California, outside the box

22:57, Feb 04 2010
HOORAY FOR: A stretch limousine parked on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. The boulevard runs from east to west and it is one of the major tourist draws in Los Angeles.

For many of us, what we see on TV and films is more real than the real thing.

For me, who's been addicted to American movies and TV shows since I was a teenager, every street, suburb and celebrity in California is recognisable - from Melrose Place to Hollywood Boulevard.

So on my first trip to California, I was understandably nervous - were my expectations unrealistic?

I wondered if the pedestal I had placed the Golden State on was about to be destroyed with all the gusto of a well-executed action sequence.

But when I arrived, I was surprised to find my hopes were exceeded by the state's extremes - city streets, surf beaches and deserts - all connected by an intricate map of freeways.

With just one plane ride, I had landed in a one-stop state of scenic diversity.


When it comes to experiencing a city spectacle, Los Angeles is unsurpassable. What you'd imagine to be a concrete jungle is in fact a tropical oasis, thanks to the thousands of towering palms which line the freeways and bustling boulevards.

These streets are considered some of the most famous in the world. Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame and the Santa Monica Pier are perhaps even better known than the celebrities who walk along them.

And in this oasis, the celebrities certainly roam free - prowling the shops in their oversized sunglasses, catching a bite to eat and inevitably turning store fronts into a twinkling sea of paparazzi flashes.

In this city, the act of shopping is a religion and there's no shortage of places to worship the credit card gods.
After a hard day at the shops, kick up your tired heels at The SLS Hotel, with its exquisite interior decor and sheer dedication to opulence. The rooftop pool is well worth a visit, whether it's to take a dip or just check out the view.

With its relaxed atmosphere, sassy interior decorating and a menu to die for, Gjelina in Venice Beach is the perfect place to refuel (for brunch, lunch or dinner).

When it comes time to escape the bright lights, it's only an hour and a half drive south to Orange County, the heart of California's coastal community and a surfer's paradise.

Despite being famous for its illustrious backdrop to television series The OC and Laguna Beach, there's more to Orange County than meets the superficial eye.

Beachside towns stud its breathtaking coast.

Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City, is the epitome of coastal kinship. Breakfast on a Saturday morning at the local cafe, Sugar Shack, is served with a side of small-town generosity and as you sit between the tables of local surfers, it feels like you're just another member of their extended family.

Surfing is undeniably Huntington's calling card and the town's history is rich with it. For those unfamiliar with the techniques of hanging 10, Huntington's International Surfing Museum offers a free exhibition and tour through surfing's humble beginnings in Hawaii and Huntington itself.

But to see the dedicated grommets vying for their own place in the museum's Hall of Fame, one simply has to step outside.

The beachfront is a never-ending stretch of sea, dappled by surfers braving the cold for that one wave worthy of their time and effort.

Follow the palms further down the freeway and you'll find Newport Beach, home to The OC and the most breathtaking real estate on offer. Whether sporting views of the harbour or sitting atop the cliff faces lining the coast, the homes in Newport look almost too sophisticated to live in.

As for Laguna Beach, be prepared to be seduced by its sweet simplicity. This secluded destination with its photogenic shoreline boasts a beautiful beach and the kind of boutique stores, restaurants and hotels that make it hard to resist a quick shop and a cocktail.

The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa has it all from luxury interiors to award-winning dining to direct beach butler service.

The view isn't the only thing worth drinking in from the Rooftop Lounge at Hotel La Casa del Camino in Laguna Beach - their mojitos are similarly exquisite as is their selection of tapas.

If you still need proof that California's a state of extreme contradictions, then take the two-hour drive from Orange County to Palm Springs. The sleepy seaside landscape empties like an hourglass until it's completely desolate but for the rolling mountains etched across the skyline.

As you enter the outskirts of Palm Springs, the savanna is suddenly covered in thousands of spinning wind turbines, welcoming you into the eerie, yet irresistible rocky outcrop of the Coachella Valley.

It's easy to forget you're in the desert at all when you're in  Palm Springs, surrounded by lush golf courses and natural springs.

In its heyday during the 1950s and 60s, the city played holiday home to a rat pack of celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and many of their estates still play an active part in the community's history and culture.

Resurgence in the 1990s saw a modern generation of hipsters flood into Palm Springs while minimalist mid-century architecture it is now famous for popped up.

Like its name suggests, palms sprout out of every crack in the pavement, complementing the angular design of the city's chiselled architecture. On the horizon red mountains are emblazoned against white snowcapped peaks, backed by an empty blue sky.

Not taking a tour through these natural backdrops is like coming to Australia and not going to the beach. Red Jeep Eco-Tours offer narrated and bumpy Desert Adventures through the San Andreas Fault Lines and are a spectacular way of seeing every crack, crevice and cactus the desert has to offer.

Similarly, the Palm, Andreas and Murray Canyons that make up the Aqua Caliente Indian Reservation are best explored with the detailed interpretations of a local ranger. These canyons are examples of natural exterior decorating where vast rocky peaks are perfectly accompanied by lush palms and wild details.

By the end of the day, it's hard to decide when the desert skyline looks its best - towering into the morning blue, blazing in the midday heat, soft against the fading afternoon or silently looming in the dark distance. It's easy to forget you're in California at all and that this landscape exists under the same sky you've been travelling beneath all along.

Parker Palm Springs is the epitome of luxury. Spread out across a sizable estate, the hotel offers the best in accommodation, dining, entertainment activities and of course, relaxation at their on-site spa, PSYC.

The Viceroy's Citron Restaurant is a gem in the Palm Springs' crown. Even if you're just after a cocktail or pursuing a full three course meal, the service and style at Citron will seduce you for longer than anticipated.


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