LOS ANGELES -- "Hey, look at that funny guy!"
It was hard not to notice the gentleman in question, with his fake doctor's outfit, giant sunglasses and a big sign that read, "Free test." He pointed toward a storefront harmlessly advertised as The Holistic Center -- with the letters "THC" suspiciously prominent.
Nothing like having your 3-year-old daughter point out a medical marijuana facility to you.
The legal pot shops dotting the famous boardwalk were just specks in the kaleidoscope of reminders that Venice is still a freak show of the first order. On a three-night trip last fall to Los Angeles' slacker beach-bum haven, our daughter also took in a street performer walking barefoot over broken glass and flame-twirlers with a Phish concert from 1992 still in their heads.
However -- and this isn't any drugs talking -- Venice is enjoying something of a renaissance as a family-friendly section of L.A., like a hip, cozy small town within the big city. Celeb moms such as Julia Roberts and Kate Beckinsale are moving in, and a new wave of playful restaurants and shops have opened up.
Wishful Julia sightings aside, we chose Venice to be close to the action but outside the din of Los Angeles, where we wanted to hit a few sights. We wanted the beach, not the blech. We also liked the many funky little beach bungalows and townhouses for rent there, instead of the swank hotels in neighboring Santa Monica.
What we hadn't counted on was Venice's compactness and neighborhood quality, albeit a neighborhood that is way cooler and more crowded than yours.
From our ocean-blue bungalow -- about $200 per night for two small bedrooms and a kitchen -- we could walk to the giant new Whole Foods Market on Lincoln Boulevard or the fair-like farmers market on Main Street. We could also walk to an innumerable number of hip (but not overly trendy) restaurants without having to tip any valet.
My wife's post-vacation credit-card statement also reminded me how close we were to the bounty of indie boutiques surrounding the main shopping and dining drag, Abbott Kinney Boulevard, just a few blocks but worlds away from the boardwalk.
The best stretch of time we had in Venice was the relaxed day and a half we avoided using our car, a feat otherwise unheard of for a Los Angeles vacation. It started with a morning stroll to the Rose Cafe, where the guacamole-topped huevos rancheros and garden patio oozed California flavor. From there, we rambled down to the boardwalk to rent bikes.
You can pretty much throw a flip-flop and hit a rental shop anywhere along the Venice beach. Priced around $25 per day, the cruisers may be the best deal in Los Angeles outside of "Price Is Right" tickets. You can follow the beach 22 miles along the South Bay Trail, from the harbor views of Marina del Rey on the south end to the picturesque Will Rogers State Beach way north.
We made it up to the plain but clean beaches of Pacific Palisades before turning back to Santa Monica. The obligatory (and absolutely worthwhile) ferris wheel ride in the pier's amusement park was followed by a walk uphill to the Third Street Promenade area for lunch and fountain- and sculpture-gazing.
The best stop along the way was at the Annenberg Community Beach House, which might well be the greatest reuse of an opulent mansion estate in American history -- kids swimming and swinging where William Randolph Hearst's rich cronies used to swing in a whole other way.
Built right on the beach in Santa Monica for Hearst's girlfriend, Marion Davies, in the 1920s, the 5-acre spread went through various rebirths before finally reopening in 2009 as a public pool (a wow-inducing pool at that). There's also a fitness center, cool playground and cafe where you can dine in the sand. It's all thanks to the nonprofit Annenberg Foundation stepping in where the notoriously broke State of California couldn't.
We walked to the utterly quaint and wholesome Santa Monica Farmers Market, on the border with Venice. There, we ate an unbeatably fresh breakfast of vendors' fare and sat in the grass and listened to some great little string-picking ensemble -- pretty much what we often do on summer weekends back home, plus a pony ride for the girl.
Back nearer our bungalow, we strolled through another fun historic site: the canals that were at the center of Venice's creation in 1905.
Officially a district within Los Angeles and not its own city, Venice was envisioned by tobacco baron Abbott Kinney as a Pacific Coast counterpart to its namesake city in Italy, with 16 miles of gondola-filled canals as its centerpiece. While only a few miles remain, none of which is really gondola-worthy anymore, these palm-tree-lined canals do offer many little sigh-worthy bridges and chances to get lost. And with Venice's residential upswing, there are now plenty of elaborate, expensive homes along the canal shores for gawk value.
For the rest of our trip, Venice made for a great home base that really did feel like home. We couldn't wait to get back there after driving up into the Hollywood Hills and downtown L.A. Almost out of commitment, we didn't eat a meal outside of Venice besides our one lunch in Santa Monica. The ceaselessly cool dining options were probably our favorite part of our stay -- blocks and blocks of funky little eateries with all the bright color and flavor you look for on the coast, without the California stuck-uppity quality.
And as far as Venice's freak-show element goes, our daughter was certainly entertained by it all. We just looked at it as a sort of low-rent Disneyland. We even saw Mickey and Minnie Mouse at one point, though they were actually a couple of tacky entrepreneurs in costume charging tourists for photos. At least it made for a better photo-op than the wacky pot-shop guy.