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Road Trip (III): Los Angeles, Santa Monica, UCLA, and the Hollywood

This is part III of a series on my trip home to Australia for the US winter break (see part I and part II).

Los Angeles is a monstrously large place. The metro area is home to nearly 13 million people, and the city itself is second only to New York in population. Not only this, but LA has bulged out over a truly enormous area; until arriving there, I had not fully appreciated why it might be so difficult to get around without a car. The truth is, the city is spread out over such a large area that all of the interesting attractions are spaced very far apart. Public transportation exists, but in its current state, it cannot possibly hope to cover the entire city in a convenient fashion. If and when you visit Los Angeles, make sure you have your own form of motorized transportation. It will save you a lot of wasted time.

We arrived in the city early in the afternoon, and proceeded to stash our gear at our hostel in Santa Monica. Technically, Santa Monica is a city independent of Los Angeles, but the difference is truly academic as the city is surrounded on three sides by LA. LAX airport is also just southwest of Santa Monica, making it an easy to reach destination for the recently arrived. Santa Monica sits right on the Pacific coastline, with spectacular beaches extending down most of its length. It is the terminus of the legendary Route 66 (or what remains of it), and renowned as a shopping and holiday destination.

I only had one day in Los Angeles before flying to Hawaii, so our schedule was quite packed. We immediately departed the hostel to make our way to UCLA, Berkeley's sister campus. We drove there via the famous Sunset Boulevard, which stretches from the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Santa Monica right into downtown Los Angeles. The Boulevard is a twisty, sometimes treacherous, often congested road that carries you past many symbols of the glamour of Hollywood - guitar stores, nightlife, recording studios, radio stations, and more. The palm trees that line the Boulevard add to the Hollywood feeling - though the large branches that they shed onto the road made for even more things to dodge on the drive!

UCLA was established as the second campus of the University of California system, and today it is the second flagship campus along with Berkeley (Funnily enough, "California" or "Cal" in a university context is almost unambiguously referring to Berkeley; UCLA uses its four letter acronym exclusively). It has 40,000 students, making it the largest university by enrolment in California, but despite this, the grounds are relatively small, nestled just south of Sunset Boulevard in the west LA neighbourhood of Westwood. A neat bit of trivia - athletes from the university have won a gold medal in every single Olympic Games that the US has participated in since 1932. Not a bad streak!

Despite being the second smallest of the UCs in terms of area, the campus is spacious and stunningly beautiful. The buildings are simply amazing when bathed in the afternoon sunshine - the kind of pristine yellow light that doesn't seem to exist in the Bay Area. We found some free parking and spent an hour just walking around admiring the campus. California does have some truly amazing universities.

Our next destination was a vantage point for the famous Hollywood sign. The sign is nestled in the Hollywood Hills, north of Hollywood and Los Angeles on Mount Lee, the tallest peak in the area. Each letter is 14 metres tall and made out of steel (though the original letters were made of wood, being designed to last only a year and a half. The sign deteriorated severely, before the wooden letters were replaced in 1978).

Following some handy instructions from the internet, we were heading for 3000 Canyon Lake Drive. It was a race against time and traffic - we thought that we had easily beaten rush hour, but this was definitely not the case, and we got stuck for fifteen minutes at an intersection with the infamously slow Highway 101. We barely crawled along for a substantial period of time as the sun continued to set, until finally we managed to compute a different route and duck out of the jam. The route was very twisty, leading us up into the sparsely populated Hollywood Hills, around the Hollywood water reservoir, and along skinny one-way streets. Of course, the GPS eventually led us to a dead-end road (damn you GPS), but a few different turns later and we were back in motion, making it to Canyon Lake Drive just in the nick of time before sunset.

The online advice proved to be extremely good. There's park at 3000 Canyon Lake Drive where cars can be left for free. A fifteen minute walk up the hill then brought us to an amazing vantage point for the sign. Many, many pictures were taken until the light faded and we were left in darkness. And as a reminder of how enormous Los Angeles is, the city and ocean were clearly visible from the park as we left - distantly glittering as the sun went down.

We departed Canyon Lake Drive with the intention of making our way to Griffith Park Observatory. The Observatory promised to be another excellent vantage point for the Hollywood sign, as well as providing ample stargazing opportunities. Our route would take us through more twisty roads in the Hollywood Hills, over the top of the mountain and down the other side. Unfortunately, we eventually hit another dead end - though this one was artificial. A steel gate barred our progress, with the requisite explanatory sign curtly informing us that local residents were being consulted over the passage of traffic along the road, and for the time being, the road was closed. With no other way over the mountain (except to descent and reascend, which would take prohibitively long), we chose to return to Santa Monica and pursue other evening activities.

That evening, we headed out for an evening walk around Santa Monica. Now, I was expecting LA to be warmer than our previous destinations. However, we seemed to have chosen just the week where LA turned cold. There was a icy, howling wind blowing in off the Pacific Ocean, rendering extremities next to useless. Braving the chill, we made our way towards the pier, walking past a brightly lit but deserted (and closed) amusement park, and numerous closed restaurants and shops. At the pier's end, we were witness to a marriage proposal; a crowd of about 15 people had gathered with balloons, screaming excitedly at the bridge's acceptance. It was loud enough to attract a police car, which pulled in to investigate the commotion. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else happening on the famous pier; the cold and night seemed to have scared off other comers.

This brought to a close my brief visit to Los Angeles and my road trip south. It featured nearly 1000km of driving and six days of touristing along some of the nicest coastlines in the world. The next morning, I cleared out of the hostel early, making my way to LAX airport and a flight to Hawaii. More on that in the next post.

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