Seaside Santa Monica

Two new hotels bring new luster to Santa Monica.

Santa Monica is having a moment. The Pacific coastal city, bordered by Pacific Palisades to the north and Venice to the south, has long been fun central for a certain kind of beach-blond, surfer type — the city has been called Brooklyn with palm trees. 

But along with its good-time image and 3 miles of beachfront, there has always been a certain frowzy aspect to Santa Monica, which perhaps has been part of its charm — the supersmart alongside the not so spiffy, with shabby pockets that were not always chic.

Now, to quote Bob Dylan — he owns a coffee shop above a boxing gym on 18th Street — the times they are a changin’. Two new hotels, Santa Monica Proper Hotel and Oceana, both just opened, have upped an already high hotel bar in the city, joining the likes of Shutters on the Beach, its sister property Hotel Casa del Mar and the elegant Viceroy Santa Monica, throwing the luxury hotel scene wide open.

Let’s start with the Proper. The first new-build lifestyle hotel to open in Santa Monica in nearly 25 years, the 27-room Proper comprises a sleek, sweeping new construction, fused to a late-1920s Arthur E. Harvey-designed Spanish Colonial Revival building. The clever pairing has created — in the words of the Proper’s publicists — the city’s freshest, most invigorating luxury hotel. Well, invigorating may be pushing it, but the Proper is certainly a contender. 

The historic building has been restored to its former glory, both inside and out and, if you fancy a trip to Spain without leaving these shores, the Proper is the place to head for. The Spanish architecture includes a great slew of gorgeous Moorish details, while local artists and designers have added a touch of contemporary Santa Monica cool — soft pastels and textures, natural sunlight and ocean breezes. It’s a winning combo.

In contrast, the new building is monolithic in nature. Celebrity designer Kelly Wearstler — whose other half is the hotel’s developer, Brad Korzen — has cleverly referenced the beach in her decoration, but it’s an organic beach, this one, full of natural colors, rather than traditional “beachy” shades. You’ll search hard for any stripy blues or candy-cane yellows at the Proper, but you won’t miss them.

“Earthy, raw materials, organic textiles and a layering in of art and landscape bring a rich sensory feeling into the hotel,” Wearstler says. 

There is a lobby lounge, Palma, with a small-bites menu, already a magnet for the less shabby aspect of Santa Monica — indeed, a very glam crowd who seem to be packing out the space all through the day, throwing traditional cocktail times to the wind. And this being the Proper group, always ahead of the field, it’s no surprise they’ve snagged Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, the trailblazing Los Angeles café that has blown California cooking out of the water recently. She heads up the flagship first-floor restaurant, Onda, along with Gabriela Cámara of Contramar in Mexico City fame. Up on the roof, meanwhile, as The Drifters would have had it, is Calabra, an indoor-outdoor bistro with Mediterranean food and California sunsets.

You work off all the excess California calories doing laps in the seventh-floor pool (the only hotel rooftop pool on the westside of LA), or working out in the 24-hour fitness center. So vast and mind bogglingly state of the art is the gym that when I first saw the renderings of it a few months ago, I grew instantly tired and could think of nothing except going back to bed (but that’s just me.) Taking refuge in the 3,000-square-foot Ayurvedic Surya Spa, where nourishing, detoxifying and restorative treatments are offered, is the blissful alternative, although this being California, remember that even the art of relaxation is a serious business.

All in all, the Proper is a proper winner.

Oceana is a horse of a different color. A $25 million transformation of the former Oceana Beach Club Hotel, right across from the beach in Santa Monica, Oceana describes itself as a hideaway luxury hotel. And it is luxurious indeed — Hernando is nowhere in sight.

Where the Proper sends out a siren call to the beautiful and tanned, Oceana merely whispers its allure. It’s smaller of scale and more Mediterranean in feel, with the fact that general manager, Anne-Juliette Maurice, has come from the Plaza-Athénée in Paris as clue to how the Oceana is run. With just 70 suites, this little jewel feels more like a private house — albeit quite a sizable one — than the grand hotel it is. Frills come thick and fast. There are house cars for private transfers, yoga on the lawn and some snazzy bikes to take you up and down the beachfront.

“A beachside home from home,” runs the bumf, and while my own home does not feature hand-tufted Nepalese rugs, Loro Piana bedding and Frette linens (in fact, the last time I looked in our linen closet at home, there were no linens at all,) the point is well taken. Rich velvet-upholstered sofas and four-poster beds complete the bedroom look.

The bathrooms aren’t half bad either — spa-inspired and crammed with Bottega Veneta products. You will need a large suitcase just to take them all home. (Naughty — but we all do it.) Select suites come with ocean-view balconies and fully stocked kitchens and all rooms feature fine deluxe minibar cabinets, because as we all know, Lilliputian fridges are so over.

There is a pool, of course, intimately situated in the outdoor courtyard — shades of a Moroccan riad here — and a rather snazzy fitness studio with equipment from Peloton and Woodway. A mani-pedi station and a barber chair mean guests can be groomed to perfection without stepping outside the front door.

And the indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar, exclusive to Oceana guests — a little minimalist for my taste but firmly rooted in the California genre — is curated by the popular LA chef Raphael Lunetta, whose Westside restaurant JiRaffe was one of my favorite eateries out west, until it closed its doors in 2014.

So, there you have it, two contrasting hotels, which will bring the smart money back to Santa Monica, although some will contend it has never gone away. 

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