Plenty to see, do and eat in beautiful Manhattan Beach

There are few things in life better than a cloudless sky, 72-degrees, a gentle breeze and a wide, white Southern California beach on an off-season weekday.

That’s what my friend, Wanda, and I see on a recent Thursday after a 90-minute drive north from North County. We’ve arrived in Manhattan Beach, and checked into the Shade Hotel, four short blocks from one of the most beautiful stretches of sand we’ve ever encountered. And there’s something else distinctive about this seaside real estate — the more than 50 volleyball courts that stretch about as far as the eye can see.

Manhattan Beach is known as the beach volleyball capital of the world, but today, the courts are empty. Not a problem, we think, and why  haven’t we been here sooner?

We can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, but we’ve got less than 48 hours to make up for lost time.
We take a walk on The Strand — two parallel north-south sidewalk thoroughfares that, according to a local, has a definite protocol: walkers only on the upper tier; anything with wheels on the lower.

We discover that the multi-million-dollar homes along The Strand offer an intriguing, eclectic collection of architecture styles — from Tuscan to mid-century to ultra-contemporary and more. Most have small-but-stylish street-level gardens that feature tight, well-designed layouts of succulents of every color. There are species we’ve never seen before, and I take many photos.

The scene is still quiet when we arrive at Mucho Ultima Mexicana (903 Manhattan Ave.; 310-374-4422) in the popular Village area that has many fashionable boutiques (which we visited earlier), salons and day spas. It’s an unfashionable 5 p.m., but an hour later, most seats are occupied with post-workday revelers.

We understand why after indulging in Mucho’s fresh-berry mojito, Cadillac margarita and Ceviche Especial. The colorful appetizer that could sub as an entrée resembles a work of art and tastes even better. Tonight’s fish is a perfectly seasoned salmon which, when mixed with condiments (onion, cucumbers, red peppers and jicama) and served with deep-fried plantains, creates an explosion of flavors.

The vegan enchilada is equally delicious, and I’m ecstatic when the gluten-free churros arrive.

“We accommodate any special dietary needs,” says Chef Chris Garasic. But gluten-free churros?

“The great thing about being the chef is that you can experiment in the kitchen,” he explains.

Just a short walk away is The Strand House restaurant, opened in summer 2011. Its expansive glass windows give diners a bird’s eye view of the Manhattan Beach Pier. It also offers the latest take in wine-tasting — six automated wine dispensers (Napa Technologies) in the lobby, each featuring four wines. Guests access various sized pours by swiping a “debit card” purchased from the hostess station. Most visitors are surprised by the clear, Plexiglas windows in the floor of the lobby, allowing a view of the wine cellar below — best done before you have too many tastings. A fire pit just outside the lobby is the perfect place to enjoy the wine.

We sample the Strand’s signature drink, the Sunset Over Manhattan, a refreshing mix of vodka, fresh-squeezed tangerine juice and blood orange puree. At this point, it doesn’t matter what we eat, but the roasted beet salad, duck rillette, Arctic char and grilled hanger steak are delectable. The meal culminates with a terrine of coffee ice cream and a dense chocolate-something, and hot, deep dish pears and apples topped with handmade spice ice cream.

Thank goodness we must walk to the Shade, a 38-bed boutique hotel tastefully designed in what I call art deco with a contemporary twist. All beds have Tempur-Pedic mattresses and towels are thick Egyptian cotton. Complimentary offerings include breakfast (with bagels and lox), wi-fi, and beach-cruiser bicycles.

After breakfast, we take a last stroll on another section of The Strand and walk to the end of the pier.  Unlike others on the West Coast, this pier has no restaurants or curio shops, but does have a small aquarium at the end.

It’s an ideal spot for a panoramic view of the beach, Palos Verdes to the south, Malibu to the north, determined surfers and lazy pelicans.

I’ll be back.

For visitor information, visit ci.manhattan-beach.ca.us/.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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