21 | Sep | 11

Richard Johnson

City Of The Angels

No-one walks in Los Angeles – apart from the hookers. It’s a city of cars, which is why I’ve been sitting in traffic for an hour. At least Sunset Boulevard has got curves, unlike the other east-to-west arteries which cross LA. And the curves throw out ever-changing views across California’s wide-open spaces. In America’s sunshine state, they say you can surf, ski, and see the sun set over the desert – all on a single tank of petrol. I want to see if they’re right. If I can ever get past the junction with La Brea.

Actually, I came to profile Wolfgang Puck. He’s opening a CUT in London. He’s coming to Park Lane to grill his signature cuts of beef over hard-wood and charcoal and then finish them under a 1200 degree broiler. So I want to see how he does it in LA. And I couldn’t come all the way without checking out the street food scene, the amazing locavore movement that’s sprung out of California’s Farmers’ Market, and the city’s obsession with coffee. It’s all on the Food Programme this Sunday.

But I wanted a Road Trip. If you drive Sunset west, you hit the ocean. Past the most famous stretch of rock ‘n’ roll real estate on Earth – the Sunset Strip. There’s the Viper Room, where River Phoenix collapsed and died, and the Whisky-A-Go-Go, where John Belushi overdosed on heroin. Ten blocks of sex, celebrity and sleaze. When I finally reach the bright, white surf of Santa Monica, I feel cleansed. Shame I’ve got Pamela Anderson stuck in my head – this is same sand where they filmed Baywatch.

While I’m in LA, I’m staying at the Mondrian. Once I manage to find it. It’s behind two 30-feet mahogany doors. There is, of course, no sign. That would be unseemly. To recruit staff, they put an ad in the local acting paper saying that they were holding ‘auditions’. And the staff still behave like they’re still waiting to be discovered. LA is, after all, a company town for the entertainment industry, and everyone is on show. You’re no-one here unless you’ve got an agent.

The bartender in the hotel’s Sky Bar is called Wind. Or something like that. He tells me has eight body piercings – not one of which is visible – and, like everyone else in LA, he has a screenplay that he’s sure is going to land him a big film deal. As I sip a lychee martini, I take a good look down at Los Angeles. It’s not a place for travellers who are looking to photograph monuments. But, in the late afternoon sun, through the palm trees, it’s got an odd beauty about it.

LA doesn’t have what you would call a centre. It has a series of centres – each with its own character. Despite the ongoing regeneration, Downtown still rolls up its sidewalks after dark. And Hollywood, with its handprints of the stars, is too touristy. Ironic really. The world thinks Hollywood is high-glam, but, in LA, saying you live in Hollywood is like saying you live under a bridge. My favourite is West Hollywood. Like the sign says, “Welcome to West Hollywood. Population: Fabulous.”

West Hollywood, or WeHo, gives you real celebrities in their natural habitat – at the coffee shop, or picking up the sugar they forgot. They live in the Hollywood Hills, but WeHo is their Downtown. It’s kooky enough to feel like LA (in WeHo you don’t ‘own’ pets, you are merely their guardian), and it’s every bit as cool. It’s got the largest youngest singlest population in the city. So there’s lots of co-existence. Expect to find a Rolls Royce dealership next to a lesbian dry cleaners.

In this city of shopping malls, WeHo has managed to keep its diversity. But that’s because props buyers from tv and film support the more eclectic stores with their custom. Melrose, for instance, has a real boho vibe, and attracts the flip-flops and diamonds crowd. But Sunset Plaza is more European Elegance meets California Chic. It’s good for designer boutiques, haute eats and beautiful people. Well, it’s where I saw Neil Sedaka.

Beverly Hills is more high-end LA. You don’t need a sign to know you’ve arrived – the concrete just gives way to perfectly manicured lawns. The Beverly Hills Hotel passes to the right and on the left is the world’s most up-market police station, resembling an up-market shopping mall. Now that it’s got BCBG and Guess, Rodeo Drive more accessible than it did in the days of Pretty Woman. You used to dress up to shop there. Now you’re welcome in your track pants and sweats.

As a first-time visitor, LA is hard to get to know – and like – in a short time. So I decide to continue on my journey, and do what the rest of LA does at the weekend – escape to the snow at Big Bear. They call it it Hollywood’s back lot because it’s been used as a location in so many films – from Paint Your Wagon to The Parent Trap, Kissin’ Cousins and Dr Dolittle. And yet it’s only a two-hour drive east from LA. If the traffic is good.

At almost 8,900 feet, it snows in Big Bear almost every winter. If the weather doesn’t show up, they just turn on their $5million state-of the-art snow making machines. The technology means that you can ski in the sun 330 days a year. And, what with this being California, they like to ski in their underwear. In the land that invented supersizing, that’s not always nice to watch. I wasn’t about to give it a go. I like somewhere to keep my small change.

The skiing experience at Big Bear is all about F-U-N. There are rubbish bins with targets painted on them under the ski lifts, and Bryan Adams blaring out of the loudspeakers. The lift operators are very Bill and Ted, and they keep lift lines as short as possible by regulating ticket sales. Just don’t expect much in the way of your actual ‘help’. My ski instructor says he can’t adjust my skis because he doesn’t have adequate liability insurance. Only in the USA.

There’s a replica pirate ship from the Time Bandits movie on Big Bear lake – and seared ahi tuna on the menu at the Evergreen International Restaurant – but Big Bear still feels a very different pace from LA. I drive east through the San Bernardino national forest until the Jeffrey Pines start to give way to the cactus to find where black bears still roam free. And I see a magnificent bald eagle with a six-foot wing span. It has flown here to escape the pollution in LA. Just like me.

To find complete escape, I drive northeast to Death Valley. It’s five hours from Big Bear, and one of the hottest places on the surface of the Earth, with summer temperatures that average well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The original Star Trek series was filmed here. Every time the Starship Enterprise landed on an alien planet, and Captain Kirk asked, “Where the devil are we, Spock?”, it was Death Valley. This uncommonly beautiful place is the real final frontier.

The road signs are a worry. “Avoid overheating” says one. “Turn off air conditioning”. In temperatures that average well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit? They must be joking. But they aren’t. When a sign says “Radiator water one mile”, I start to develop an intimate relationship with my car’s temperature gauge. Suddenly I realise that I haven’t seen another person for miles. And I start to feel all wistful for the traffic jams of LA.

Nobody owns land in Death Valley. They merely borrow it from the elements. But that is what’s so exciting about the place – being out in all that raw geology. During the day, the sun washes the colours out of the mud, ash and gravel. But at sunrise and sunset everything changes, and Zabriske Point, Manly Beacon and Artist’s Palette are suddenly tinged with pink and blue. Like Hollywood, it’s a matter of getting the lighting right.

I arrive at the Furnace Creek Inn just in time – my fuel tank is nearly empty. Rain in Death Valley evaporates before it hits the ground, and blows over the desert as mist, but there’s torrential rainfall over the Panamint Mountains and the owners of the Inn are worried about flash floods. I spend two hours watching the lilac sky through the mist. It feels like heaven. And I feel calm. My mobile has no signal – I couldn’t feel further from LA.