This sport of tanned bods and tight abs came of age in L.A. in the early 1900s, when private beach clubs brought volleyball out of the gym and onto the sand. The doubles format, adopted as an Olympic sport in 1996, predominates today. The beach game is popular because it’s cheap (the price of the leather ball) and easy on the limbs (pro Karch Kiraly was winning events into his forties). Nets abound at many public beaches, but few sites maintain the rope lines that mark court boundaries, so bring your own (court use is fi rst come, first served). There was a time when you could “challenge” to play the winner of an ongoing game, yet that tradition is rarely honored now. If the courts are full, you may be in for a long wait. The following venues have the “A” games: plenty of parking, nearby rest rooms, at least a dozen good-quality nets, and a community of regular players who just might help you elevate your skills to something more than jungle ball.
The original spirit of the game lives on at Sorrento in Santa Monica. Park in Lot 8 on Pacific Coast Highway, at the foot of the California Incline, and head north. Most of the courts have rope lines, and you can still challenge to play. This was home base for many of the legends (Ron Von Hagen, Jim Menges, Sinjin Smith), and while some advanced players still meet here to take advantage of the blessedly shallow sand (easier to jump in), there are quite a few friendly novice-level games, too. The glamorous residences along this section of the coast have housed Hiltons and hosted Kennedys, and they add to the scenery while blocking wind and highway noise.
Everyone Knows Your Name
The “Cheers” of local beach volleyball, Ocean Park is frequented by lots of regulars who haul in their own lines (these courts have none). Also called Perry’s, for its proximity to the landmark blue café, the beach generally draws laid-back beginners—many of whom are recent graduates of city-sponsored classes held here. The courts are far enough from the ocean that wind is usually not a curse, and the sand is almost fluffy compared with the gritty mix at some beaches. Afterward, players can continue socializing at the nearby Casa del Mar hotel. Or do like the Sorrento legends of the ’70s and head for Father’s Office in Santa Monica, where the boys of yore were invariably treated to free suds.
Parking is the big issue at Hermosa Beach, but where isn’t it in the South Bay? A large, conveniently located structure on 13th Avenue, just a block from the pierside courts, is one reason this site now trumps storied Manhattan Beach. The tournament-grade nets directly to the north of the pier go quickly. Come before 9 to snag one. But if your skill level isn’t high, expect some attitude from late-arriving veterans coveting your space. The courts to the south, rife with beginners, are oddly spaced out, and flag-football leagues set up camp in the gaps between them. The sand is deeper than in Santa Monica—if you can hop here, you can hop anywhere. Games tend to be arranged aff airs, and any attempt to challenge will be met with pure ice.
The Women’s Room
From the 1940s well into the ’80s, you had to be a serious competitor to score a court at State Beach. Now you just have to decide whether to pay for the recently spiff ed-up city lot or head up Entrada Drive in Santa Monica Canyon to park on “cheapskate hill.” State was the location of the first two-man tournament, in 1947, won by the diminutive Manny Saenz and Al Harris, and the place where prodigy Kent Steffes would practice serving a hundred balls at a time on his way to dominating the pro game in the ’90s. Today there are plenty of open courts on the weekends (the summer tourney season is the exception). There are several women’s height nets, which make this a great venue for the girls. Tucked next to the Beach Club, it’s also well protected from the wind.
As the halfway point for pros traveling from Malibu and Santa Monica to join up with their counterparts from the South Bay and Orange County, Playa del Rey gets more action than its out-of-the-way location might indicate (it’s so isolated that the highly regarded Chinese Olympic teams trained here away from the public eye for the Beijing Games this summer). The best spot is behind the dunes along Pacifi c Avenue, where there’s also free parking. The beach slopes slightly, and the courts, like those at neighboring Dockweiler, are more exposed to the wind than amateurs might like. But the view of boats moving in and out of the marina makes up for the frustration of watching strong gusts send the ball sailing out of bounds.
Photography courtesy Flickr/usavbeachjuniors2010