We arrived home from our half-term trip to Los Angeles yesterday afternoon. Here are some hastily-composed impressions, and a round-up of some of the things we did.
Our first impression of LA, coming in from the airport along the freeway last Saturday afternoon, was of an endless, repetitive, low-rise sprawl, spread out along grid lines, and made up of fast-food joints, small stores, malls, and rather-down-at heel tracts of housing. From time to time this sprawl would be interrupted, quite suddenly, by something very different - like the long avenues of palm trees and neat lawns of Beverly Hills, the bawdy glitz of Hollywood, or the shiny towers of Downtown. Seen from a hotel window, the place seemed vast and difficult to grasp.
On Sunday morning we went out to Santa Monica, arriving at the iconic pier just as the sun broke through, bathing even the tacky rides and concession stands in cheerful light. In one direction, white surf broke on the golden sands stretching northwards to Malibu. In the other direction, where we walked, were Angelenos enjoying games of beach volleyball, doing yoga, setting up picnics. We strolled in the sunshine, dodging the cyclists and skateboarders, until we reached the clutter of craft stalls and eccentric entertainers that is Venice Beach, a place that reminds you of the tackier and less glamorous side of the hippy era. Then it was on to the Third Street Promenade, uncannily like Lincoln Road in Miami, for shopping and lunch. Later, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped outside the Beverly Wilshire and walked up Rodeo Drive, with its glassy shrines to conspicuous consumption. The Art Deco of buildings like the Beverly Hills City Hall was rather more interesting.
Monday dawned wet and gloomy, but by the time we headed out it had become another light-filled LA day. This was our Hollywood day, beginning with an excellent guided tour of the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, followed by the predictable photos in front of the Hollywood sign. Then it was time to inspect the stars along the Walk of Fame and the historic handprints outside the Chinese Theater.
Most of Tuesday was taken up with our tour of the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. It's difficult to pick out highlights, but I was particularly fascinated by the mid-western town, where the same buildings have served multiple purposes in different films and programmes over the years. We looked around a wood-framed 'house', for example, which appeared in East of Eden and The Shootist, but (much more significantly for our offspring) also served as the home of Ross and Monica Geller's parents in Friends. The tour included a visit to the set of Two and a Half Men, which was 'resting' this week: just as well, as its star, Charlie Sheen, was busy smashing up his hotel room in Manhattan. We'd tried and failed to get tickets to The Ellen Show, and were frustrated to learn that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were appearing that day - we saw the massive extra security as we went past the sound stage. They were in LA to lend their support to Barbara Boxer's campaign in the upcoming mid-terms. We thought at first it might be Jimmy Carter, who was in town to promote his new book: they were giving out tickets to his appearance on Bill Maher's show on Hollywood Boulevard.
On Wednesday, before our flight home, we visited The Grove, shopping mall to the rich and famous, where we saw a TV chat show being filmed, stocked up on US political and historical books at Barnes & Noble, and got our daughter's iPhone fixed by a nice tech guy at the Apple Store.
Regular readers will know my penchant for, indeed my skill at, spotting celebrities when we're on holiday. So who did we see in LA? Well, that might have been Jimmy Smits going into a restaurant in Santa Monica, but it was definitely Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianiakis walking through the lobby of our hotel, where they were promoting their new movie, Due Date. They walked right past that English actor who was in Love Actually - you know, the one who takes the photos at his best friend's wedding, when he's secretly in love with the bride, what's his name - Andrew Lincoln. But best of all was finding ourselves having breakfast at the next table to Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt (whom I wrote about here), who I'm pleased to say was enjoying the kind of breakfast that must have seemed like a distant dream during her six years of captivity in the jungle.
By the time we left, our initial wariness of LA had turned into something like easy familiarity, even excitement at its radiant light and hectic energy. A final recommendation: my literary accompaniment for the trip was David Thomson's anecdotal, out-of-left-field but completely compelling history of Hollywood, and by extension of Los Angeles, The Whole Equation.
Turns out Andrew Lincoln was probably in town to promote the new TV series The Walking Dead in which he has a starring role (there's an interview in today's Sunday Times).