We'll call the movie "Three Beaches and an Airport." It'll star Hugh Grant as a buttoned-up business traveler who is separated from his job, money and luggage at LAX, then befriended by a team of wise-cracking Olympic volleyballers who introduce him to the sun-baked, wave-splashed piers and brew pubs of L.A.'s South Bay. In no time, he soars to entrepreneurial success, leading beach-cruiser bike tours along the Strand, living in an ocean-view condo and driving a shiny convertible. The only problem is he can almost never find parking. And when he does, it's a quarter for every 12 minutes.
Oh, never mind. Forget Hugh, grab a fistful of quarters yourself and see the real South Bay. Here, as part of our Southern California Close-Ups series, are seven micro-itineraries in Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, along with tips for LAX (about seven miles north) and Marina del Rey (about 12 miles north). We'll tell you what to pay for an hour on a beach cruiser (that's a bike, not a person); where to sleep by the airport; why fish and ice cream belong together in Manhattan Beach; and why Jay Leno slips away to Hermosa Beach most Sunday nights.
1. Pedal the StrandThe Strand (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The Strand bike path covers the South Bay coast, stretching south to Palos Verdes and north to Playa del Rey, and, if you're ready to pedal around Marina del Rey, you can bicycle all the way north to Pacific Palisades. That's a 22-mile trip, with scarcely a break in the waterfront scenery, lively humanity and architectural triumphs and follies. Start by renting a bike from Hermosa Cyclery, 20 13th St., Hermosa Beach, where one-speed beach cruisers start at $7 an hour and high-end road and mountain bikes go for as much as $60 a day. Before you start burning calories, take some breakfast or lunch aboard at Good Stuff (1286 the Strand), which has a pleasant patio just a few steps away from the bike shop. Down south near the Redondo pier complex, you'll pass close by Polly's on the Pier (233 N. Harbor Drive), a breakfast-lunch joint. As you're rolling through Manhattan Beach, enjoy the greenery between the pedestrian and cycle paths. And notice how, as you go north, the houses get bigger and bolder. Once you've returned your wheels to the Cyclery, you can walk about 10 blocks up Pier Avenue to the Rockefeller (418-422 Pier Ave.), a recently opened spot for craft beer, artisan burgers, open-air dining and sports on TV.
2. Redondo's RivieraRedondo Beach Pier (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Redondo Beach has a pier and beachfront complex designed just for tourists — a place where visitors who like a rough-around-the-edges destination can stroll over the ocean, buy urchins at Quality Seafood (130 International Boardwalk), rent a paddle boat, sleep at the Portofino Hotel (260 Portofino Way), duck into the din of a dark arcade or catch a tribute band at Brixton South Bay (100 Fishermans Wharf, No. J). The grittiness and kitsch of the Redondo pier won't please everybody. For a more sophisticated scene, head south of the pier to Riviera Village, a quiet, upscale neighborhood that includes excellent beaches and ocean views along the Esplanade and a great collection of eateries (Redondo Beach Brewing Co., Dolce Vita desserts, H.T. Grill) and shops along South Catalina Avenue between Avenue D and Palos Verdes Boulevard. For a break from surf and turf, eat at the calm, vegetarian, Asian-inflected oasis known as the Green Temple (1700 S. Catalina Ave.).
3. High-style Hermosa (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Hermosa Beach is just 1.3 square miles. But it has plenty of action, beginning with the surfers in the water, the anglers on the pier and the world-class volleyball players thumping and sprawling by the nets on the sand. To explore all this from an upscale perch, begin by booking the Beach House at Hermosa Beach (1300 the Strand), where summer rates start at $299. Stroll up a few blocks to Java Man (157 Pier Ave.), a popular neighborhood coffee spot in a converted bungalow on a handsome bend of Pier Avenue. Then go body surf or bike or stroll a little more, and break for lunch and browsing at Gum Tree (238 Pier Ave.). This is another converted bungalow, its interior split between a gift and home shop and a cafe. House-made granola? Check. Four-dollar organic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids? Check.
4. Pier, plaza, party!Hermosa Beach Pier (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Hermosa Beach's Pier Plaza is the last little bit of street before the beach itself begins. It's also where the hard-partying 22-year-olds tend to end up. If that's your scene, the plaza is car-free, lined by palm trees and chock-full of raucous bars and restaurants. The loudest might be Baja Sharkeez (52 Pier Ave.), which burned down in 2006 and reopened in 2008. The oldest and grungiest include the Mermaid (11 Pier Ave.) and the Poop Deck (next door at 1272 the Strand). The best view probably belongs to the upstairs deck at Hennessey's Tavern (8 Pier Ave.). One of the newer spots is a shrine to surfing called Watermans (22 Pier Ave.). And on the two floors above, you'll find the 15-year-old Surf City Hostel (26 Pier Ave.). It must be as loud as a train station, and it fills its 67 beds with budget travelers who share dorm rooms and bathrooms, stash their bikes and surfboards in the hall and pay summer rates of $30 to $35 a night.
5. Jay's other jobJay Leno in his Burbank garage (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Leno's day job pays pretty well and keeps him busy. Yet the host of "The Tonight Show" continues to moonlight like a man whose mortgage is on the line. Most Sundays, he takes the stage at the Comedy & Magic Club (1018 Hermosa Ave.) in Hermosa Beach, testing new material in a black-box space with about 250 seats. Buy a $32 ticket to the 7 p.m. show, turn up soon after 5 p.m. (when the doors open), and you stand a good chance of claiming one of the 18 seats on the lip of the small stage. You're required to order at least two items from the menu, but some beers are less than $6. And you may get some big laughs from the two or three other comedians who typically precede Leno. Chances are he'll come out about 8 p.m. and do an hour. After all these years on television, Leno gets taken for granted. So it's strange and funny to see him pacing the stage and demonstrating such wit, memory, energy and subtlety, all the while standing about as far from you as the TV is from your couch.
6. For young and oldManhattan Beach Pier (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Yes, there are three major South Bay piers, and they're all reasonably kid-friendly. But the Manhattan Beach Pier is the one with a little aquarium at the end. The Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium operates inside the eight-sided Roundhouse building (built in 1922, rebuilt in 1991), and it's free (though donations of $5 a family are suggested). It's tiny, but it has just enough to quicken the pulse of a junior oceanographer — sea star touch tanks, eels and fish of various stripes, a leopard shark and more. Less than two blocks away, the Manhattan Beach Creamery (1120 Manhattan Ave.) awaits with ice cream and other sweet treats. And later, when it's time for a proper meal, there's the 11-year-old Rock'n Fish (120 Manhattan Beach Blvd.) restaurant with seafood, steaks and convivial atmosphere. Or there's the Strand House (117 Manhattan Beach Blvd.), a sleek new fine-dining place (the Zislis Group, same owner as Rock'n Fish) that opened across the street in early August. To start, the Strand House was serving only dinner, but staffers say weekend brunches are coming soon.
7. Bagels and MetloxSimmzy's Pub on Manhattan Beach Boulevard (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Walk a few blocks up the hill from the Manhattan Beach Pier on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, pass Noah's Bagels on your right, and look left. That's Metlox, a sun-splashed semi-minimalist collection of shops and restaurants that's too genteel to call a mall. (The median household income in Manhattan Beach is more than $100,000, which makes it the wealthiest of the three beach-city neighbors.) There's sushi over here, Mediterranean food over there, plus a spa and Le Pain Quotidien bakery. And there's the Shade Hotel (1221 N. Valley Drive). It opened in 2005 (the Zislis Group again), and if you're wealthy enough to pay (it's $295 nightly in winter, $395 in summer), it's the coolest lodging in the South Bay. Its public areas are handsome and modern (except that the upstairs pool is too small for anything but a quick splash), and the guest rooms have spa jets in their two-person tubs, along with retracting screens between the bathroom and bedroom areas. If you're not quite wealthy enough — and if you're antsy about easy airport access — the Belamar Hotel (3501 Sepulveda Blvd.) might make sense. Though it has the feel of a business lodging (with boutique flourishes), it's less than two miles from the beach, connected to downtown Manhattan Beach by the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt footpath and less than four miles from LAX, with nightly rates that start around $180.
8. Hotel confidentialSheraton Gateway (Sheraton)
No leisure traveler should spend more than a single night in one of those big hotels in the soulless zone that is Century Boulevard. But if you have a late-night arrival or early-morning departure, or both, that single night can be crucial. When that time comes, remember that the big airport hotels have free LAX shuttle bus service with departures every 15 to 20 minutes and that their rates are often a lot lower on weekends, when business travel slows. Also, many of these hotels have specials offering up to a week of free parking if you book a room for just one night. Three good choices are the 802-room Starwood-affiliated Sheraton Gateway (6101 W. Century Blvd.), the 499-room Marriott-affiliated Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel (9620 Airport Blvd.) and the 740-room Starwood-affiliated Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel (5400 W. Century Blvd.). All have discounts on the weekend, when rooms drop to $130 or less; the Westin's rates sometimes drop below $100. (Weekday rates can be twice as high.) All have heated outdoor pools and club levels, and in-house restaurants serving all three meals. All three ding you for parking and Wi-Fi, adding about $40 a night unless you've grabbed one of those free-parking packages."9"
9. In the white spiderThe Theme Building and Encounter restaurant (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
You know you've wondered exactly what's inside that spider-legged Jetsons-era Theme Building in the middle of LAX. The building and its Encounter lunch-and-dinner restaurant just came out of a three-year renovation in 2010. So maybe, if you have a couple of airport hours to kill outside the security checkpoint, it's time to explore. There's a free observation deck up top that's open on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. By day, concrete dominates the view. So wait until sunset, when takeoffs and landings show up better, and head for Encounter for a drink or a meal. You'll hear a goofball sci-fi soundtrack as you ride the elevator, and you'll find lava lamps all around. The menu (dinner entrees about $18-$29) has won the restaurant high rankings among airport eateries nationwide. But be advised that unless you drink way too much, the restaurant will not spin. It never has. (In its grooviest days before 9/11, Encounter buzzed with diners and drinkers and didn't close until 2 a.m. Nowadays, it closes at 9 or 9:30 p.m., depending on the night.) And if none of this quite satisfies your plane-craziness, just a few blocks away, close by a busy runway, awaits the Proud Bird (11022 Aviation Blvd.), a restaurant that since 1962 has been fixated on the fun of flight. Not only do its window tables and patio offer prime views of landing jets, but its backyard is also decorated with more than a dozen historic planes.
10. To float your boatMarina del Rey (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Just 10 miles north of Manhattan Beach and right next to Venice, Marina del Rey is an 800-acre sailors' haven — a man-made lagoon with six hotels, six yacht clubs and about two dozen marinas and anchorages along its shores. Take a toddler to Mother's Beach near Admiralty and Palawan ways. Take a picnic to Burton W. Chace Park (a grassy knoll surrounded on three sides by water and boats). Rent just about any kind of watercraft you can imagine or sign onto a harbor cruise (www.visitmarinadelrey.com). Or, if it's a Wednesday from mid-April through early September, grab a sweater, take a patio seat at Shanghai Red's (13813 Fiji Way) and order a happy hour drink and snack (4 to 7 p.m.). Then lean back and watch sailboats by the score as they head out to open water for the California Yacht Club's weekly Sunset Series regatta (beginning at 5:55 p.m. Wednesdays). The boats head back in again as the sun sets. By the way, don't expect Chinese food at Shanghai Red's. It's been a surf-and-turf standby, with room for about 200 on that patio, for more than 40 years.