Playing tour guide in L.A.

first_imgOriginally published June 27, 1999 They’re coming. You know they are. They already wrote or called or e-mailed to express their intent. Your friends or relatives from points distant, perhaps the Midwest or East, have let it be known that they’d like to drop in for a visit this summer – and, if it’s at all convenient, be shown around Los Angeles, the place Raymond Chandler referred to as “a big, hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.” Some of your guests’ stops will be predestined and non-negotiable: Disneyland, one of the movie studio tours, perhaps Mann’s Chinese Theater. But if you’re going to be stuck playing tour guide, you’d at least like to show them a few sights that might better capture the essence of the region. And maybe contradict Chandler in the bargain. Gas up the car. Try to keep smiling. And no matter how thick the smog blanket or how tangled the traffic tie-ups, remember to act smug about the privilege of living here – your visitors will expect nothing less. Here’s your list: 1. Sunset Boulevard When outsiders see L.A. in their mind’s eye, they’re on this road. You should drive it from the ocean (Pacific Coast Highway) to the center of Hollywood (Vine Street), a span of 18 miles for which you should allow 1-1/2 hours (including a stop for eats). Along the way, you’ll cover every L.A. cliche in the book. Moments after beginning the climb from Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll come upon an ornate, gaudy place of worship: the Self-Realization Fellowship and Lake Shrine. Preoccupation with self – ah, quintessential L.A. The road winds through the tree-lined, self-conscious village of Pacific Palisades, alongside the eucalyptus grove that shades Riviera Country Club, home to Hogan’s Alley (it’s private, but you might be allowed in for a peek if you’re dressed nicely) and into Brentwood. Your guests will probably plead for you to stop by O.J.’s house, or at least the site where the house used to stand before it was torn down and replaced. Do the world a favor and adamantly refuse; just say, “It’s somewhere up there to the left.” Soon after crossing the San Diego (405) Freeway, you’ll come to Deadman’s Curve, immortalized in song by Jan and Dean (the big, downhill sweep just past Veteran Avenue). UCLA is on the right; flat-rate parking off Westwood Plaza is $5 if anyone wants to buy a shirt. Next comes the land of Norma Desmond: Bel-Air, Beverly Hills. You’ll know you’re in the latter as soon as the road improves. The imposing, pink-and-green Beverly Hills Hotel, which the Eagles used for the album cover of “Hotel California,” is on the left. And yes, the ZIP code here really is 90210. When the potholes are evident again, you’re in West Hollywood and entering the fabled Sunset Strip: the Whiskey (they dropped the “a Go-Go” a while back), movie murals on buildings, billboards (including the recently emasculated Marlboro man), the art-deco Argyle Hotel, Carney’s hot dog stand, and the Chateau Marmont hotel, where John Belushi ended his life. Carney’s, housed in a real Union Pacific rail car (at Kings Road), is a good spot to knock down a hunger. Beware of the chili, though. This trip can be capped off – perhaps fittingly – with a stop at the Chinese Theater. Simply head north on Vine Street and double back on Hollywood Boulevard. 2. The Getty Center Who says L.A. is a cultural wasteland? This place will show ’em. Except that one of the treasures of the museum’s permanent collection, Van Gogh’s “Irises,” is on loan to another museum until October. Oh well. There is a lot of other stuff to look at here, though, provided you can abide decorative arts. And the view and the gardens alone are worth the visit. The Getty is perched high in the Santa Monica Mountains on the west side of the city. There is no admission. The only cost is $5 for parking, but you need a reservation for that, so plan ahead (see details in accompanying chart). Upon arrival, head straight through the entrance hall and out into the museum courtyard, then cut between the west and south pavilions onto a point called South Promontory. Then catch your breath – it was sure to have been taken away by this view of the basin and the Pacific Ocean. Only now should you take on an art tour. To that end, the Getty seems keenly tailored to L.A.: Back in the entrance hall, there are two different tour brochures titled “If You Only Have an Hour.” But it also honors this city through its design – the pavilions are positioned around the open-air courtyard, and sunlight pours into stairwells through enormous banks of windows. In the twilight, as the setting sun reflects off the walls of travertine stone, the place is positively enchanting. Make sure you save time for an unhurried walk in the gardens, which are terraced into a steep hillside. The area is crisscrossed with a gentle ramp that is friendly to strollers, wheelchairs and visitors both very young and very elderly. A delicious, reasonably priced lunch can be had at the Museum Cafe, which features open-air seating and a distracting view of the ocean. 3. Mulholland Drive This route, which courses along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, was built in the 1920s to fulfill the dream of William Mulholland, L.A.’s chief engineer and water guru. Drive it in either direction between the San Diego (405) and Ventura (101) freeways, but, as with Sunset, west to east might be best. Although this span covers only 13 miles, it’s probably wise to allow an hour to traverse it. From numerous vista points, see what the Owens Valley’s water hath wrought: the sprawling sweep of the San Fernando Valley to the north, the crowded L.A. basin to the south. People of means pay a great deal of money for these views. And for privacy. You’ll see a number of heavily fortified gates with long driveways that disappear into the hills, leading to unimaginable palaces of excess. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening reside somewhere behind the imposing gate at 13671 Mulholland Drive. Marlon Brando has digs at 12900. There are a number of official viewpoints, with parking lots, but as for the dirt turnouts, you can only linger during daylight hours. The influence of these residents is obviously considerable – the city seems to have spent a fortune on “No Stopping” signs. If you travel this route at night, you’ll have to be content with taking in views without slowing down or getting out of your car – which, actually, is itself an L.A. tradition. The payoff of west-east transit is the Hollywood Bowl overlook, just before you reach Cahuenga Boulevard (look for the concrete sign and wrought-iron fence on the south side of the road). Here your guests can survey the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Bowl, the distinctive Capitol Records building (designed to resemble a stack of records on a turntable changer) and the Hollywood Freeway snaking through the entire scene. 4. Long Beach Aquarium When you drive near the ocean, or view it from one of the lookouts previously described, you’re left to imagine the life that teems below its surface. At this 1-year-old aquarium, the underwater world is brought to life for you. Unlike’s L.A.’s bygone Marineland, sea creatures are presented in an approximation of their natural habitat; there are no seals trained to play a series of horns. And you get to see it as a scuba diver would – without having to fuss with tanks and wet suit and the ungodly chill of the waters off these shores. There are three major exhibit areas, and the first one you’re steered into is devoted, in fact, to Southern California and Baja California marine life. One tank features sea lions and harbor seals. You can observe their behavior beneath the surface through an enormous window, then, after climbing to an outdoor area, watch from above as they poke their heads out of the water and bob on the surface. Another tank features sea turtles. In another, tiny eels from the Sea of Cortez poke their heads from the sand like aquatic earthworms. The Long Beach Aquarium has become home to two sea otters who were orphaned off Monterey during last year’s El Nino storms. They are the focus of the aquarium’s Sea Otter Summer promotion, which runs through Aug. 31. It’s an extremely kid-friendly place. Aware of the compulsion of small children to want to touch unfamiliar things, guides periodically set up hands-on exhibits where kids can feel the surface of a starfish or run their finger through the sticky petals of a sea anemone. At one tank, they can bend over a railing and run their hands over rays and skates as the creatures swim by below. The true highlight is saved for the end. After the northern Pacific exhibit, you wander into one devoted to the tropical Pacific. Here are brightly colored reef fish of dramatic hues, some of the fish seemingly luminescent. There are also sea horses and strange-looking Australian sea dragons. And of course sharks. The reef sharks, mere 2- and 3-footers but looking no less sinister than their larger cousins, prompt squeals of excitement from young visitors. The aquarium crawls with kids from day camps on weekdays, and it is suffocatingly crowded on weekends. A guide said the quietest times to visit are weekdays after 2 p.m. (when the campers have left) and just after opening (9 a.m.) on Sunday. For lunch, sandwiches and salads are pre-made and serviceable at Cafe Scuba, and the patio dining affords views of the Queen Mary across the harbor channel. There are no dishes on the menu made with fish, however, not even tuna. A server said this was done for a reason: “We didn’t want customers asking if we’d just pulled it out of one of our tanks.” 5. Huntington Library As you pull onto the lush grounds of the Huntington Library, you can tell your guests, “This used to be some guy’s home.” Not just any guy, though: Henry E. Huntington, one of industry’s robber barons of the early 20th century. He made his money in railroads – enough to establish his estate on 600 acres of the former San Marino Ranch. It’s 150 acres now, with expansive gardens – the Camellia, Rose, Japanese and Desert gardens are particularly impressive – providing numerous options for peaceful strolling. The art is housed in the former mansion. This summer, you might be inclined to spend the bulk of your time here out of doors, which is just as well. Although Huntington was a devotee of rare books, his legacy has been poorly served lately. The two most notable items in the permanent collection, a Gutenberg Bible and an illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” both dating to the 15th century, have been on display – though incongruously in a room packed with 18th-century clocks, tapestries and furniture from France’s Age of Decadence. Other treasures, however, are tucked away in storage as the Huntington devotes its largest hall to temporary exhibits. That means you likely won’t get a chance to see the treasure trove of works that used to be displayed there: early editions of Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau’s corrected proof sheets, and the handwritten letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain and others. Beginning Friday, a small sampling of this collection is expected to be exhibited in a tiny room to the left of the library’s main entrance. In the art galleries, the highlights of the collection – at least they haven’t been hidden away – are Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” and Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie,” but for an antidote to portraiture there is also “View of the Stour Near Dedham” by John Constable. Afterward, Old Town Pasadena can be found only a few miles to the north and west, along Colorado Boulevard. It’s a fun, generally safe place for window-shopping and people-watching, although a recent contagion of chain retail stores has undermined its charm. If you’re hungry, Mi Piace is excellent for Italian, Gordon Biersch for microbrews, California pub food and patio dining. 6. Malibu/Zuma Beach If your visitors are from a landlocked locale – and let’s face it, most of America is that – they won’t feel their trip is complete until they walk along a beach and get at least their ankles splashed by surf. This can be done at numerous spots along the coast, but a pilgrimage to this region should be planned nonetheless. It fulfills the heartland fantasy of California beach life. The trip along Pacific Coast Highway can be planned as short (Malibu Canyon Road to Zuma), medium (Topanga Canyon Road to Zuma) or long (Santa Monica (10) Freeway to Zuma), but each excursion will provide sweeping views of the coast, glimpses of bluffside mansions, evidence of perpetual mudslides inland and the payoff of a broad, sandy, generally clean beach at Zuma. North of Malibu Canyon Road – right after you pass every collegian’s dream location for a school, Pepperdine University – the land becomes more open as you leave behind the clog of roadside businesses and the ramshackle million-dollar homes that cling to this route farther south. The highway also rises and falls, which presents some tremendous views of the coast. It was at Paradise Cove that Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello frolicked in their “Beach Blanket Bingo” movies, helping to kick-start the surfing craze of 35 years ago. About 8-1/2 miles north of Pepperdine, just past the traffic light at Heathercliff, a small sign indicates the exit for Zuma Beach, which requires you to swing right and circle through a tunnel that runs beneath the highway. A $6 parking fee will gain you entry to this state beach, which is more than two miles long and features plenty of parking lots, restrooms and snack shacks. Another alternative is Westward Beach, immediately to the south (parking is free along Westward Beach Road, if you’re lucky enough to have a space suddenly free up for you). And farther south, at the end of this road, another state parking lot ($6 daily) is administered at Point Dume. Lifeguards oversee this entire stretch of beach (heed their warnings on riptides if your visitors want to go in to get creamed by a wave). You’ll notice that the guards are obligingly attired in “Baywatch”-red suits and carry as props those red plastic floats. If lunch isn’t a picnic on the beach, consider Duke’s, south of Pepperdine at the intersection of PCH and Las Flores Canyon Road. Its Barefoot Bar has a patio area with trucked-in sand where you can sip beer, eat fish tacos and watch the surfers catch the break off the small point. On the restaurant walls, black-and-white photos capture surfing’s early heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, when this area was affectionately called “The Bu.” 7. Olvera Street It all started near here, in the late 1700s, when some Spanish soldiers camped by a river that is now a flood-control channel and named it El Rio Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. The pueblo settlement that would follow took the same name. Mercifully, the name was ultimately shortened – to Los Angeles, and then to L.A. Olvera Street, on the northwestern edge of downtown, is now presented as a Mexican village market, offering leather goods, bright-colored garments with elaborate embroidery, sugary candy made from squash . . . and also depressing junk, like cheap sunglasses and photos of pro wrestling stars. Look past these desecrations, however, and concentrate on the setting. Many of the buildings date to the early 1800s. Mature bougainvillea plants, with trunks as thick as your arm, crack their ancient brick planters. Olive trees crowd the holes that were cut in the concrete for them long ago. Grape vines cling to lines tied overhead. Squint a little and you might even be able to imagine life in early L.A. A Visitors Center is supposedly open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but the lone attendant was encountered closing the door at 1:30. “Going to lunch,” she said perfunctorily, but she at least provided one of the free walking-tour guides before locking up. A fine Mexican snack, lunch or dinner – with more character than you’ll find at your favorite haunt in the suburbs – can be found at Casa La Golondrina, a converted home. You might even encounter troubadours singing Mexican love songs as they stroll among the tables. A narrow alley at Olvera Street’s midpoint leads to the Avila Adobe, built in 1818 and said to be Los Angeles’ oldest house. The U-shaped dwelling appears to have been a comfortable-enough place: wood floors, open beams, thick walls, a veranda with a broad overhang to offer relief from the blistering summer sun. The patio out back even has a great spot for a pool. Guess they never got around to putting it in. L.A. has been known to have that kind of effect on its inhabitants. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. 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