Travel Smart:

An historic hotel does wonders with its seaside setting and 140-year-old tree. Gourmet’s travel editor checks in.

At the end of Wilshire, L.A.’s longest boulevard, a tiny sun-bleached statue of St. Monica stands above the Pacific, dwarfed by palms and looking as if she should be directing traffic instead of bowing her head in prayer. I always imagine her saying, “That’s it, folks, now go home.” Or maybe, “Hey, you just missed the Miramar.” It’s easy to overlook, hidden as it is by trees and shrubs, but if you turn right, through the massive black iron gates in the last block of Wilshire, you’ll enter a grand compound that recalls the bygone era of Hollywood in the 1920s, when the hotel went up and when Santa Monica was somewhat of a beach playground for the stars. (Garbo lived at the hotel for a while.) I checked in recently to find the original building standing proud and mighty above the landscaped grounds, now with an addition from the ‘70s, where rooms come with seductive balconies overlooking the sea. Bungalows from the original era, which were just redone this year, neatly frame the lawn for the ultimate retro refinement.

The first thing you notice about the Miramar (now officially the Fairmont Miramar Hotel Santa Monica), though, is that there’s an enormous fig tree in the way, right between you and the front door. Not just any tree, this massive Moreton Bay Fig dates to 1879, when the grounds were part of a private estate. It’s 80 feet high and has a 120-foot network of branches, making it the second largest tree of its kind in California, a state that is broke and would probably not be able to afford the $22,000 Fairmont spends each year just to trim the leafy leviathan.

Of course, if you inherit such a tree, you have little choice as to what to name your new restaurant. Thus, at Fig, the word “fig” appears on everything—from the linens on down to the small bag holding your individual baguette—to remind you of the tree out front, even though the glass-enclosed dining room faces the pool in back. The chef Ray Garcia got a great review in the Los Angeles Times for his California-style cooking and sincere efforts at local sourcing (“Radical for a hotel restaurant,” writes S. Irene Virbila), the latter now a hallmark of the Fairmont chain.

In the end, there are three things you should know about the Miramar: While the crowd is not Beverly Hills chic (and that might be a good thing), you still get some of that sexy bungalows-by-the-pool glamour but at half the price (from $340, with bungalows starting at $500); the figs are purely ornamental and can’t be used for cooking; and the tree is a sight to see, worth a spin through the Miramar’s courtyard just for a look, even if you’re not going to stay.

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