"I once had a panic attack thinking about the earth's rotation," a young woman, wearing a muddy white tank top after a vigorous workout with her personal trainer, earnestly informs her dining companions at Santa Monica's Kreation Kafe.
"I had to reach out to my starwalkers, who live in that quiet, still place beyond the universe, to calm down. Seriously."
Gazing euphorically at her quinoa and kale salad, she caresses a leaf with her fork before popping it into her mouth. "But this," she says emphatically between chews, "keeps me grounded. God, I love kale!"
Ah, the holistic temple that is Santa Monica. Where raw greens, cold-pressed juices and every form of yoga – paddleboard, acro, aerial, yoga booty ballet, you name it – reign supreme. Healthy living is not just a pastime in this classic Californian beach town – it's an obsession.
Gym gear (the sweatier the better) is de rigueur, worn all day and by everyone; while yoga mats are the accessory of choice. In fact, Santa Monica is arguably the most ripped, pumped and toned destination in America, with more gym and yoga facilities per capita than any other city.
When it comes to wellness and exercise trends, this laid-back city has always been an innovator. The modern physical fitness boom started here during the 1930s at the original Muscle Beach, weightlifters and bodybuilders congregating on the free gym equipment erected near the pier; while skateboarding has it roots in Dogtown, a formerly grungy neighbourhood near Main Street.
After a long haul flight and the potential for liver abuse during an upcoming US road trip, I decide to enjoy a health kick during my 48 hours in Santa Monica. It's a case of "when in Rome" – only in this case, the Romans are ridiculously good looking and as fit as Nero's fiddle.
Fortunately, Santa Monica is one part of Los Angeles where a car is not necessary. The city is a designated "bike friendly community", with miles of trails, dedicated bike lanes, several rental centres and ample bike parking facilities encouraging both locals and tourists to use pedal-power.
I set off from Santa Monica Bike Centre on my rented wheels, detouring into the sculptural landscapes of Tongva Park before heading to the beachfront, where the 35-kilometre South Bay Bicycle Trail lines the Pacific Ocean. Dodging rollerbladers and joggers, I zip south towards Venice Beach before swinging back onto Main Street, one of Santa Monica's eclectic neighbourhoods lined with designer boutiques, galleries and hip bars as well as an impressive community garden.
Opposite, I pause for lunch at RAWvolution, a restaurant and home delivery service that forms the epicentre of Santa Monica's raw food movement that began more than two decades ago. Although the menu lists American staples such as burgers, pizzas and nachos, there are no animal products used, with the creamy, cheesey flavours derived from cashews, hummus and seed cheese, and the 'meat' from coconut jerky.
RAWvolution is just one of many vegetarian and vegan restaurants keeping Santa Monicans slim and healthy; others, such as the acclaimed True Food Kitchen in Santa Monica Place, focus on organic cuisine designed to be nutritious, anti-inflammatory and memorable. Dishes like shiitake and tofu lettuce cups and edamame dumplings are served alongside meat dishes such as Grass Fed Bison Burger and Responsibly Sourced Steelhead; while a delicious cocktail menu utilising organic liquors and fresh herbs proves that the occasional indulgence is part of a balanced lifestyle.
Besides, you can always sweat the alcohol out. Mimicking the climate of India, the rooms at Hot 8 Yoga on Second Street are heated to tropical intensity, designed to detoxify and enhance flexibility. But as sweat pours off my body and onto the mat during a wobbly warrior pose, I find myself not only cooking in my own juices, but also feeling dizzy. I collapse into child pose, lightheaded and spent; and try as I may, I just can't recover my strength.
Later, I apologise to my instructor for my uselessness, explaining that it's my first hot yoga experience. "I hated it at first, too," he admits. "But after about three weeks, you find yourself addicted. If you're not soaking wet, you don't feel good." I grin wanly, not exactly sold – perhaps I'll just stick to regular downward-dogging in future.
But steam, it seems, can cure all sorts of ailments. And in order to rectify any internal irregularities, I'm about to undergo Santa Monica's latest and most controversial wellness trend, the V Steam. Yes, I'm going to have my 'v' steamed … ah … my lady bits, to put it delicately.
But why, I hear you ask? Why on earth would you subject a part of the body that is self-regulating and full of good bacteria to a deep-steam, akin to perching over a kettle? Because Gwyneth Paltrow told me to, that's why!
According to Gwynnie on her blog, GOOP, the signature treatment at Santa Monica's Tikkun Spa is a "golden ticket".
"If you're in LA, you have to do it," she wrote. And who I am to argue with an Oscar winner?
Donning a flowing Korean-style robe, I straddle a throne-like box filled with a concoction of herbs; when boiling water is added, the pungent steam rises through a hole and into my nether regions. At first, it's way too hot – I squeal as my inner thighs are scalded; but my therapist quickly lowers the temperature so I can be comfortable during my 30-minute session.
It remains, however, a disconcerting experience as I question exactly what is happening "down there". According to literature I am handed, the most potent herb in the mixture is mugwort, said to be anti-fungal, balance hormones and ease abdominal pain. The treatment – based on an ancient Korean rite called chai yok – claims to regulate menstrual flow, soothe the nervous system, protect the uterus from ulcers and tumours, ease fatigue, fight infection and even kill intestinal worms.
"Don't you feel fabulous?" my charming therapist gushes as she comes to my rescue half an hour later.
"Well, it's cleared my sinuses," I admit. I mean, how am I to gauge the success of this treatment? I can only trust that it's done some good, and that my basement is clean and ready for more healthy Santa Monica action.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, see united.com.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Art Deco Georgian Hotel is the original luxury Santa Monica lodging. Rooms start from $US274 ($A371) including bed and breakfast for two people and valet parking, see georgianhotel.com
SEE + DO
Bicycle hire from Santa Monica Bike Centre costs $US20 ($A27) for two hours, or $US30 ($A40) for a full day. See smbikecenter.com
A single drop-in class at Hot 8 Yoga costs $US25 ($A33), see hot8yoga.com
A V Steam at Tikkun Spa costs $US50 ($A67), including use of clay and salt rooms, an ice room and jacuzzi. See tikkunspa.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau.