You’ve got a compact, wanna upgrade?” asks the car hire lady at LAX. “No thanks, that’s what I ordered.” The keyboard tapping stops. Silence.
“Really? Okaaay,” she adds, staring for just a little too long before frantically pounding at the computer. Going small is apparently not the norm in Los Angeles.
I hit the road. Unfortunately, so has the rest of the city. But the traffic still flows, the streets having grown fat on the infamous American diet, stretching five, six, seven lanes wide each way. Cars weave in and out, indicating optional, tailgating preferable, no lane obviously faster than the next. It’s intimidating to say the least.
I’d resisted hiring a car at first, always preferring to explore cities on foot. I’d resisted even more when told by the friendly tourism board that “getting around without a car is really easy”.
However, my LA buddies on the ground told me otherwise, suggesting I’d be insane to even attempt the city without my own wheels. And now I can see why.
The fast and the curious
Indeed, during my four days in the city, I repeatedly ask people how they’re getting about. Each time the answer is identical, the speaker bemused at being asked such an obvious question. “I’m driving. This is LA.”
The city sprawls as much across southern California as it does our cultural psyche. Even if the buses and metro are now up to scratch, the distances are big, and besides, it’s often the streets themselves – Rodeo Drive, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive – that conjure up the most excitement amongst visitors.
I give the map the briefest of glances and the names jump out – Santa Monica, Bel Air, Compton, Venice Beach, Pasadena, Malibu, Hollywood, each sparking flashes of faces, scenes and lyrics drip fed into the subconscious over a lifetime of movies, TV and music.
The City of Angels. Tinseltown. La-La Land. Whatever you want to call the Californian capital of crazy, it’s hard to imagine a place we think we know more about than Los Angeles.
There aren’t just beaches in LA, there’s Baywatch beaches. There’s not just shops in LA, there’s Pretty Woman shops. And bars? Well, pick up any gossip mag, anywhere in the world, and you’ll soon work out where to go.
Theme parks and recreation
I’m in town for a TNT assignment that seems simple. I’m to go in search of the stars. My odds seem favourable. After all, LA is where most of the world’s big celebrities call home.
I get started in one of the biggest star factories in town – Universal Studios. It’s school holidays and almost lunch by the time I arrive. One look at the crowds and I realise the lie-in was a mistake. Luckily, I’ve been uncharacteristically organised and told Universal I’m coming their way. Luckier yet, they hand me a front of line pass. It’s the American Dream. Or the theme park dream at least, skipping guiltily to the front of every queue, head bowed, the Brit in me dying to tell everyone, “sorry, I’m not rich, I drive a compact”.
The Americans are the kings of theme parks and no film fan could leave Universal disappointed. The rides blow me away. Sure, some feel a little dated now (Terminator 2 anyone?) but the majority have me screaming, laughing like a lunatic or simply holding on as tight as I can.
A real highlight is the new Transformers 3D ride. I’m yet to be convinced by 3D in the cinema, but rides are a whole different world. I’m thrown left and right, up and down, each time ducking and twisting, desperately trying to avoid the Autobots and Decepticons as they enthusiastically get stuck into World War 3 around me. Behind me a child hollers in horror, his mum screaming, “Take off the glasses!”
Next up is the Revenge of The Mummy ride. At first it seems a more traditional indoor rollercoaster, with a few scarab beetles thrown in for good measure. Traditional that is, until the lights go out, sending us into pitch dark and ramping the screams up a notch. The effect is then multiplied when, thinking we’ve reached the end, we suddenly jerk backwards, and proceed to do the entire course again, in reverse.
Nerves suitably tingled, it’s back into the blazing sun for a cool-off on the Jurassic Park log flume. Around we go, dodging the dinosaurs, always edging our way higher, higher, higher. When the drop eventually comes, the turning of the stomach is made even tighter by the perfectly-timed lunging T-Rex on the summit, making the rush of the fall and the inevitable soaking all the sweeter.
But of course Universal is not just about the rides. There’s all action live shows to be seen, special effects demonstrations to gawp at and of course the main tour itself. This takes you all over the studio, stopping every now and then to fend off King Kong or Jaws or watch the Fast and the Furious cars do a fiery little jig. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is driving through the sets, fake cities that are little more than painted boards with only the LA desert behind.
Hopping from ride to show to ride, stopping now and then to pose with a mummy or transformer, the hours fly by. Suddenly it’s 10pm. Time to hit the road.
The clock ticking on my trip, my celeb count remains on zero. I need to step it up.
Venice the menace
The next day is an early start for a divine brekkie at Manhattan Beach 24-hour institution The Kettle. The food is fantastic, but no post-party names are in attendance, so onwards it is, to the full-on freakfest that is Venice Beach.
Venice has long been a major counterculture hub. Made famous by the Z-Boy skaters, White Men Can’t Jump basketball courts and open-air muscle gym once frequented by Arnie, the 2.5 mile strip is an all-day circus of performers, artists and fortune-tellers.
Down and outs hold out placards offering “shitty advice for $2”, while reclining stoners occasionally lift boards claiming they “work for marijuana”. Every 100 metres or so is a marijuana medical centre, places where for about $40 you can see a so-called green doctor, somebody who can legally prescribe you weed. Competition is tough so boisterous hawkers dressed in green scrubs urge you through the doors. Less tough, apparently, is getting approval from the doctor, with the list of required ailments including insomnia, anxiety and “many other disorders”.
Leaving the crazies, I go in search of some more natural sights and head south, out of town, to Palos Verdes. The views of the Pacific coastline are spectacular and, as the sun melts into the ocean (Baywatch theme in head), we’re treated to the rare sight of about 15 blue whales swimming south, spouting water high into the air each time they touch the surface. It’s a timely reminder that there’s more to this most famous of desert cities than simply being famous. From the creaking oil wells besides the freeways, to the surrounding parks, bountiful ocean and massive, spacious strip of sand that forms the city’s western flank, there’s much more variety than I’d expected in a place I’d considered plastic.
But one problem persists. I’ve still not got a celebrity spotting to call my own. With just one day remaining, it’s time for extreme measures. It’s time for the celebrity tours. I head downtown and quickly realise that just about every other vehicle belongs to Starline Tours, who’ve been stalking celebs for tourists since way back in 1935. I figure they’re the ones for me.
High on Hollywood thrills
On my way to their base by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, I stroll up Hollywood Boulevard, taking in some of the 2,500 stars that dot the pavement, bearing the names of some of the biggest talents in history. There’s Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin and Houdini, as well as some of the real giants of entertainment, like the Rug Rats and Power Rangers. More interesting, perhaps, is who’s not there. Julia Roberts, for example, apparently didn’t like the idea of 10 million people a year walking all over her. Mohammed Ali supposedly had the same opinion, but they liked him more, so put his on the wall. Others, like George Clooney, simply didn’t fancy having to attend the opening ceremony, while yet more no doubt baulked at the $30,000 fee.
Clambering through the multitude of Spider-Men, Darth Vader’s and Avatar characters also lining Hollywood Boulevard, hoping for tips in return for photos, I make it to my Stars’ Homes Tour bus, ready to accomplish my mission.
Off we go, up onto Mulholland Drive, taking in the views of the Hollywood Sign (recently saved from developers, incidentally, by none other than Hugh Hefner). We’re soon past Jason Statham’s new pad and looking out over Beverly Park, the grand canyon of mansions, average price $20-50m, where the likes of Charlie Sheen and Denzel can be found. Seeing anything from up on high is tricky, however, so street level we go, into the Hills.
It rapidly becomes hard keeping track of the A-list names. Ronald Reagan’s former house was also where they filmed Fresh Prince? No way! Elvis’ old home was across the street from Michael Jackson? Crazy.
Also abundantly clear is that imagination is key to the experience. A common theme develops – admiring and photographing random parts of houses. Well, gates. I get Christina Aguilera’s gate and Eddie Murphy’s gate. I get Ellen’s gate, which is next to Ringo Starr’s gate. And then there’s Sandra Bullock’s gate, which is opposite Cameron Diaz’s gate. I’m now an expert on gates. And the occasional chimney (thanks Mr Cruise). But no people.
It’s odd to say the least, but the tour is still strangely enjoyable, giving an eye-popping insight into the staggering wealth that Hollywood creates. However, I’m after people, so line up a second tour – one run by the celebrity news jokers TMZ. These guys promise more than gates. They offer the bars, shops and restaurants where celebs hang out and they even jump out and interview celebs if any are spotted. I’m sold, so it’s back on the bus and back to Beverly Hills.
We pass Saks Fifth Avenue (think Winona shoplifting) and the Beverly Hills Courthouse (think Lindsay Lohan writing “F U” on her nails), we pass the Four Seasons Hotel (think Paris Hilton sex tape) and L’Ermitage Hotel (think, er, Verne Troyer, aka Mini Me, sex tape). But we don’t see people. People that matter that is, famous people.
Until, hang on sec, is that a murmur from the back? Somebody’s been spotted on Rodeo Drive!
I look across the street and there she is, a famous-looking person waving at us! But no, it’s too late, our guide hadn’t made the spot and so misses the interview as the target ducks into a shop. Who was it, we ask? ”Shaunie O’Neal! The star of Basketball Wives!” Eh? “She’s the ex of NBA legend Shaq!”
Hmm, I think that’s a fail.
Universal Studios (universalstudioshollywood.com) costs USD$80 (USD$159 for front of line pass). The Stars’ Homes Tour costs USD$44 and the TMZ tour costs USD$49 (both through starlinetours.com). Beds at Banana Bungalow West Hollywood from USD$27/night. Beds at Venice Beach Cotel from $30/night. see: visitcalifornia.com.au