Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 3 - Beachfront Mussels and Muscles

I was lucky enough to stay in the lovely beach-side suburb of Santa Monica. Beyond the fancy hotels, shopping and restaurants is the pier, just two blocks from my hostel.

It’s been in films like The Sting, Titanic, Forrest Gump, Iron Man, and Hancock. But more importantly it’s been a fun place for families and friends to hang out in the Californian sunshine for the past 100 years. With the Cirque de Soleil tents and a war veteran’s sandy memorial to the right and the stretches of beachfront to the left – the pier has an amusement park ‘Pacific Park’, a ferris wheel, an aquarium and a couple of restaurants. I resisted the urge to run down to the lifesaver's hut and do my best Baywatch slow motion run. Malibu is the place for that!

Wow - star spotting on the pier!

These miniature scultures of people's faces were so realistic. Not sure what to do with them though. They scared me a bit, the way dolls and puppets do.

The real macaws - so cute - their owner made one lay like a baby in my hands. Then he didn't ask for any money. A bit odd.

It's Zoltar - from the movie Big! I paid a $1, made a wish that one day I too could play a big piano keyboard by jumping, and got a generic fortune on a piece of card.

An old machine from the 1920's could have told me whether my bio-rhythm meant romance or endurance for the day. But I'd already spent my daily budget for blowing money up the wall with old Zoltar.

I stopped at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant for lunch. The chain is inspired by the 1994 film and has 31 locations globally. It was pure American kitsch and exactly what a tourist like me likes.

In the space of one meal I was served by 5 people and reminded that I was in the Land of Tipping. The service was fantastic – helped by the schoolgirl crush I developed on my hazel-eyed waiter when he casually sat down at my table to explain the menu and the ‘Run Forrest Run’ and ‘Stop Forrest Stop’ way to get his attention.

Families around me celebrated birthdays and ate ‘Shrimper’s Net Catch’: beer-steamed shrimp served in a bucket of ice to stop the prawns cooking any more in their shells between the stove-top and table. College kids and couples on dates downed signature Bubba Gump cocktails like Lt Dan’s Pomegranate Punch ‘and you keep the glass!’. The menu was filled with quotes from the movie and dishes like ‘Bubba’s far out dip’. I sat outside on the patio with a view over the beachfront and had clam chowder, a salad (the fork was cold which explains how the food service can be so quick!) and a gallon-sized glass of ‘Blueberry lemonade’ (lemonade with frozen blueberries floating around). You can lead this little pony to the lemonade but there’s no way I can drink that much in one sitting!

D├ęcor inside the restaurant was an explosion of southern style, Great Highways of the USA kitsch and war veteran memorabilia – basically exactly as Forrest Gump would have wanted it. The restaurant chain has 31 locations globally and the thought of the mass kitsch tonnage globally made my head spin. Like all tourist attractions that know their fans, there was an extensive gift shop at the restaurant exit – including the license plate signs – in case you have your own Forrest Gump or hazel-eyed waiter at home that you want to make stop and run.

A busy Sunday afternoon on the two mile walk from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach is a people watcher’s delight. The original muscle beach (as opposed to Muscle Beach Venice) was filled with capoera dancers, acrobats, tightrope walkers, pole vaulters, hula-hoopers, fire twirlers and a chess pit for good measure. Dogs chilled out on the grass and blinked lazily at their owners twisting and turning on the beach front and the grassy banks. Old dogs taught new pups tricks as the young acrobats took instruction from bearded blokes.

The palm-lined promenade hosted just about every form of transport on wheels and foot. Some of the hotels, houses and restaurants looked like pages from Martha Stewart Living.

The younger, cooler crowd at Venice Beach is different to the postcard-perfect families of Santa Monica Pier. Venice Beach on a Sunday means lots of stalls selling jewellery, street art, cafes and marijuana doctors.

I saw a man on rollerblades, dressed like a sikh, playing an electric guitar. Fully sikh, man!

Old Charly Temmel's ice cream looked pretty unappetising . . .

The docta is in da house . . .

Hole-in-the-wall eateries

A couple of girls approached me to be in their school photo project. I chose a word from the list and they wrote it on my cheek in eyeliner. The picture came out a bit funny because I was looking into the sun.  

Muscle Beach, Venice – home of the fabled muscle men and bronzed body builder was closed by the time I reached there.

I caught the bus back, chatting with an El Salvadorean bracelet seller on the way, and reached Santa Monica before it got dark. I had Joe's famous pizza, yoghurt from Pink Berry (self serve so you pay for only what you want, rather than a set amount) and watched a movie with the other backpackers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Day 2 : Seeing stars (living and dead)

Flight in to LA from Sydney with V Australia – fantastic airline with friendly staff. One of the better flights I have had. Arrived at LAX about 4pm and was able to navigate the bus system out to Santa Monica. Luckily another backpacker was on the bus – she had change but no directions to the hostel, I only had US$ notes but at least I had a map. We were a match made to be! Santa Monica was clean and sparkly with 3rd St Promenade around the corner from the hostel. I had my first and only celebrity sighting - Brad Garrett, who plays the older brother on Everybody loves Raymond. He was walking and talking with a woman as they headed towards the sea front.

A glass of wine in a very nice wine bar with my backpacking pal almost knocked me out after the 13 hour flight and excitement of arriving in LA. I barely noticed having to climb into a bunk bed for the first time since I was about 14 years old.

The next day (my first real day in LA), I was on a mission to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in West Hollywood. Rumour has it that you need a car to get around LA, and that nobody travels by bus. But this isn’t true – the bus system is extensive, people friendly and it’s really cheap. If you have time on your side (most tourists do) then the buses are an easy way to get around. Unless the driver doesn’t tell you when the stop is and you watch the cemetery whizzing past and you have to fling yourself to the front of the bus to get off in time to not get carried all the way to Pasadena.

The Art Deco Society were set up just inside the gates, taking groups of people through on the tour every 20 minutes or so. The sun drenched, palm tree-lined manicured cemetery is pretty similar to other cemetaries I've seen in both real and reel life, except that the graves had a lot more space around them, making the gravesites amongst the most expensive real estate in LA. Not surprising then that the long term tenants are also amongst the most famous and moneyed stars and investors of Hollywood history. Many of the headstones and mausoleums were built during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much of the design was a symptom of the Egyptian fever that swept the world when King Tut’s tomb was discovered in the early 1920’s. Towering granite obelisks and toga-clad sculptures rest precariously on plinths – secured only by their own weight – a little frightening considering LA is earthquake country. A tongue in cheek warning from our Great Gatsby-esque guide that ‘not everything large and made of granite is stable’ had the guests crab-walking besides the headstones rather than leaning against any of them.

Many of the stars buried in the cemetery are stars from the Art Deco period – Mary Pickford, Fatty Arbuckle

Cecil B. DeMille

Rudolph Valentino

There were more recent additions:

The pink granite headstone of Jayne Mansfield

Bronzed statue of Johnny Ramone rocks out for eternity while facing the Douglas Fairbanks garden and memorial pond.

The Art Deco Society team hammed up their impersonations and telling of the stories of the more famous resting places. There were 6 ‘docents’ (The word docent comes from the Latin docere which means to teach, inform, or tell) altogether and they sweltered in the autumn glare in authentic vintage costumes.

It was here that I got my first glimpse of the famous sign.

Hollywood was just a few blocks away. I passed film studios, photographic labs, digital retouching, sound engineering houses, and a massive warehouse costume hire shop that had actual movie props and wedding dresses hanging from the ceiling.

The cogs are props from Inspector Gadget movie.

About 20 mins walk and my feet hit the walk of fame. A quick walk up to the Hollywood and Highland shopping complex gave me one of the best views of the sign. But it looked tiny through the viewfinder and the German tourist I asked to take my picture got a bit distressed that he couldn’t get both me and the sign in focus.

I got a massive Starbucks coffee (the smallest they had held enough caffeine to wake the dead) and wandered around to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. Here the crowds bowed their heads and twisted their necks to read the looped cursive on the concrete hand and foot prints of the rich and famous. Right by Hugh Jackman’s size 11 feet was the stand for the Homes of the Stars tours. Like the savvy shopper who waits until the end of the market day to buy their fruit, I slipped in last minute to a tour that was about to depart, for $10 less than the normal price. The last tour of the day – sometimes it helps to travel alone!

Homes of the Stars tours have a reputation for being a scam. And it’s true that the tour leaders could drive the 20 seater open air bus up to just about any gate in Hollywood and tell the open-mouthed tourists that it’s Tom Cruise’s house. But when you’re relying on public transport to get around, there is no quicker way to see all the hotspots of celebrity mythology. ‘Here’s The Viper Room where River Phoenix died’ said the tour guide, but I don’t need to be told – we all saw it enough on the TV when it happened in 1993. Same for the room in the corner of the house where Michael Jackson took his last breath. And if this is true, then I believe the other stuff we’re told is true as well. To believe in Hollywood you have to suspend your disbelief. I was surprised though that the houses were so close together. I expected huge fences, sprawling front lawns, modern day moats and drawbridges, but instead they were close to the road, close to the public and close to each other. Just neighbours who all do similar jobs, who live close to work.

The House of Blues owned by the original Blues Brothers Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi.

Ben Stiller's house in Runyon Canyon behind the Hollywood Bowl.

One for the Entourage fans - The exterior used for E's house when he moves out from living with the boys.

Nicolas Cage's house (apparently)

Orlando Bloom's house

Ron Howard's house / LA office at the top of Runyon Canyon overlooking Hollywood and all of LA. I'd be inspired if I had that corner office too!

Hollywood was so much fun to walk around and look at that I didn't get on the bus home to Santa Monica until about 11pm. The 90 minute journey home alone reminded me why it's best to get home at a pretty normal time, as the witching hours produce the lesser spotted odd-bods of society.