Thursday, 7 July 2011

Los Angeles to Las Vegas

Almost completely unrecognisable from distant Spanish history, and even as former parts of Mexico, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have evolved to become bottlenecks of American popular culture, eccentricity, glamour and vice. I take an insightful journey from one ‘glitzy’ mecca to the other.

Route through the Mojave Desert

Hunting down a minicab in the welcomingly warm Californian may climes - after the dry, cold and hostile air of a twelve hour flight from London - I spy a well assorted mix of people huddled outside the LAX arrivals wing. Pilgrims flock to LA for a plethora of reasons; fun seeking tourists, aspiring actors perhaps – all seeking to bathe in the promised Hollywood gloss of would-be perfectionism.

And promised Hollywood gloss is slowly diluted on the commute to the hotel, revealing a medley of miniscule homes in disarray, and the odd glimpse of gated luxury.

My first stop is Anaheim, lodging at a somewhat basic motel. A little put off by the gang-style graffiti adorning parts of the bathroom wall; putting it down to character, I have a quick scout around in the evening to find my bearings.

Despite its sprawling size, and inevitable crime, inhabitants of Los Angeles are lucky to have the respite of some beautiful beaches. Who isn’t familiar with the clichéd slow motion images of Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, jogging and jiggling in a state of unconvincing concern, down golden sands lapped by the bluest waves? Venice beach is the most popular; the crux of urban beach society. Frequented by oiled up roller-bladers, posing muscle-ripped bodybuilders using beachfront gyms, and anonymous movie stars masquerading behind extremely large sunglasses – Venice beach is more about simply being seen than anything else.

I make Huntington Beach’s lesser known, but just as sun-drenched sands my first stop early next morning. All beaches in L.A have an obvious infusion of urban life; evident with strong but often surprisingly creative graffiti, a presence of many homeless people, and ‘ghetto-blaster’ carrying youths forever reminiscent of the eighties.

Huntington Beach offers Californian respite

This beach is no exception; but certainly not the degree of Venice beach. Wandering down towards Huntington pier, there are some inviting looking bars and restaurants, and mostly surf orientated shops. I continue down the pier to witness fishermen taking advantage of the early morning quiet, and meander around the rather unappealing looking fish hauled on to the promenade – some still fighting. For tolerating the strong fish odours, I am rewarded with a spectacular view of L.A’s coastline.

Early morning fishing on the pier

The rest of the day is spent catching some rays, and casually people-watching on the beach – observing how almost every fellow sun worshipper in L.A is adorned with tattoos, some more impressive than others. After grabbing a beachfront hot-dog, the journey back the hotel starts with an envious walk past some very luxurious looking hotels; a far cry from my humble accommodation.

Large white letters, suspended in the hills, begin to emerge from the L.A smog - ‘Hollywood’. With the epitome of L.A being the silver screen production capital of the world, a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood seems essential. As the bus turns the corner into Hollywood Boulevard, a quiet sense of curiosity fills the air; perhaps even slight disappointment. One might even conclude Hollywood to be no more than a ‘trashy’, eclectic by-product of movie star obsession, absent of actual stars - rather handprints and ghostly traces along the Hollywood walk of ‘fame’. Costumed unknowns mimicking icons wait at every corner to pose for your camera – and ask for money for the liberty.

Still, it has to be done - if just to observe the sheer lunacy of it all.

The Hollywood dream may be as distant as the sign seems

I board another bus to whisk me away to Universal Studios – a working studio slash theme-park spin on the Hollywood franchise.

First stop is the world renowned studio tour – a 45 minute guided trolley ride around the functioning back-lot and production areas, with some theme-park twists thrown in of course.

Set used in 'Desperate Housewives'

The tram is tossed about in a simulated earthquake, splashed by staged floods and an attacking ‘Jaws’ – all very exciting. More interestingly I get to see the ‘Colonial street’ production area – more commonly known as Wisteria Lane in the television series Desperate Housewives, and even a devastated ‘plane crash’ movie set.

Dramatic plane crash movie-set

Still vibrating from mock earthquakes, I enjoy the many attractions, rides and shows the park has to offer, and leave with at least a polished idea of L.A’s function as a movie maker’s realm.

Universal Studios’ facades of Hollywood legend are all very entertaining, but where is the reality of this, and where are the real winners of L.A?

A small open top tour proposes to take me around the Hollywood hills area to gawp enviously at the spectacular homes of movie stars – and any other members of the L.A elite.

Pristine streets of American dream fantasy define the area of Beverly Hills – the divide is obvious as the tour bus cruises down one street, with manicured, immaculate gardens and finely paved sidewalk on one side, whilst the other side defined by cracked paving with encroaching weeds, and bust-up buildings. This is social divide on a macrocosmic level.

A few excited gasps are heard from the bus as it passes homes owned by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Victoria Beckham and the late Michael Jackson, amongst others. I wonder as we careen up to the Hollywood sign, just how many unknowns live in seclusion here – to live like a movie star is an aspiration that doesn’t necessarily involve being one.

Los Angeles could quite simply be summed up as that; a city of aspiration or a promise of something better, set by the examples of those who have ‘made it’. Perhaps not necessarily through the hard work and perspiration we associate which such high-end glamorous success. The showcased pinnacle of luxurious popular American lifestyle attracts those to the city that really do keep it running, through sheer dream and persistence.

Before the sun has barely risen again, I travel from Anaheim to central L.A on the Pacific Surfliner. Serving the coast of California, right from San Diego all the way to San Luis Obispo, it offers a very convenient way to travel, and often with some California dreamy scenery to digest on the way.

I step off at the station and conclude that the lavishly impressive art deco halls of Union Station are worth a visit in their own right. Built in 1939, the historical building draws on the ubiquitous Mission Revival style, Dutch influence from one of its supporting architects, and most prominently Streamline Moderne Art Deco inside and out. I felt transported back to a 1930’s golden Hollywood era, when travelling by train probably attracted a lot more kudos. Even the stunning marble floored waiting hall is a marvel to behold.

Union Station

Greyhound runs a coach route between L.A and Las Vegas – which I opted for as the more scenic mode of transport. A word of caution: do check baggage size before queuing to board the coach. It may arise that a bag is too large to carry on and must be stowed, for which a special tag must be obtained from yet another queue. They won’t wait, and as witnessed may be quite brash and vocal about this…

The journey itself is quite something. Sprawling tower blocks and manicured city slowly gives way to more open land, as seemingly ever-distant mountain ranges begin to loom in the distance. Leaving L.A, heading deep into the mountains, has an exciting and escapist feel. I watch traffic gradually diminish; slowly replaced with those huge American trucks I always associate with the deserts of the west.

Endless desert

The Mojave Desert is awe-inspiring; dramatic alien-esque landscapes stretching endlessly into the distance. A real sense of transition is gained as L.A seems further and further away. Indeed many locations here have been used in Hollywood movies – like the eerie looking Vasquez rocks, frequently used in Star Trek and other sci-fi movies for its other-worldly qualities.

Progressively things get more and more remote until we make a brief stop at a service station, and I decide to wander out for some ‘air’. I am completely astounded and left breathless by the change in temperature, from just a few hours travelling. The scorching desert heat is unbearable for some – personally I find it inviting and life-giving. All around is flat endless desert, bordered by heat-hazed mountains on the horizon.

The coach continues on up into the mountains at a steep incline – the driver announces that the air-conditioning will have to be temporarily switched off at this point to avoid overloading it as the coach struggles to reach the summit, at a crawling pace. This seems to go on forever, until the coach stops at the small town of Barstow for lunch – a much needed sandwich – and then on into the desert. Next stop - Las Vegas.

Las Vegas seems quite literally to spring up from the middle of nowhere – one minute facing vast open desert, and the next spotting the infamous ‘welcome to Las Vegas’ sign.

An oasis of life to the ultimate degree, the grandeur of Las Vegas cannot be summed up, canned or conveyed in pictures. The word ‘Vegas’ itself came from the lush green areas derived from wells of fresh water in the area - a natural oasis that soon evolved into a profiteer’s paradise and retreat without remorse or moral. The size and scope of the hotels, and playfulness of the architecture, communicates nothing but pleasure.

Fabricated grandeur

I share a taxi offered up outside the Greyhound terminal with some fellow travellers, and check into my hotel – Circus Circus. Quite difficult to interpret as a stand-alone hotel, Circus Circus is Las Vegas eccentricity and sometimes cringe-worthy over the top kitsch in a nutshell – although quite a grand alternative to my previous ghetto-like lodgings in L.A. It even has a full size lopping rollercoaster racing through it, which I sample – and regret.

Indoor theme park inside the Circus Circus hotel

A stroll down the strip after sun-down reveals the clichéd obvious – that Las Vegas truly buzzes and screams at you at night; with its twinkling neon signs, exuberant gambling noises and flashing lights, almost as if swallowed up by some giant gambling machine. The warm evening air of the desert hardly serves as an incentive to hide away in a hotel room – the city quite literally never sleeps.

Las Vegas buzzes at night

The strip by day is a little tamer; offering alternatives to gambling such as luxury shopping, or even sunbathing and swimming if the heat can be endured. I purchase a day ticket for the Las Vegas Deuce Bus – a service that runs up and down the strip 24 hours a day, to take in some of the most opulent and extravagant hotels I have ever seen. Of course Las Vegas has no real architecturally splendid history; The Bellagio, Venetian, Caesars Palace and others are all fabrications of a classical ideal, just as the whole of Las Vegas is a modern fabrication far removed from its roots as a small stopover railroad town.

Mock classical architecture adorns the hotels

I thoroughly enjoy the Bellagio’s famous water fountain show under the shade of a tree, which I believe occurs every half an hour or so. Then it’s time for me to travel to ‘ancient Egypt’ as I pass a giant concrete sphinx at the entrance to The Luxor – an iconic hotel with its sleek glass pyramid design. Inside, the lobby atrium is vast and impressive – although I can’t help but subconsciously crown it the king of tack in the hotel world. The architecture of the hotel I can commend - but to draw and capitalise on something as un-duplicable as ancient Egypt - for me it suffers an inevitable outcome of being nothing more than a glorified theme park. However to expect historical culture in Las Vegas would be naïve – it’s not what I’m here for. It’s time to head to Paris...

Spectacular fountain show at the Bellagio

Paris, Las Vegas is another opulent hotel which needs little explaining. Complete with a carbon copy ‘Eiffel Tower’, bursting from the roof, as with most Las Vegas hotels the ground floor is one huge gambling arena. Seeking refuge from the intense afternoon heat, I conservatively dabble in a few slot machines, and a few drinks, which apart from a longing wander around luxury shopping malls, is a recurring theme for the rest of the day.

Vegas' own take on the Eiffel Tower

Another early morning and back to the Greyhound terminal for my return trip through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, this time to slow down the pace at a hotel - and thankfully a much more luxurious one - near Manhattan Beach. The Springhill Suites were an ideal choice for me, with easy access to the airport for my return home.

Springhill Suites near LAX

Upmarket and functional would be the best way to describe Manhattan Beach – with joggers, surfers, pampered dog walkers, and a generous helping of luxury beachfront homes. It certainly has a much less ‘touristy’ ring to it than the likes of Venice Beach. A fresh Californian tuna salad and a cold beer is my next stop at Beaches, a friendly restaurant at the bottom of Manhatten Beach Boulevard, overlooking the pier. I then jump in a cab back to my suite to prepare for my final evening in L.A.

A cat laps up the laid back Manhattan Beach atmosphere

I had a few friends to guide me by phone to Santa Monica via L.A’s bus routes. Despite this turning out to be rather futile with my complete lack of navigation, as easily found just about anywhere in California, fellow passengers are quick to offer friendly assistance and chat. A theatrically eccentric looking lady, who moved to L.A to become a would-be actress, picks up on my evidently obvious disorientation. She shares her story with me as the bus passes boulevards that look identical in the dark of night, and thankfully advises me when to step off. This is one thing I missed to a degree in Las Vegas – the openness of Californians – and something that definitely sets the cities apart.

‘Hooters’, an American restaurant chain infamous for its busty waitresses, wasn’t exactly up there on my ‘to do list’ in L.A, but I meet my friend here, a resident of Santa Monica. I learn I little bit about the area while soaking up the exuberant atmosphere, then head by bus to West Hollywood.

My final indulgent night in Los Angeles involves a whirlwind tour of the many bars around the West Hollywood area. I sip a cocktail amongst beautiful people in the fabulously stylish bar, ‘The Abbey’, which I am told attracts celebrities and the L.A ‘it crowd’. It seems to evoke a neo-gothic, perhaps Italian style that seems to be popular among the rich. Although I have no luck spotting anyone of note, I have a great evening – so great that I miss the last bus back and instead grab another cab back to my suite; just in time for a quick nap before a long flight back to London the next morning.

As I nurse my hangover at LAX, donning those huge sunglasses I previously slated, in an effort to limit my self-induced suffering, I look back at both cities and consider what makes them such dramatic centres of American popular culture. Are they both traps; Vegas with its alluring promise of making it big through gambling hard-earned cash, or L.A with its mostly false assurance of fame and vanity? 

Surrounding Vegas, the lifeless, endless deserts seem only to enhance Vegas’ glittering charm and draw us to such isolated pleasure. L.A seems to many like an infinitely superior alternative; an unknowingly hollow dream worth the pilgrimage from anywhere across America, or the world. Both places are so inspiring, tempting and exciting - once they have that grip or carrot beckoning us deeper in, we are motivated to do whatever it takes to stay.

Ultimately, the superficial beating hearts of both cities is kept alive by the thousands of people flocking to their streets. From all angles, Los Angeles and Las Vegas simply have to be experienced for their self-proclaimed allure.

Add caption

No comments: