Fresh from several days of the artificial world that was E3, I emerged blinking into the Californian sunshine to explore LA, Santa Monica and a few bits beyond.
The most surprising thing was how downright pretty the whole region is. The view from the hotel room (cheap, after doing a bit of hunting around online for a bargain) in Santa Monica, looking out to the Pacific:
It's not just the trees and the beaches, but many of the buildings, gardens and flowers that are well-tended and attractive. Then again, many of the people who live in areas such as Bel Air and Hollywood can afford to have expensive, colourful gardens filled with exotic plants. It's just a pity I couldn't get near many of them to take pictures due to the ubiquitous "Armed Response Patrol: have a nice day!" signs everywhere. An absence of sidewalks in some of the more expensive neighbourhoods didn't help with wandering explorations; neither was being followed by a patrol car for part of one afternoon and wondering if I was going to end up in some LA celebrity jail for jaywalking.
Santa Monica itself was a great place to stay in. It's a laid-back, seemingly permanently sunny place, with an eclectic range of shops and a huge Apple store (free net access) and plenty of eating places. It's the end of Route 66 and the start of the Pacific Highway; our gang of games researchers ate at an excellent Italian restaurant at the corner of those two roads. The pier and wheel are a focal point of strolling life; we discovered some good seafood bars on the pier where you could much away at a platter while watching the waves and the fitness fanatics on the beach below. Star-spotting was disappointingly fruitless, though I did sit in the next booth to Clint Eastwood (old but tall) in a diner for breakfast, and see one ex-pop star elsewhere. Which reminds me ...
Santa Monica and the coast are about 15 miles from downtown LA. Consequently, beach life is important here. There's lots of it, and the water is a lot warmer than that around Scotland - though noticeably not as pure and clean as we get here. Surfing is a big thing in the daytime for many people:
I had my first, and to date only, surfing lesson near Malibu. During the hour of chaos, I managed to impress the instructor by falling off the board more quickly, and frequently, than anyone he'd ever seen. Depressingly, I was even worse than any of the people in the "Special visually-impaired class" he'd instructed the previous day. Surrealy, during one of my many flounderings in the water, I noticed a much older, somewhat wrinkly man surfing nearby with some skill and who looked strangely familiar. "Oh, that's Sting. Got a house up there; sometimes comes down with Tom [Hanks? Cruise?] to ride some waves." informed the patient instructor, waving at some impossibly rich-looking buildings off the beach.
In the evenings, there's a different group of people on the beach at Santa Monica, mainly Hispanics. The beach is free, and as many of these are in low-paid service industry jobs, it's a good entertainment option:
One of the myths about LA is that it's all cars. Despite the nose-to-tail freeways - it isn't, and it's these same people on the beach who have indirectly helped LA and Santa Monica have an impressive public transport system. I travelled a lot on the Big Blue bus routes, as it cost just a dollar or so to get from anywhere to anywhere. A tip - rather than pay 40-50 dollars to go from LAX to Santa Monica, take the shuttlebus at the airport to the bus-stop and pay 1 dollar to get to the same destination.
The bus services were cheap, frequent, clean and fast. Which baffled me, in the city of freeways. But the driver of one bus explained; the people in the service industries, on low pay, couldn't afford things such as rent, cars and so forth. Without a cheap and frequent bus service to get them from places where rent was affordable to the plush gated communities where they worked, the entire city would ground to a halt; lawns would go uncut, restaurants would be short of staff and so forth.
Much of LA is also recognisable from films and TV. "Oh, that's ... hmmm" was a phrase frequently uttered by our posse of wandering tourists. (btw the Hollywood sign on the hill is tiny and disappointing). And, like Chicago, the residents have extremes of health, fitness and weight. Some of those jogging, rollerblading or otherwise being manic on the beachwalks looked just a bit too sculpted and perfect to the eye.
The cultural highlight of the trip was the Getty Center (3 buses through a cross-section of LA), built in the hills above the LA basin. It's made of Italian Marble, carefully constructed to stay standing in all but the strongest earthquake, and is just awesome. And at 1.2 billion dollars construction costs, so it should be.
The place is quiet; with no roads nearby, visitors are taken to the top of the hill on a long tram system. As well as the museum, there's a research institute, outdoor cafe's, and lots of gardens and waterfalls. It's also a great place to look over Santa Monica and to the Pacific:
...downtown LA and beyond:
...and the Hollywood hills, where various movie and tv stars lurked in palatial, high security, houses (the further up the hills your eye went, the more expensive the property):
The Getty is my favourite museum because it's a lot more than just a museum. As well as the collection, the building itself and the location make for a special afternoon out. I came back again for a few hours on the last evening of my trip, to watch the sun set over the Pacific while drinking iced lemonade.
And that was LA. I'll gladly go back - it's probably my favourite city. For various reasons - the insane wealth gap, property prices, strange laws, millions of residents, and the fact that one day it'll all slide into the sea when the "big one" hits - I wouldn't move there, but for a visit of probably the most filmed city on earth, it's well worth it.