Travelogue USA 1: LA – Santa Monica

08-10 October 2016

The holiday got off to a 5-star start. We’d recently been upgraded to Gold status on Emirates Skywards AND we’d traded our frequent flyer miles to upgrade our outbound flight to Business Class.

The Emirates Lounge at ORT is brilliant.  We literally would have, given a choice, ordered the buffet’s exact menu – and struggled to restrain ourselves to a taste of rare roast beef (with rich brown gravy), chicken curry, Scottish salmon, mini chicken and mushroom potpies… and couldn’t even face starting with the dessert selection.

Our flight was equally lavish and, being on the massive A-380, we got the 2 middle seats. They have a retractable divider which when combined with our comfy side-by-side chairs that could be expanded to a full horizontal, left us with a “living room” only marginally smaller than our microscopic hotel room in Copenhagen!

With 16 hours on the plane, there was plenty of time to sleep (perfectly in our comfy chair-beds), watch TV (Emirates has whole boxsets of series), lounge in the bar and create our own tapas tour from the cosmopolitan selection of wines and champagne, with generous selection of bar snacks and light meals.

While fun at the time, our tapas did little to prepare us for the magnificent 3 course lunch (ordered a la carte) that was served towards the end of the flight.

We were in pretty good shape when we exited LAX into the blue-sky humid Los Angeles afternoon. We’d been well rested and fed – and the combination of headstart on cattle-class with visa waiver thanks to UK passports meant we’d been processed quite quickly.

As an added bonus, our Business Class experience came with a driver service to take us to our hotel and we were soon bundled into an enormous gas-guzzler by the suited driver who was waiting to meet us at Arrivals.

LA traffic is ridiculous.  For a mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the highway was as congested as ours in rush hour on a weekday! In both directions!

It took a good half hour for us to wind the relatively short journey to our hotel in Santa Monica. It wasn’t a very picturesque drive either, with high walls on either side of the highway obscuring anything there might have been to see. The only things visible were the hills in the backdrop, but were noticeably remiss of the Hollywood sign so didn’t capture our interest either.

The Carmel By the Sea is exactly that. Right on the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean. Prime location indeed! On the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street (as in 2nd road in from the beach), it was a hop, skip and jump to all the action on Santa Monica Pier and the famous (well, to us anyway, thanks to the Yellowcard song) Ocean Avenue.

Check in was blitzquick, thanks to the conveniences afforded by online booking and we were pleased enough with our room even though it had less than no view, facing onto the Central courtyard where all the generators are housed. What did it matter though? We had the whole of Santa Monica to explore!

We headed straight out after changing into holiday mode: shorts and slops.

We’d made few plans for the afternoon, based on concern for our state on arrival from the 30 hour journey. We were fighting fit though, so committed to the pencilled plan to walk the length of the promenade to Venice Beach, just short of 2 miles down.

It was a great idea. The beach experience is idyllic: thick belt of golden sand with wide (separate) walking and bicycle paths on the city side and large open public entertainment facilities like playgrounds, skateboard bowls and gym equipment built in for people to enjoy. And so many were! Muscle Beach – a permanent outdoor gym set up in the 30s and famed for being the birthplace of the California bodybuilding boom in the late 80s, where Arnie and Co worked out – had a generous collection of people of all sizes exercising in the afternoon sunshine. What a great idea to promote wellness!

It’s an easy walk to Venice Beach and you can feel the change as the relaxed atmosphere and elegant waterfront properties of Santa Monica gives way to Venice’s artistically tatty, brightly-painted and muralled restaurants, shops and bars with the bustling walkway lined with buskers so as you move the soundtrack blends from bongo drums to blues to reggae to rock… with more than a few evangelists vying for airtime in between.

There is also a startling number of homeless people camped on the edge of the beach, settled in with dome tents and a scattering of worldly possessions. And more than a few begging veterans, mostly looking for a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger. The depravity is in stark contrast to the picture-perfect view just behind them with the silhouetted palm trees framing the sand and sea beyond.

Thirsty from the walk and pleased to have gotten a pic of the famous Venice sign draped across Windward Road, we popped into Danny’s for a beer and were lucky enough to be rewarded with great timing – Bud Draft $3 during “the game” (it seemed rude to ask which one that might be since the waitress was so enthusiastic that we’d responded to their offer).

We then walked on to Venice’s Muscle Beach equivalent. Quite different, it was a fenced-off outdoor gym that charges $10 for a workout pass. There were a few very impressively ripped chaps working out (shirtless, obviously) in the yard and clearly playing for the crowds by doing show-off tricks on the equipment, like handstands on the pull-up bars, and then feigning indignation that people were taking photos.

We had a beautiful sunset to keep us company on the return journey, along with the silhouettes of the beach volleyball enthusiasts taking advantage of the cooler dusk.

And it was quite cool; fitting seeing as, as hard as it was to believe, it is Autumn in beach paradise. So we decided to meander back to the hotel to get a jumper (me) and shoes (Chris) so we could make our way to 3rd, a pedestrian street known for bars and eateries (and shops, by day).

Always practical, our meander took us past the plan for the morning – the Starline Tours office, from where we would be catching the Celebrity Home Tours bus. Fortuitously, another of the landmarks on our list – the sign marking The End of Route 66 – was right outside the booth, so it was a double win.

We celebrated with a beer at The Lobster, strategically placed to the left of the Santa Monica Pier welcome sign.

Stopping for a jersey was Kryptonite. Chris sitting down on the bed was enough to zzzz him; me sitting next to him “to wake him” finished me off.

Out for the count. 3rd Street would have to remain a mystery.

Probably not the worst thing in the world, we woke at 5am, in time to open presents  (it was Christian’s birthday, the motivation for our trip), SSS&S before  “pastries and beverages” were served by the hotel (in lieu of continental breakfast) at 6.30 and then spend some internet time planning our route for the day.

We were the first at the tour office at 8.30 and were told that since we were using the GO Card pass, we were on standby for the Malibu Celebrity Home Tour, with paying customers given preference. We were told to return in half an hour to see if we could be accommodated.

We used the time to try find a convenience store to buy a local SIM card, which proved more challenging than we’d anticipated and our half hour wandering around Santa Monica just entrenched our inkling that it has an enormous fitness culture, having never seen such a high concentration of yoga studios per capita anywhere in the world!

Returning to the Pier (SIMless), we were delighted to be confirmed as included in the tour and were soon in the red topless 10 seater van, ready to go celeb-spotting.

Our guide started with a rundown of Santa Monica’s accolades: the 7th most popular beach in the world (omitting according to whom it had achieved this listing), inventing beach volleyball, the Pier and its amusement park (both established 1909) being the birthplace of Popeye and Santa Monica Boulevard marking the end of the Route 66. He also pointed out that Will Rogers Beach is where lots of Baywatch was filmed.

The drive took us along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where the guide pointed out this person’s and that person’s house… but to be honest, it became a bit tedious – and the stars weren’t all sitting on their balconies or washing their cars in their driveway waiting to wave to us, as I’d somewhat delusionally imagined they would be.

The Malibu Beach road had the highest concentration of homes / beach houses but it wasn’t as I’d imagined either.  While the houses are presumably palatial, the road view is quite modest with houses built up to the pavements, tightly side-by-side and devoid of any front gardens. The driver stopped so we could visit the Malibu Beach itself, which is just a very narrow strip of sand, where the water must lap right up to under the houses (all on stilts with decks facing the ocean) in high tide, eating away all of the beach. We had a gawk into (what we were told is) Matthew Perry’s house, but came up dry, so settled for a photo and moved on.

We parted ways with the tour in Malibu Colony to again seek SIM card. Again unsuccessful, we retreated to Subway for a meatball sub (and a 42 ounce cup of Coke!) and to use the wifi to call an Uber to start our Malibu wine route, the core activity on the birthday agenda.

We struggled to get a driver, first attempting a new app called Lyft – fail! -and then being rejected by a driver from Uber and were starting to wonder if the plan was even going to be possible when a driver called Christopher responded.

A Malibu local, Christopher, packed us into the the back of his Mini and drove us to Malibu Wines, giving us a generous amount of overshare about his life and thoughts along the way.

Malibu Wines was a lovely setting to wile away a few hours. Lots of tables of merry-makers enjoying BYO picnics and clinking glasses of Saddlebrook and Semler wines to the soundtrack of the live musicman belting out (butchered) versions of crowd-pleasers like La Bamba and Sweet Caroline.

We made our bottle of pinot noir last an impressive amount of time, restrained mostly by the price tag since everything on the menu was north of $30! (Which is probably not very much for the locals, but burns when converted from ZAR at almost 15:1!)

Again we called an Uber to take us to the next stop on our wine route, which we decided to be SIP, a wine shop rather than vineyard so we could enjoy a wider selection. It wasn’t very far up the Mulholand Highway we were already on and was a hive of activity with bikers pouring out of the General Store next door, which took “general” to the next level, selling everything from booze to convenience store stuff, clothes and an impressive takeaway menu of everything greasy conceivable. Everything including the decor had a price sticker on it.

The SIP shop itself was very quiet and we took our bottle of Malibu Rocky Oaks wine into the garden as solitary patrons. Of course, true to form, the next patron to arrive was a girl from Pretoria! She’d come to LA as an aspirant actress seeking fame and fortune but, seeing as she’d been here 15 years and we didn’t recognise her, apparently that had not (yet) happened.

When it came time to leave, we had a nasty surprise. Christian was out of data and neither of my phones had roaming so we asked if we could join the wifi to call an Uber.  SIP didn’t have wifi and the general store’s wifi was apparently only to support the security system so we were all out of luck! The general store manager offered to let us use the phone… but who were we going to call?!

Luckily, our Uber driver from earlier, Christopher, had given me his card so we called him and he came to fetch us. The reunion was that of old friends: we were so relieved to see him and not to have to spend the rest of our holiday at the general store and he seemed very pleased to see us and listen to us regale the stories of the afternoon’s adventures.

He drove us to Rosenthals on the Pacific Coast Highway, the last stop on our wine route and we said our bittersweet final farewells.

Rosenthals had claimed to serve last round at 5.30 and we’d snuck in with 10 minutes to spare… only to find it not such a strict deadline after all and the place was still doing a roaring trade, with live music and festive patrons.

We secured a bottle of Surfrider Grenache Blanc and a table in the garden, far enough from 1-man band to hear ourselves, but close enough to enjoy the people-watching. The entertainer even played “Wonderwall” as a tribute to Christian’s birthday, on my request.

It was much easier to summon an Uber from Rosenthals since it had wifi and was closer to Santa Monica so there were more drivers in the area. Our driver had the Clinton/Trump debate blaring and barely even noticed we were there. A surreal immersion into US politics indeed.

Back at base camp, we followed the plan and went to the King’s Head English Pub for dinner – cod ‘n chips paired with a Guinness – as per Christian’s birthday wish. They did a fine offering, with lovely crispy batter and delicious thick cut chips that soaked in the vinegar.

As we were finishing our dinner, who should pop his head around the corner? My brother, Anthony!

He was in town for a conference of some sort and we’d told him where we would be, in case he could extract himself from the event. He had managed and it was great to have a beer and a catch-up!

After our long day and with his impending early morning, we weren’t in a position to make a long night of it, but a great end to a great day nonetheless.