pie. Especially when you see the canal area, created at the turn of last century by tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney as part of his Venice of the West plan. A 10-minute walk from Abbot Kinney boulevard, it's an oasis of calm where ducks and little wooden boats bob in the calm waters beside posh period bungalows.
Wandering around the canals, it's easy to understand the sentiments of long-time residents like Vanessa who worry that all this is impinging on Venice's creative, independent streak. But as a visitor to the area? I can't help but find the mixture of the raw and gritty, with the chic and upmarket, utterly charming.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Visit California and Qantas.
Qantas flies six times a week between Sydney and Los Angeles from about $1300 return. See Qantas.com
The Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows in Santa Monica, just a 20-minute bike ride along the waterfront from Venice, dates back to 1921 and offers a choice of rooms, suites and cottages, many of which have ocean views. Leave some time to laze by the palm-fringed pool, and stay over a weekend so you can have a night out at their happening cocktail bar The Bungalow, followed by an organic farm-to-table recovery brunch at FIG restaurant. Rates from $575 per night. See fairmont.com/santa-monica