In backpacker circles, Los Angeles has a wildly undeserved reputation. Dismissed as culture-less, impersonal and drab – a highly unpopular choice. Want to know why this is wrong? Read on…
During my round-the-world trip, I discovered that backpackers are often a snobbish, bigoted lot who will conscientiously avoid unfashionable destinations like the plague. Instead preferring to blindly follow misguided travel itineraries that they feel will most impress their cliques back home.
Whenever I mentioned that Los Angeles was to be one of my destinations, the response I got was like hearing a looped recorded message from the gods of backpacker convention:
“No way man, it's like, a celebrity obsessed concrete jungle, there's no history, no culture, everything is fake, change to San Francisco, you've got to go to San Francisco.”
Well, I am happy to report that these evangelistic critics who wax-lyrical about Los Angeles and its faults are indeed hopelessly wrong, and here's why.
First and foremost, the people of LA are not detached, emotionless sentinels who consider everyone a stranger, it's actually one of the friendliest places I have visited in my life. On my first day there, as I wandered around the sun-kissed, palm-lined streets of Hollywood, smiling passers by would cheerfully greet me when offered a nod and a simple hello.
I was happily given directions, and even got a free bus ride when I discovered to my horror that I needed the exact change. The bus driver took pity and let me on anyway and even bid me a pleasant stay in LA. Come on, what more could you ask for?
OK, I admit it, in LA celebrity is king. A stroll down the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame will definitely set that record straight. Touts relentlessly approach you in their efforts to sell tours of Beverly Hills. Each one of them breezily explains that this is just their day job until they make it as an actor, writer, musician or whatever else their ambition dictates.
There's a real sense of excitement and anticipation in these people, and you can't help but admire them. Who knows, I could have been sold my tour by the next Al Pacino? He did have an extras part (with lines) in the film Hancock after all.
The Kodak Theatre mall is paved with stones that have true stories etched into them of unnamed individuals who came to LA with a knapsack on their back and big ideas in their head, and made it. The theatre itself is the seat of many a movie premier – and the Oscars – and prides itself as a mecca for all that is show-biz.
After a short while, it becomes obvious that in Hollywood, you are stood in the eye of the vortex that is the American dream. That this place is the very centre of the world for the ambitions of the crazy dreamer.
I bought myself a Beverly Hills tour with a sense of bemused acceptance. I hadn't planned on doing one, but finally gave in on the principle that this is really something of a key step in the quest to discover this city.
The tour was done in an open-top pick-up truck with eight of us squeezed in the back. Holding true to the legendary American nous for customer service, the driver (Mike) handed out water bottles and sun cream before we set off.
It was really very enjoyable. The tour had the feel of a wildlife safari, but with actors rather than animals. As though the famous residents of Beverly Hills were liken to rare birds or jungle cats that we could admire from a distance if we were lucky, but would never get close to in a million years.
Some highlights were driving past the Playboy mansion, Ozzy Osbourne's place, the house that the late Michael Jackson called home, and of course the Fresh Prince house in Bel Air (an icon for my generation).
I had always assumed that Beverly Hills would be a gated community – a celebrity sanctuary where non-residents would not be allowed except when on a guided tour. This is not the case – anyone can walk or drive around Beverly Hills, and there are even public bus routes right through it. The only exception is Bel Air, where nobody is allowed to walk around the streets (there aren't even any side-walks).
Not content with their luxury homes, the rich and famous also show an enterprising side owning nightclubs and restaurants in prestigious locations around Hollywood. They'd probably buy the police and city council if it were allowed.
The tour finished with a trip up to the most photographed landmark in the USA – the Hollywood sign. We got as close to it as is legally allowed, and physically being there looking at it truly gives you a tingly feeling inside. The square-eyed kid in me who grew up watching Hollywood movies was very happy indeed.
It's a jolting feeling being in a place that you recognise from a big-budget movie, or a classic song. Simply being there somehow gives you the feeling that you've made it. That you're somebody – a contender.
These famous streets resonate with the sounds of decades past. Every corner whispers of the spirits of timeless greats that live on in the movies on our screens, the music in the air and the hand-prints in the concrete. There's just something about strolling down Santa Monica Boulevard, or scooping the froth off a cappuccino on the Sunset Strip that stirs the soul in a way I can't describe in words. You have to do it for yourself.
Rodeo Drive (pronounced Roh-dey-oh) is arguably the most exclusive shopping destination on Earth. Egos the size of solar systems strut up and down this street. Some of the clothes stores don't even let shoppers in unless they have an appointment.
The street itself looks model-like, appearing far too shiny and new to be real. The more high-street esque shopping found on nearby Beverly Drive provides some conventional relief from the mildly obnoxious snobbery of Rodeo Drive.
As I walked past one of the many glass-fronted boutiques that I was too scared to go in, I realised I was looking through the window of the very shop that famously shunned Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I then turned around to look at The Beverly Wilshire – the very hotel in which much of the film was set. It's a strange feeling being star-struck by a place rather than a person. I'll bet those poor suckers who went to San Francisco are sorry now!
Where to eat
Cheesecake factory: 364 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 ($20 - $30) Tel (310) 278-7270 www.thecheesecakefactory.com
Where the famous chain was started by Dave Overton back in 1978. The fabulous menu features cheeseburgers, pasta dishes and salads, but of course, it's all about the cheesecake.
House of Blues: 8430 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069 ($20 -$30) Tel (323) 848–5100
This diner-cum-music venue could only ever be owned by Blues Brothers Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. This is the place to enjoy a blackened chicken sandwich and some great live music (not always blues by the way).
Where to stay
Banana Bungalow Hostel
Be warned, hostels in LA can be pretty rough. This one is definitely a safe bet in that it only allows genuine travellers to stay. Many others allow homeless people in off the street. A 5 minute stroll to the walk of fame, free coffee all day, great social events, laundry facilities, clean rooms, TV and internet. From $20 a night.
The Beverly Hills Hotel
A legendary part of the Beverly Hills landscape dating back to 1911.There is no better place in the city for rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous. It is expensive, so more for the flash packer than the backpacker.
Beverly Hills Tour
Hollywood Fantasy Tours: 6231 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood Tel (323) 469 8184
Whoever you decide to take a tour with, never pay the full price. If you hang around until a tour is about to leave, they offer vast discounts to the stragglers just to fill the bus up. Don't forget to tip the driver!
Los Angeles is deceivingly sprawling and I'd never recommend trying to walk anywhere, but use the fantastic buses instead. Busses are cheap and run 24 hours a day. See www.metro.net