Want to blast away the blues? Go west to the Golden State, writes Kaye Holland
I could barely contain my excitement as I fiddled with my in-flight socks en-route to the Californian coastal cities of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The charms of this trio of metropolises have been well documented but done nothing to dent their power and, for first time visitors to the golden state, San Diego, LA and San Francisco are on the standard schedule because – well they’re worth it.
My first stop was San Diego where an aviator clad Tom Cruise once gunned his motorbike in Top Gun. Situated on the southern edge of California, close to the Mexico border, San Diego has sun at times of the year when Europe is under a dark blanket - but it’s not just sun worshippers like me who are drawn here.
Other assets of this sun kissed city include a world renowned zoo boasting one of the most successful Giant Panda breeding programmes in the world, Balboa Park with its 16 museums, chi chi boutiques, diverse dining and laid back hangouts in the gorgeous Gaslamp quarter and exquisite Spanish architecture. Indeed the Hispanic influence can be felt in every shop and square in Old Town San Diego Historic Park: the currency maybe dollars but in, what is arguably the historic core of the city, you’ll hear salsa and Spanish more often than English.
But it’s the long, white beaches – which have helped earn California’s second largest city the nickname ‘Sandy Ego’ – which are San Diego’s biggest draw and, along with the balmy climate and laid back culture, convinced Laura Grace Knox, a twenty something Brit I met one evening at Petco Park (where the Padres play that ultimate American tradition, baseball), to ditch her job in the UK and go west.
According to Laura, the top beach is the one at Coronado – a stunning stretch of sand full of watchable people. It also has one of the swankiest hotels on the planet in Hotel del Coronado – best known as the spot where Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon was shot in 1958. Other spots to stretch out your beach towel and play in the Pacific waves include the relaxed Ocean Beach, popular Mission Beach – 4,600 acres of water sports and the famous Sea World – and the upscale beach community, La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya). It’s perfectly possible to do all of the main sights in a day on a trolley ride, but admittedly that goes against the chilled out nature of the place.
By contrast, LA – just a two hour drive or three hour Amtrak train ride north from San Diego - has a completely different character being all bright lights, big hotels, freeways, smog and super sized shopping malls. Stir into the mix brilliant beaches, fabulous theme parks (Disneyland, Universal Studios), museums (for what it’s worth my favourite is the Grammy Museum over at LA Live), a slew of trendy bars, live music venues, and fine restaurants (patronised by a perma tanned clientele) and boredom is not an option. LA, like it southern california cousin is hot but crucially it’s also hip.
What’s more it is – despite what the detractors say – surprisingly easy to explore without a car: the new Metro seven day pass, valid on all buses and trains, has helped ease the gridlock and made it a doddle to reach LA’s most exciting attractions.
Hollywood – where else? – was my first port of call. After all, you can’t come to LA and leave without seeing the famous Hollywood sign, Kodak Theatre where the stars shimmy along the red carpet for the Oscars and Walk of Fame, whose pink stars honour the famous. This place is all about dreams (to quote the closing lines of Pretty Woman: “Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?”) – and the power of plastic surgery.
LA’s adoration of the body beautiful is best illustrated in West Hollywood and if you really want to tune into the Cali vibe, start your day with a spot of yoga on the sand at Santa Monica or jog along the boardwalk to Venice Beach. Here you can watch budding basketballers slam dunk on the concrete courts, while greased up bodybuilders pump iron at Muscle Beach – a legendary al fresco weight lifting centre.
A new body calls for a new wardrobe and in LA, there is only one place to get shod: take a bow Beverly Hills – the shopping block to march your manolos down. The likelihood is you’ll need to take out a loan, drain your trust fund and pull out your credit card – streets such as Rodeo Drive, Melrose Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard endorse excess and are full of shamelessly glitzy stores – but if you want to keep up with the Kardashians… (tip: try a Starline or TMZ tour if you’re interested in seeing the playgrounds of the rich and famous.)
Plus you’ll need a killer outfit if you want to explore LA’s nightlife venues which tend to be guarded by bouncers who take their jobs a tad too seriously (so you’ll need to look the part and dress up). It’s worth the effort tho: nights out on the Sunset Strip, at the likes of Whisky-a-Go-Go, AN-dAZ, Viper Room (where actor River Phoenix overdosed in 1993 and Tommy Lee attacked a pap), Sky Bar at the Mondrian hotel and House of Blues are the bomb – and the perfect place to people watch. Expect to see a social cocktail of club-kids, sugar daddies, models and wannabes.
However if hobnobbing with celebs and pretty young things isn’t your thing, head north to San Francisco where a truly sophisticated experience awaits. If LA is sprawling and yes, occasionally soulless, San Francisco is small – at just 46 square miles – friendly, and good to look at. In fact if you were to dream of the perfect city, chances are – fog issues aside – this European styled jewel with its wooden Victorian houses and oh so steep hills – looks a lot like it.
San Francisco’s Golden Gates – celebrating its 75th birthday this year – cables cars and Alcatraz aka the rock (America’s most dreaded high security prison) are instantly familiar, iconic landmarks but they’re not the whole picture. Not by far.
Art and culture are a big deal in this city with its head in the clouds. There are many museums to explore including the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but the best is the California Academy of Sciences – a LEED certified green building that’s home to 38,000 animals in a split level aquarium and four storey rainforest!
Shopping is another prime reason to visit: the stores in San Francisco aren’t all for the masses and it’s fun to window shop arm in arm around the Haight (synonymous with the hippie movement of the 1960s) and Hayes Valley, where boutiques are unique and independently owned.
There’s plenty to draw the foodies too: make no mistake, San Francisco is one destination where you should arrive hungry. The line out the door at the Ferry Building Marketplace is crazy but it’s worth the wait for the super burrito – a local phenomenon that is to San Fran what pastrami sandwiches are to New York – and spectacular views across the Bay.
And for those attracted by the great outdoors, there’s the Golden Gate Park – affectionally referred to by San Franciscans as “the park”. This is the place to enjoy redwoods (the largest and tallest trees in the world), fine art, free music, buffalo, bonsai …
As a tourist, I found it hard to tear myself away but I did – although not without first checking house prices – for I had a flight home, to catch. But as I pressed my nose to the plane’s window, I made a mental note next time to hire a convertible and cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway taking in towns like Santa Barbara, Monterey and Carmel. Or follow in Frank Sinatra’s footsteps at Palm Springs. Or get back to nature at Yosemite National Park for in the words of California’s former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back”. California has long loomed large in my imagination: now it fills a piece of my heart…