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California’s cozy caliphate of cash

Published Mar 9, 2015


The itinerary sluiced cold war over my kidneys. A bike ride followed by a hill hike.

I’m built to tour from the back of a bus, not off a bike saddle, but within 36 hours I would have done not just a 20km ride through Beverly Hills, but climbed 500m on a 6km hike to the top of Mount Hollywood, biked another 24km from Santa Monica to Venice Beach and back, and then walked another 7km back to the hotel from Hollywood itself.

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Los Angeles is vast; a 100x100km sprawl of associated cities, all with their own histories and nuances. It’s difficult to find a point of reference beyond the San Antonio mountains to the north and the Pacific to the east - a disorientation that is reiterated when you stand at the top of Mount Hollywood.

Going on a bus tour is an option, offset by the incredible urban snarl, rush hours that make ours look positively anaemic. The answer is a guided bike tour and a guided hike.

Erick Martinez is our livewire guide, a cross between an over-exuberant St Bernard and GI Joe. The bike ride which will last three hours is billed as “mild”. By the end of the first mile (600m), up a gentle rise, my thighs are burning, and I have discovered depths to my lungs that I haven’t known since I was a teenager, unsullied by my packet-of-fags-a-day habit.

The route crosses over from West Hollywood (itself a constituent part of greater LA, but a city in its own right, renowned for its championing of human rights and animal rights, complete with zebra crossings clad in the LGBT rainbow) and into Beverly Hills, the haunt of the rich and shameless.

The drab Welkom-esque flat where Marilyn Monroe lived and shagged her neighbour Frank Sinatra is in West Hollywood, but the house - or plot, rather - where Ol’ Blue Eyes died, is being rebuilt. The utilitarian ’70s 31-storey block of flats, Sierra Towers, where Elton John and Cher once lived, is en route, before we hit Beverly Hills proper.

We also pass the house where The Osbournes was filmed before Christina Aguilera bought it, as well as Dr Phil’s vulgar pile. The piece de resistance, though, is Greystone Mansion.

It’s a 55-room pile on a 16-acre plot of landscaped gardens, atop one of the hills that make up the eponymous Beverly Hills.

It has an incredible history of sex and violence: the original owner and scion of Irish immigrants, Ed Doheny, made his money first working for government as a land surveyor when California was opened up, and then for his own account, morphing real estate with land speculation. To paraphrase Julius Malema, he sounds like the prototype tenderpreneur.

He was also paranoid, and had two searchlights mounted on the roof. One shone on the Beverly Hills police station, the other on the Sherman (today West Hollywood) police station. If there was trouble and the phone lines had been cut, he would blind the cops, who would hopefully rush over. The searchlight eventually inspired the Batman searchlight signal. There’s also a tunnel that leads to Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Doheny’s son Ned was killed in 1929 in what is euphemistically termed a murder suicide. Had it arisen from a labour dispute? A hit ordered by Ed on his dissolute son? Or was it the result of a lovers’ tiff?

Ned’s firmly cemented in Hollywood legend, for having been killed in the house’s underground bowling alley. The house lives on as a backdrop to a raft of Hollywood blockbusters: It was Batman’s home in 1997’s Batman and Robin, Xavier’s school for gifted children in The X-Men, and it appeared in the last three Spiderman films. Today it is owned by the city of Beverly Hills, bequeathed - with its extensive grounds - by Ned’s widow.

From Greystone, the route is all downhill, off to the famous Beverly Hills Hotel - which inspired the Eagles song Hotel California - and then Rodeo Drive. There, bling and bad taste meet exclusivity, including perhaps the single worst desecration of a Rolls-Royce since John Lennon had his painted with flowers. From there it’s across the road to the public toilet in the Will Rogers Memorial Park where George Michael was arrested in 1998 for “engaging in a lewd act” with an undercover LA cop.

Later that afternoon it’s off to the Griffiths Observatory, a vast chunk of land courtesy of another LA enfant terrible, former journalist, rampant alcoholic and mining consultant Griffith J Griffith. It’s 1 740 hectares of prime real estate with the 500m-high Mount Hollywood at its peak, and incorporating the Greek Theatre and the Griffiths Observatory. It also includes the hill that has the Hollywood sign on it, although that hill is properly known as Mount Lee.

You can’t escape movie references in LA, and Griffiths Park is no exception: CSI, in all its regional derivatives, is filmed here, in the main. It was the backdrop to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the little tunnel that runs beneath it was made to look 100km long in Back to the Future. Getting to the top is a battle, pulsing veins in forehead, sweat breeding on itself, cramping thighs and heaving lungs - as scores of Angelinos nonchalantly jog past. Some even eschew the contoured track to race up the slope to the lower outpost like dassies.

The pain and the strain are forgotten the moment you get to the top. Situated at the north-eastern border of Hollywood, the park provides spectacular, unrivalled views of the city which changes chrysalis-like at the setting of the sun to be replaced by a kaleidoscope of street, advertising and brake lights.

It only hurts when you stop; so, foolishly, I volunteer to cycle along the beach the next morning. When the alarm goes, my arse is all throbbing ache and I can barely throw my legs out over the bed. I rue my enthusiasm of the evening before.

Surprisingly, this time’s a doddle. The route’s flat and we head south from the Santa Monica pier down to Venice Beach, the vanity of tobacco baron Abbott Kinney who wanted a haven for LA’s moneyed elite, with a development that had its own canals, but ended up as a haven for the homeless, addicted and dispossessed. The tramps have to leave Venice Beach every night at 10, only to be allowed back at 5am. Some go to the shelters, others just head off to Santa Monica where they can sleep on the beach.

Venice Beach is also where the drifters hung out after World War II; a haven for the motorbike gangs, a bazaar for drugs and ultimately a rendezvous for hippies, free love, musicians like Jim Morrison and muscle freaks such as the former governor of California, Big Arnie - Mr Schwarzenegger himself.

The canals that were dug in 1905 to give the area its name don’t exist any more, save for the last six, which make up the Venice Canal Historic District. It doesn’t matter that Venice Beach is gritty - you still can’t escape the movie links. Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes starred in White Men Can’t Jump there, Oliver Stone went there to film The Doors, the hit TV series Californication had much of its storyline set in the canals, while skateboarder Jeff Hawks cut his teeth on the skateboard park.

Moving inland beyond the postcard-perfect homes of the canals, there’s the re-gentrified Abbott Kinney, where Robert Downey jr has just made his home. He’s bought the next-door property as well and turned it into his studio.

From there it’s up to Santa Monica, to the end of Route 66, the iconic first-ever interstate highway, that linked the mid-west with the Pacific, starting in Chicago and looping down to Texas to end at Santa Monica, until it was retired in the 1970s.

The penultimate stop is a trip through Santa Monica’s boutiques and artisan market, before finally ending at the pier and its funfair.

Getting off our bicycles back in the car park, Erick runs around high-fiving everyone, shouting that quintessential Californian exultation “Good job!” He’s right. It was a bloody good job at that.

* Kevin Ritchie was in Los Angeles as a guest of British Airways.

Kevin Ritchie, Saturday Star

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