First published on Aug. 28, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.
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 are seven ways of looking at Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, along with tips for LAX (about seven miles north) and Marina del Rey (about 12 miles north). In the bargain, you get the word on 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 Strand
The 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; www.hermosacyclery.com), 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, Hermosa Beach; www.eatgoodstuff.com), which has a pleasant patio just a few steps away from the bike shop. 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 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; www.eatrockefeller.com), for craft beer, artisan burgers, open-air dining and sports on TV.
2. Redondo's Riviera
Redondo Beach Pier (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Redondo Beach has a pier (100 Fisherman’s Wharf, Redondo Beach; www.redondopier.com) and beachfront complex designed just for tourists -- a place where visitors who like a rough-around-the-edges destination can stroll over the ocean, browse the seafood market, rent a paddle boat, duck into the din of a dark arcade, catch a tribute band at Brixton South Bay (100 W. Torrance Blvd., Redondo Beach; www.brixtonsouthbay.com), maybe even sleep at the Portofino Hotel (260 Portofino Way, Redondo Beach; www.hotelportofino.com). But 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 shops and eateries, including Redondo Beach Brewing Co. (1814 Catalina Ave.; www.redondobrewery.com), Dolce Vita (1718 S. Catalina Ave.; www.dvgourmet.com) and H.T. Grill (1701 S. Catalina Ave.; www.htgrill.com), all 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., Redondo Beach; www.greentemple.net).
3. High-style Hermosa
Hermosa Beach (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, Hermosa Beach; www.beach-house.com), with summer rates (in 2012) beginning at $319. Stroll up a few blocks to Java Man (157 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; www.javamancoffeehouse.com), 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., Hermosa Beach; www.gumtreela.com). This is another converted bungalow, its interior split between a gift and home shop and a café with Aussie overtones. 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., Hermosa Beach; www.sharkeez.net). The oldest and grungiest include the Mermaid (11 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach) and the Poop Deck (1272 the Strand, Hermosa Beach). The best view probably belongs to the upstairs deck at Hennessey's Tavern (8 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; www.hennessystavern.com). One of the newer spots is a shrine to surfing called Watermans (22 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; www.watermanshb.com). And on the two floors above, you'll find Surf City Hostel (26 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; www.surfcityhostel.com). It must get as loud as a train station sometimes, but it fills its 67 beds with budget travelers who share dorm rooms and bathrooms, stash their bikes and surfboards in the hall and pay spring and summer rates beginning at $30 a night.
5. Jay's other job
Jay 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., Hermosa Beach; www.comedyandmagicclub.com), testing new material in a black-box space with about 250 seats. Buy a ticket to the 7 p.m. show (around $30), 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 (nine tables for two). You're required to order at least two drinks or menu items. And you may get some big laughs from the two comedians who typically precede Leno. Chances are he'll come out a little before 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.