What is it about California that makes it so Californian? People and attitude. In the first of a series, Andrew Purvis looks beyond the 'Baywatch' surf of Santa Monica and finds it has a soul. On page 64, a day at the LA races
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Through a discreet gateway off Sunset Boulevard, the pounding artery linking Santa Monica with Beverly Hills and downtown LA, the Self- Realisation Fellowship Lake Shrine beckons. A few miles from the scene of Hugh Grant's lewd act, a stone's throw from where Pamela Anderson struts her stuff in Baywatch, Angelinos come to refresh mind and spirit in a southern California Eden.

Among the palms and umbrella pines, transplanted from elsewhere into the lifeless low desert, monuments remind the unholy what the five main world religions are. A stone sarcophagus, in a wall-less temple open to the sky, is home to Mahatma Gandhi's ashes. At the Windmill Chapel, a real mill on the lakeside, candles are lit and prayers chanted in memory of Paramahansa Yogananda - guru and commercially astute author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who planted the seed of enlightenment here in the Beat heyday of 1950.

It's a place where you can chill out, hang loose, do what you want - almost. Like everywhere else in Santa Monica, there are rules to be obeyed. Meditation and yoga are permitted, but not on the perfectly manicured lawns; that would look untidy. Everywhere in the gardens, notices remind you of this. Instead seekers perch in alcoves and on benches, lulled by the purring wingbeat of hummingbirds, or sit cross-legged (and symmetrical) on rocky shelves near the Koi-infested waters of the lake.

It's another sign of Santa Monica's extraordinary civic zeal. Down on the famous Victorian pier - just like the one in Blackpool, England, but with stalls selling burgers and tacos instead of fish and chips - signs warn anglers of the dangers of consuming "white croakers" caught in the Bay; traces of chemicals have been monitored in the fishes' flesh. Another poster carries precise instructions on how to clean clams, and exactly which parts of the delicacy to throw away. In my hotel room, the inside of the mini-bar solemnly warns that alcohol consumed during pregnancy can seriously damage a foetus's health.

The reason for all this civic responsibility is twofold: first, California is a nanny state, and then some. Second, Santa Monica really is a city, with its own government and toytown politics - one of over 40 that make up the vast Los Angeles County sprawl. Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Pasadena and Malibu are some of the more evocative- sounding others, while the riot-torn districts of downtown LA are the most notorious. Flanked by bohemian Venice in the south and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the city of Los Angeles, seaside Santa Monica bills itself as an unparalleled cultural mecca. Its art galleries, museums, bookshops, cafes and restaurants make it a magnet for well-heeled holidaymakers, upwardly mobile Californians and, of course, Hollywood celebrities.

It's hard to move in Santa Monica without straying into the path of a Hollywood dolly trolley. On the way from LAX airport, you recognise the deli where Keanu Reeves bought coffee in Speed before the bus (the Big Blue Bus, loaned by the city of Santa Monica) blew up. At Santa Monica airport you can dine at the restaurant, called DC3, where Demi Moore upset Robert Redford just a little in Indecent Proposal by decimating the crockery and glassware. In the wetlands near Marina del Rey, Steven Spielberg's omnipresent movie empire battles with duck-loving environmentalists over optimum use of the greenbelt. It's obvious who will win.

While the movie moguls slug it out, Santa Monica remains the familiar backdrop of prime-time TV shows - in Britain at least. Baywatch has put its beaches on the crass-cultural map. Sheryl Crow made the boulevard famous, with the most tortuous scansion of any song ("Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard"), but it's the lifeguards, surfers and beautiful people of Venice, Manhattan and Muscle Beach ("the home of the physical fitness craze of the late 20th century", a sign pompously proclaims) that have made Santa Monica a lecher's paradise.

It's not just me. On the 26-mile coastal bike path between Malibu and Redondo Beach, enthusiasts gather to watch hundreds of bikers and rollerbladers compete for the accolade of Most Perfect Physical Specimen. Girls in Lycra with unfeasibly toned and tanned midriffs hurtle past the hire-shops on blades, while male cyclists in vivid sports shorts ogle and overhaul them by virtue of their larger wheels. Size matters. You don't exactly pursue the most beautiful girls, but you don't exactly slow down either.

In fact the bike trail isn't all pleasure. I hired a mountain bike from Perry's (the most ubiquitous outlet) and cycled down the coast, past the street performers, stall-holders, jugglers and junkies of Venice to the boatyards and grim canals of Marina del Rey. There, the air smells of yachties - fibreglass resin, perished tarpaulins, spilt diesel - and students from UCLA gather garbage from the shoreline to add substance to their CVs.

At Playa del Rey, which sounds exotic, tragic men in anoraks comb the sand with metal-detectors. I pedalled north again to Will Rogers State Beach, past the grey clapperboard lifeguard station made famous by Baywatch. A canary-yellow 4x4 bumped along the sand, and in the back - yes! - there really was one of those bright orange floats that Pamela drags through the shallows.

As I rehydrated with a bottle of water (it was 83 degrees in February), I watched a wiry man in his sixties hobble across the sand to refresh himself at one of the many standpipe showers. In his orange shorts, he looked like an emaciated but tanned Ronald Reagan. I watched with amazement as the old-timer walked across the beach and disappeared into the lifeguard hut. Forget David Hasselhoff, this was the real thing.

Santa Monica is like that. It may be the epicentre of glamour and body fascism, but there's a healthy respect for other members of society too. In Palisades Park, a strip of greenbelt just a few metres wide that runs along the ocean front, you see the paradox. As tides of lithe runners thunder past, you feel like a freak if you're walking; then you notice the soup kitchens for the homeless dotted among the palm trees, and - cheek-by-jowl with the joggers - a shuffleboard court for pensioners. It's almost as if the city of Santa Monica has, well, a soul.

To experience more of it, strike out from 3rd Street - the self-consciously "lively" tourist district where clowns, jazz artists and a (rare) Japanese one-man band perform among dinosaur sculptures outside the Disney Store - and drive or walk a few blocks to Main Street. There, Moca - the Museum of Contemporary Art - hosts avant-garde exhibitions by day, poetry readings and theatre revues in the crowded bookshop by night. At the Novel Cafe nearby, you can choose a book from the shelf and read it over a cappuccino without actually buying it. At the World Cafe, the LA equivalent of Cyberia, sad Angelinos surf the Net over an iced tea while their girlfriends look decorative in the shaded patio.

The shops in this district are about as far from Sock Shop and Tie Rack as you can get. At Star Wares, you can browse through racks of secondhand clothes just as you would at Oxfam. Scrutinise the labels closely and you'll find the diminutive baseball jacket ($450) once belonged to Cher, the chiffon scarf ($395) to Vivien Leigh. Signed certificates vouch for their authenticity.

After Hollywood celebrity and physical fitness, food is Santa Monica's great obsession. It's not always what the British are used to. At the Border Grill I ate whole baby octopus cute enough for my children to keep. At the celebrated Ocean Avenue Seafood, I sampled uni shots - a mouth- puckering cocktail of sea urchin, quail's egg, soy sauce and vodka. The vodka was fine. Available cuisines include Italian, Irish, Austrian (Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous Schazi on Main), "engineered foods" (for bodybuilders), Japanese, Mexican, even Californian. Seafood tastes fresher than anywhere in Europe, if you don't mind putting creatures out of Alien III in your mouth.

It's a culture of sorts, but is it real? In Santa Monica, you can ask how old a building is and not get a straight answer: "I think they moved it here a year ago," people will say. That antique Southern California beach house was actually flown in from New England; that tumbling Gothic pile, or the Spanish colonial casa on San Vincente Boulevard, was probably designed by Frank Gehry. Here, remember, the most treasured art collection is housed in a painstakingly fake Roman villa (the Jean Paul Getty Museum, just up the Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu). The taps in the famously characterful Hotel Shangri-La are marked "Chaud" and "Froid" (OK, it is art deco), and in the breakfast room you wonder whether the Buddhist monk in Bermuda shorts is an actor. Reality and celluloid blur; everywhere seems familiar from films. Here, the people look like movie stars and the movie stars like, well, people.

But you don't need to exhaust yourself trying to distinguish one world from the other; you can live happily in both. The duality is most obvious at Bergamot Station, a complex of avant-garde art galleries which is simultaneously a memorial to Santa Monica's raw industrial past. If Santa Monica has a soul, this is where it resides.

Bergamot, once a Red Line tram stop on the way from LA to Santa Monica Pier, has since seen service as a celery-packing warehouse, an ice-making plant and a water-heater factory. With its steel girders and corrugated iron hangars daubed in primary colours, it is now a Meccano mecca for art lovers.On the one hand the seven-acre site represents the Disneyfication of art. Its car park can accommodate hundreds of vehicles; if all goes to plan, its cafes will heave with thousands of visitors each day, here to view contemporary photography and Vietnam protest art. There are plans for a 400-seater theatre and a 99-seater auditorium. At night, cult movies are projected on the sides of buildings and it feels like a 60s Happening.

Talk to Wayne Blank, Bergamot's creator and owner of the chic Shoshana Wayne Gallery, and you realise it isn't just a matter of bums on seats (or even on automobile trunks). Much of the West Coast's artistic talent is distilled here, subsidised by dozens of architecture firms and design consultancies that rent office space. Shake hands with Wayne and there's a palpable electric charge. This is his vision, and it's going to work.

Bergamot isn't fake, but it isn't exactly genuine either. There's a vague sense of history, but most people have forgotten what history is. Does it matter? Even with the Coast Guard helicopter chattering overhead, and the smog reports booming out from the radio in your neighbour's Bronco, it beats the Hayward Gallery any day. If Santa Monica is a cultural desert, I can hack it.


GETTING THERE: Andrew Purvis flew with Virgin Atlantic on a newly fitted-out Boeing 747-400. The economy return fare from Heathrow to Los Angeles is pounds 483 until 14 June and pounds 573 over the following summer months. The one-way Upper Class fare is pounds 1,922. For further information and reservations telephone 01293 747 747.

WHEN TO GO: Between now and the end of May, good discounts are still available on accommodation (from November to March, they are often as much as 30 per cent off). This, together with a reliable year-round climate (with temperatures in the 70s and 80s even in winter), makes Santa Monica an excellent out-of-season destination. High season runs from June to October.

STAYING THERE: For character, try the art deco Hotel Shangri-La, 1301 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90401 (001 310 394 2791). Studios from $110 per night, one-bed suites with sundeck from $205 per night, penthouses with two double bedrooms from $365 per night. For sheer luxury, experience the Miramar Sheraton Hotel (101 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90401, tel 001 310 576 7777) with rooms from $170 per night. Perhaps the most original hotel is the Channel Road Inn (219 W Channel Road, Santa Monica, CA 90402), a discreet colonial house with 14 guest rooms decorated in individual styles. Rates range from $95 to $225 per night. It's essential to book well in advance. Reservations on 001 310 459 1920.

GETTING AROUND: To explore the Pacific coast, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and downtown LA, car hire is essential. Hotels will arrange this for you. Though Santa Monica itself can be easily explored on foot, bike hire from one of the many beach hire-shops is the best way to see the city and Pacific coast. Perry's, the most conspicuous outlet, charges $15 a day for a mountain bike, $6 per hour for rollerblades. An original, though expensive, way to see LA is with Heli-USA (001 310 641 9494). A night helicopter flight over Hollywood and Beverly Hills, dinner at a restaurant included, costs $119 for adults, $99 for children.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau, 520 Broadway, Suite 250, Santa Monica, CA 90401-2428 (001 310 319 6263).