On the Road – California by convertible (The Independent)

It’s twilight in the Hollywood Bowl. Philip Glass is on stage, conducting the LA Philharmonic as they perform his score to Koyaanisqatsi. We’re sipping Sonoma Chardonnay beneath the stars while the headlights of stop motion traffic streaks in abstract patterns across a huge screen hanging above the orchestra. Tomorrow, we drive to Palm Springs, from one perpetually sunny city where indoors and outdoors blur and life can be like one long lucid trip deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, to another.

California might be bankrupt and frequently ablaze, but you can’t fault the weather. In LA, convertible sports cars are de rigeur and business is done by bellowing non-stop into Blackberrys, poolside. I’m mid-road trip with my other half and my best friend, Neil and Elissa. I’m a born and bred Londoner (no driving licence), so they’ve been taking turns at the wheel of the gold Mustang that we’ve rented to ‘do the coast’; 500 miles and 12 days of dazzling American highlights refracted through the lens of chrome, gas stations and the Go Go’s Greatest Hits.

While Neil and Elissa drive I spend my time fiddling with my iPhone to find brunch recommendations and misinterpreting the Hertz Neverlost device: ‘Left, now! No, NO, right!!’ I’ve also been learning a few things about being a passenger when the top’s down, like the importance of reapplying sunblock to avoid big, white, inverse-Panda eyes after a day in oversized Dior Homme sunglasses in the back seat. ‘It’s a bit late for that buddy,’ chips a shopper in the Beverly Hills branch of CVS as I peruse the factor 80 Aveeno range, face aglow.

It’s not all been blue skies and sunburn. In San Francisco we drove across the Golden Gate shrouded in sea mist and shivered on our stroll from the warm boutique comfort blanket of the W hotel to dinner at Foreign Cinema. At first we sat al fresco in the courtyard, where classic movies flicker on a huge white wall, but were quickly driven inside by Dante-powered patio heaters. Too cold; too hot; too drizzly… We rounded our evening off with a visit to the Hole in the Wall, a gay biker’s bar, where we played pinball in a cloud of marijuana smoke while a homosexual Hell’s Angel with Willie Nelson pig tails and a broken leg told us about playing Aussie rules pool recently with a tourist from Sydney; ‘there are no rules! So when he went for a shot, I bashed him over the head with my cue!’ So far, so On the Road.

The drive south, through Big Sur, is one long winding vertiginous wow, the coastal road undulating like a big dipper above the clouds. This is Kerouac country, where the Beats came to escape the city and embrace the elements, and where Henry Miller lived, worked and had his ashes scattered. We make regular stops to snap the vista and to walk through the Goliath-like Redwood trees, only slightly unsettled by the signage promising infrequent mountain lion attacks.

Modern Big Sur dictates over £100 a night for a simple motel without a TV, while Old Big Sur is epitomised by the Esalen Insitute, a centre for new age life study and meditative exercise; a throwback to the 60s, but now with added Wi-Fi. At 1am every morning, non-residents can come and bathe in the cliffside sulphuric hot springs. We’ve heard it’s a must. As we park the Mustang alongside a handful of other cars it occurs to me that the lateness of the hour, the headlights cutting through the dark and the impending nudity hint at all the preparations for some all-out dogging. Once we get to the hot tubs however, the light is reassuringly dim enough to preserve modesty. Dutifully relaxed, and the experience box ticked (all very enchanting and liberating, but half an hour submerged gets you the idea), we drive back to the Post Ranch Inn – very much New Big Sur, with ultra luxe five star modernist tree houses and Hobbit huts. En route, we spot a baby coyote going for a stroll through the thick, spooky, sea mist. The next day we dine at the Ventana, a similarly New Big Sur resort, where blue jays and deer litter the grounds, and the well heeled (and non resident campers treating themselves) drink in the romance of the great outdoors by sipping Napa wines around a firepit as the sun sets.

We drive on south, with a pause for Elissa to take a thousand and one photographs of the elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas while I whinge about their stench. We drop in to the Madonna Inn for lunch and to check out its David LaChapelle-in-a-K-hole interior of plastic baroque, rococo and Rocky Horror flower arrangements, but abandon it for a more visually restful picnic in a park by Pismo Beach, which turns out to be similarly surreal: Cottages turned into Camelot by way of ill advised stone cladding; a 16 stone five foot zero teenage girl in a jet black beehive feeding the seagulls and two uniformed park keepers with learning difficulties circling our picnic table, picking up discarded litter, eyeing us suspiciously and telling us that we’re in their lunch spot of choice and isn’t it lovely. And it is… if you’re John Waters.

Just past Santa Barbara, north of the turn off for Santa Claus Lane, the horizon fills with off-shore oil platforms. Not far from here we pull into Ojai, home to Bart’s Bookstore and a paradigm of the town: Pretty, literary, hippie and all about the outdoors. When it’s closed you can grab a book from a street-side shelf and post the money through the letterbox. That evening, we park up at the Ojai Resort for dinner, where the main event is cocktails as 9pm waiting for the Pink Moment, when the sunset reflects off the white-streaked cliffs. We miss the whole thing because it turns out that we’ve been looking at the wrong cliffs, but we still enjoy the local Cab Sauv and the filet mignon and a general ambience of Pinkness.

The cultural gateway to LA, just an hour from Ojai, is the Universal Studios theme park; home of Spielberg’s big rubber shark and the eat-all-you-can fast food day pass. We leave the Mustang in the Jurassic Parking zone and head for the Simpsons Ride, the park’s latest and most popular attraction. I point out that we’re queuing behind a girl in a bikini top with a tattoo between her shoulder blades that reads ‘In memory of dad… we miss you’; a passion killer, surely, for any carnal shenanigans other than missionary-style. The highlight of the Simpsons Ride (the tattoo, though entertaining, isn’t it), involves your virtual rollercoaster car being sucked into Maggie Simpsons’ mouth and the aroma of strawberry sweets filling the air. The whole experience is ingeniously conceived, beautifully styled and gloriously hyper real; Hollywood magic.

Although some of the coastal road had to be done with the top up to avoid bluster in the back seat, LA is perfect for a convertible; traffic rarely moves fast enough to make wind speed a problem. We drive to the Friday evening wine tasting in the garden of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, tour the interior then sip vino on the grass with 200 hip young things while a DJ mixes CDs, the Hollywood sign and Griffin Observatory visible behind him.

LA may sprawl like Dorothy Parker’s ‘72 suburbs in search of a city’, but it’s a glamorous sprawl. We lounge by a variety of hotel pools, each as fiercely glamorous as the next, but with subtle nuances to differentiate the crowd. At the Hollywood Roosevelt, with its iconic David Hockney fleck-painted swimming pool, it’s louche, hard-bodied early-20-somethings, gearing up for a late night party in the Playboy-mansion-style cabanas by the sun loungers. At its sibling, the Thompson Beverly Hills, the architecture is sleek, pared down modernism and the crowd is 90210 late 20-somethings with stupid-little-hats and Hollywood smiles. At the pink-on-pink Beverly Hills Hotel it’s parental industry royalty in fedoras. At the Andaz Hotel – once the notorious ‘riot Hyatt’, now the most mod hotel in West Hollywood – we feel ever-so-LA by leaving the pool, plugging our iPods into the state-of-the-art cardio machines and running for five miles on the spot, overlooking Sunset Strip.

After dark we valet park the Mustang and work our way through nightlife king Sam Nazarian’s nightlife empire which has the Starck-designed stranglehold on the glitterati, from the bar at the Bazaar at the SLS hotel to the XIV restaurant, where camp and revelatory things are done with brandied bananas, jasmine ice cream, toffee and shortbread, to the nearby, tiny, Hyde lounge, where 100 people who all know someone who knows someone sidle past the velvet ropes to dance to snippets of high octane pop while waitresses let off fireworks with the opening of each bottle of Champagne.

We thought we’d acclimatised to the Californian heat by the start of our second week on the road, but our arrival the next day in Palm Springs suggests otherwise. As we head further east the dashboard thermometer goes north, resting at 117 degrees – top down, air-con-on desert weather. We pass Albert Frey’s soaring, angular, mid-century modern Tramway gas station at the city limits and coast through a quick architour of 50s International Style landmarks, each one a signpost to the Rat Pack’s jazzy hedonistic playground of yore. We check-in to the Orbit In, originally Herb Burns’ 1947 ‘ultra modern motor court inn’ and now a lovingly restored low-budget B&B with Eames furnishings, Jetsons flourishes and Orbitini cocktail hour. It’s totally Palm Springs, right down to the little Pee Wee Herman bicycles you can borrow to cycle to the nearby Tropicale for flaming cocktails served in a huge half-shell shaped bowl.

Palm Springs might be as hot and kitsch as it is architecturally cool, but it’s swinging again. We finish our road trip with dinner at the Ace, a resort outpost of the bohemian Seattle and Portland originals. We settle into our booth in the 50s-diner-meets-David Collins restaurant and eat American peasant food redux; posh chilli with cocktails and decobbed corn with cheese, Mexican-style. It’s the perfect, final on-the-road feast. The encore is wonderfully Californian-outre: The restaurant hostess, Linda Gerard, who looks like a Golden Girl doing drag doing a Golden Girl, sits herself down next to Elissa and tells us about her lesbian twin daughters, the million dollars she won on Deal or No Deal and her time performing on Broadway as Streisand’s understudy. To underscore her seductive and quite, quite mad, fabulousness she stands up, stretches out the arms on her acid-floral blouse and performs a six and a half minute storming version of ‘Zing went the Strings of my Heart’. Deeper and deeper, down the rabbit hole…

Getting there

The writer travelled with Air France (0871 66 33 777 airfrance.co.uk) which flies from Heathrow to San Francisco via Paris, with returns from Los Angeles, from £391.

Hertz rent the Ford Mustang Convertible as part of their Fun Collection from £325 p/week (hertz.co.uk)

Staying there

W, 131 3rd Street, San Francisco (001 877 946 8357; starwoodhotels.com). Double rooms start at $299, room only.

Post Ranch Inn, Highway 1, Big Sur (001 831 667 2200; postranchinn.com). Double rooms start at $550, with breakfast.

Andaz West Hollywood, 8401 Sunset Boulevard, LA (001 323 656 1234; westhollywood.hyatt.com). Double rooms start at $236, room only.

The Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows, 9641 W Sunset Boulevard, LA (001 800 745 8883; thebeverlyhillshotel.com). Double rooms start at $695, room only.

Thompson, 9360 Wilshire Boulevard, LA (001 310 273 1400; thompsonhotels.com). Double rooms start at $436.60, room only.

The Hollywood Roosevelt, 7000 Hollywood Boulevard, LA (001 323 466 7000; hollywoodroosevelt.com). Double rooms start at $272.46, room only.

Orbit In, 562 W Arenas, Palm Springs (001 760 323 3585; orbitin.com). Double rooms start at $119, with breakfast.

Visiting there

Universal Studios opening hours vary seasonally, check universalstudioshollywood.com for details. General admission $69.99.

The Hot Springs at Esalen are open 1am-3am daily, by reservation only ($20; 001 831 667 3047).

Barts Books is open 9.30am-sunset (bartsbooksojai.com)

Eating & drinking there

Foreign Cinema, 2534 Mission Street, San Francisco (001 415 648 7600).

Ojai Valley Inn, 905 Country Club Road, Ojai (001 805 646 1111).

Ace Hotel Palm Springs, 701 E Palm Canyon Drive (001 760 325 9900).

XIV, 8117 Sunset Boulevard, LA (001 323 656 1414).

Ventana Inn & Spa, 48123 Highway 1, Big Sur (001 831 667 2331).

Hole in the Wall, 1369 Folsom Street, San Francisco (001 415 431 4695).

The Tropicale, 330 East Amado Road, Palm Springs (001 760 866 1952).

More information

LA INC: discoverlosangeles.com

Visit California: visitcalifornia.co.uk

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One Response to “On the Road – California by convertible (The Independent)”

  1. Great article! I’ve been trying to put together a trip like this for a while now.

    Loved your article on the Best Fashion Websites in the FT as well.

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