On my last two visits to California I made the journey from the Bay Area to Los Angeles using the Amtrak Coast Starlight railway service. While an in places spectacular (if fairly slow) ride, having done it twice it felt a little like a wasted day to do it again, while also involving an early start and a late night.
This time then I made the choice of hiring a car to make the drive down the famous Californian coast highway. While the most famous chunk, through Big Sur and down to Morrow Bay, was out-of-bounds thanks to some spectacular landslides earlier in the year, I thought it still worth doing – and I wasn’t disappointed.
Picking the car up near Union Square in San Francisco meant the first half hour of drive was something of a baptism of fire having never driven a left hand drive car on the right hand side of the road before and being launched into city traffic.
By the time I reached the Lands End viewing point though, my nerves were largely overcome and after a brief stop to work out the radio system (Sirius XM Satellite radio is a godsend on a long drive, particularly the Lithium 90s alternative station) I set off along Ocean Beach and onwards towards Santa Cruz.
This stretch of coast road is hugely impressive with quaint sheltered bays, rousing surf beaches and many small communities dotted along the way. As I was aiming to drive all the way to LA in the one day I didn’t really have time to stop, but I would suggest if you have the time allow at least two days to make the drive if not more.
After lunch I joined the 101 freeway through the farming valley between Salinas and San Luis Obispo, the so-called ‘Salad Bowl of America’. While not the most fascinating scenery, it was my one real experience of one of those long, straight American roads you see in movies, the expanse of the land is astonishing and great to experience from ground level.
After San Luis Opisbo the scenery gets a little more exciting again and from Gaviota there’s another coastal stretch affording some amazing views of the Channel Islands and the oil rigs that sit just offshore.
This is followed by the beginnings of the sprawl of Los Angeles, via Santa Barbara – a fine city I’m sure, but I hit it at rush hour – then Oxnard as night fell leaving an exhilarating run along the Malibu coast in the dark and on to El Segundo, my home for the week.
While I had visited El Segundo before this was the first time I’d had any opportunity to properly explore the town. The first thing that struck was how, despite being a stone’s throw from a huge international airport and within minutes of Santa Monica, Venice Beach and even Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, it felt like its own entirely separate, comparatively sleepy, small town community.
Centred on a couple of streets (and yes one is called Main Street), it features a selection of local bars and restaurants and a polite but bustling feel, particularly I think given the fact I arrived as the baseball World Series was reaching its peak, with the LA Dodgers being one of the teams vying for the championship.
I also discovered, in the modest but inviting tap-room of the El Segundo Brewing Company, that they are brewers of Broken Skull IPA, the official beer of former WWE world champion Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Of course the forty-two cities of the vast dystopian sprawl of greater Los Angeles have a hell of a lot to offer so narrowing it down to a week is always going to be a challenge. With this in mind I focussed in trying to do as many different things as possible to my last visits, so I started out by heading south, an area I’d never really visited, and going to Long Beach, famed for its aquarium and harbour.
The drive to Long Beach, despite being largely based on the freeways that criss-cross this vast urban sprawl, was as smooth and simple as possible so I arrived at the Aquarium of the Pacific just before lunch and headed in, hoping to keep out of the midday sun that was even stronger than usual for LA thanks to an unseasonal mini-heatwave.
The aquarium itself features an impressive display spanning everything from the warmer tropical regions to the south to the colder, rougher seas to the north, along with touching on the natives of the river systems around the LA area (though I doubt much lives in the concrete canals of the LA or Santa Ana rivers that reach the sea near by).
While the likes of the sharks, rays, sea turtles and sea otters provide the most obvious visual highlights of the aquarium, it was the story of the rainbow trout and steelhead that particularly captured my imagination thanks to an explanation from one of the museum staff I entirely failed to remember the name of. While it may not look to exciting its well worth asking the staff on duty about the detail of this exhibit should you find yourself there.
Outside the aquarium is Long Beach’s tourist harbour area with boat cruises, fishing trips and seafront restaurants on offer along the stretch of boardwalk.
Adjacent to this is a precision manicured headland park area overlooking the estuary to the LA river (looking slightly more natural here than further upstream, though still very man-made), including the permanently moored Queen Mary cruise ship which is open as a hotel and museum.
Given the heat, I think, and the fact it was mid-week this area was near deserted and that gave it a slightly eerie feeling despite the picturesque views and the same was true of the shopping centre behind the waterfront.
I’m sure Long Beach, like all cities, must have a bustling heart but this was certainly not it as it felt more like a ghost town than anything else.
Los Angeles city itself nestles at the heart of the sprawl and is generally referred to simply as Downtown, bordered by freeways and the concrete channel of the LA river. As city centres go, it is a strange one and it’s clear to see, even now, how the writers of the likes of Blade Runner extrapolated this to their bleak future visions.
Lavish office blocks, apartment buildings and hotels stretch up to the sky making concrete, glass and steel canyons of the wide streets and, despite the relatively small area, it feels as much designed to be navigated by car as the whole of greater LA does.
This makes walking the streets a very strange and slightly on edge experience (see my previous blog for a bit of discussion as to why), our first stop over the weekend spent largely in the area though was the Grammy Museum, a part of the LA Live complex that includes a central convention centre and the Staples Centre arena, home of many events and sports teams including the LA Lakers and a run of WWE SummerSlam shows over the years.
While not as big as I initially expected the Grammy Museum packs a lot in over three floors of exhibition space. Starting with an introduction to the awards statues themselves and how they have developed over the years, it goes on to take you through a history of American music that could easily take up hours if you explored every facet of the several interactive displays.
Leaving the first floor you encounter an exhibit on how the Dobro style of resonator guitar is made that, while a little on the specific side, is still interesting, along with a look at the songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of the last hundred years, including some original notes from Woody Guthrie on his most famous song, This Land Is Your Land – a particular highlight for me.
The next floor of the museum boasted a selection of Michael Jackson’s stage gear that is impressive to see in all its glory, but the highlight for me was an exhibit that, using a live recording from a Grammys show of the Dave Matthews Band, demonstrated how recording technology has advanced from wax cylinders in the 1800s through vinyl to Dolby home surround systems, and the now prevalent ear buds of MP3 players.
The museum also housed two special exhibitions during my visit, the first of which was a comparatively small but none the less interesting look at the career of Ella Fitzgerald with trinkets and mementos alongside elaborate dresses and photos of her performing with many other jazz greats.
The other, taking over the entire lower floor of the museum, looked at the LA punk rock scene and specifically the band X, who mark their anniversary this year. While I’m not hugely familiar with the band the exhibition was still fascinating showing how they developed and with a wealth of artefacts, photos and film of the band in their prime.
Also fascinating was a map of the city with the main venues for punk shows from orange county to Hollywood to Santa Monica marked (now mostly defunct) along with flyers for gigs from the late 70s punk heyday adorning the walls showing the expressiveness of the DIY scene and featuring the names of bands who went on to be international players.
While the mainstream entertainment side of things in Downtown might be centred on LA Live and the Staples Centre (the area was packed with cosplayers over the weekend for Stan Lee’s Comic Con as well), the rest of the area has a number of interesting places dotted between the downbeat looking jewellery stores and literal sky scraping high rises.
You’ve probably guessed by now I like a good bookshop and Downtown features a real gem in that regard with The Last Bookstore. Downstairs the store is relatively regular with bestsellers and some vintage special editions lining the shelves, alongside a modest vinyl and DVD section.
Upstairs however is where it comes into its own as the bookshelves become a maze spanning genres from sci-fi to political history through tunnels made of free-standing books.
It genuinely feels like you could lose yourself here both literally and figuratively, all making for a place that feels as much an attraction as a regular shop, and it’s a great place of pick up some reading matter related to the city so I took the chance to get some vintage noir and something by LA native Charles Bukowski.
Not far from The Last Bookstore stands the outcrop of Bunker Hill, while it’s now home to several tower block offices, the Broad Museum of art and the Disney Concert Hall, it was once a residential neighbourhood so the presence of the Grand Central Market at its foot makes some sense.
Now the market feels more designed to cater to the office staff for lunch and visitors like us on the weekends, but despite this has retained the bustle and charm of a real market place.
With many of the stalls now selling takeaway meals, a number do still sell fresh produce of various sorts and the place was packed during our visit.
It really felt like a microcosm of all the communities that make up LA with ‘street food’ type cuisine available spanning everything from pizza to sushi to noodles and probably a whole lot more besides making this one of the few places in Downtown that felt genuinely like part of a real living city and hopefully I’ll get to eat there on a future visit.
Across the street from the market is something that looks somewhat out-of-place but, at over a hundred years old, feels like a rare actual historical artefact in this constantly evolving metropolis, the Angels Flight railway.
Only traversing a distance of a few feet, the orange cars are useful for the fact they also take passengers up the near vertical incline of Bunker Hill’s south-east side, and for a dollar remains a nice taste of the history of the area that is otherwise almost lost at street level.
In contrast, towering over Angels Flight is the US Bank Tower, atop which is the viewing area Skyspace, 69 and 70 floors, and more than 1000 feet, up. With an introduction featuring some truly epic panoramas of the city from many vantage points, the actual views were a little hampered by an uncharacteristically misty day but being the highest I’d ever been in a building was none the less impressive – though I feel I’ll probably have to return some time on a clearer day to get the full effect.
In a lot of ways this blog has been looking at the real side of LA, which also included a brief visit to edges of Santa Ana in Orange County for Tiger Army’s Octoberflame show, so I’ll save the other side of the city, arguably its more famous aspect, for my next (and hopefully final) blog on this trip…