Los Angeles, California. Aside from the Big Apple, is there any other place in America that might legitimately call itself the Center of the Universe? In the case of Los Angeles, it is the center of the entertainment universe and has more legitimate movie stars per square inch than just about any other place on earth.
And so visitors come for the glamour and the glitz, for a chance to catch sight of a star maybe just going to the supermarket or walking in quasi-designer cut-offs and tee-shirts down Melrose Avenue. They come to see how movies are made, how television shows are produced, to be thrilled by the area's amusement parks and to soak up the endless sunshine on beaches populated by the most beautiful people in the world.
On our most recent visit, we tried something different: setting up base camp right in downtown Los Angeles, which of course is the hub of the Los Angeles Basin with spokes heading in every direction for every kind of adventure you can imagine.
Checking in at the Omni Los Angeles, our "camp" was actually the lap of luxury. This hotel is a modest size for downtown L.A. — just 17 stories — but located right in the heart of downtown next to California Plaza's shops and restaurants and just a short walk from many interesting sites. The rooms at the Omni are tastefully modern, decorated in the tan, beige and subtle green combination that you see in so many new houses these days. Rich mahogany furniture, elegant lighting fixtures and chocolate velour couches contrast nicely with the overall color scheme. In short, it's just what you might expect in L.A. — luxurious and very up to date.
Like the "giants" of the Redwood forest, downtown L.A. has its own "Valley of the Giants" — giant, mostly modern, gleaming buildings that will keep you straining your neck as you constantly feel compelled to look skyward at these products of man's ingenuity. With L.A.'s sunshine, the buildings reflect each other, each one offering a different, fascinating visual pattern. And almost none of these skyscrapers are elongated boxes — all the newer ones have angles of some sort, all snugly placed alongside each other like some humongous three-dimensional puzzle.
If you appreciate art and design, it's a two-minute walk to the Museum of Contemporary Art with its imposing "tree" of airplane and transportation parts greeting museum-goers at the door. Or, it's another two minutes down the street to the Walt Disney Theater, home of L.A.'s classical music and maybe the most unusual looking structure in all of downtown with its billowy, non-linear angles. Sculptures and other forms of artwork are sprinkled throughout the downtown area, leading one to believe this is one very art-conscious city.
Of course no visit to L.A. would be complete without encountering some movie-making. Most weekends we've been in the area, we've come across some sort of movie shoot -- and this trip was no exception. A crew on a truck rigged with a camera platform that lowered to almost road level was filming a vehicle "chase scene" as it passed by our hotel.
Those who love movies and the Oscars will recall that, for years, the Academy Awards were given out at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, another two-minute walk from our hotel. In fact, the entire downtown civic center is nearby and this part of Los Angeles would be an especially convenient place to stay if you wanted to include a play or concert, or perhaps a game at Staples Center.
Back at the Omni Los Angeles, we discovered the hotel has dedicated a large portion of its fourth floor to a spa and state-of-the-art exercise center. The latter is probably a necessity if you indulge in dinner at the Omni's fine dining restaurant, Noe, where you'll find award-winning "progressive American cuisine."
While there is much in downtown Los Angeles to visit and enjoy, there are also short excursions to such nearby places as Hollywood, Santa Monica, the Getty Museum and so much more. Here are a few of our favorites:
When the Getty Museum first opened in 1997, the museum's parking and transportation system were quickly overwhelmed to the point that anyone thinking about visiting the museum had to make parking reservations months in advance. Those unwilling to wait hoofed it for miles and then waited up to four hours just to take a tram ride to the museum's spectacular hillside setting west of downtown Los Angeles.
What a difference 10 years makes. Today no reservations are required and it's possible to drive right to your parking spot, grab a tram and be on top of the mountain just a few minutes after your arrival.
A trip to the Getty is like a quickie art seminar that will teach you just enough names and buzzwords to make your friends believe you really are educated. It's a great addition to any Southern California vacation.
If you're looking for the cool factor, it would be hard to beat Santa Monica, a playground for L.A. TV and movie people that is all neatly compressed into 8.3 miles strategically bordered by the Santa Monica Mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
The words "trendy" and "hip" seem to pop up a lot in the descriptions of the some 400 restaurants packed into this little piece of real estate. Throw in a few art galleries, some luxury hotels and — oh yes — celebrities and you have the makings of an eye-popping diversion from your everyday hometown.
Of course Santa Monica has a gorgeous location. The views from Palisades Park are breathtaking and take in not only the expansive beaches but such distant features as Malibu on the north and even Catalina Island to the southwest. The Santa Monica Pier is the dominant feature on the water's edge — and also over the water -- and is a favorite for families.
La Brea Tar Pits
Close to downtown is the La Brea Tar Pits, one of the world's most famous fossil localities. More extinct Ice Age plants and animals have been recovered here than anywhere else on earth.
It's hard to imagine but here, just a few blocks south from glitzy Beverly Hills, there were once such animals as saber-toothed cats and mammoths roaming the area. The museum offers skeletal reconstructions of some of these beasts while the surrounding area, Hancock Park, offers pathways around some of the archeological dig sites as well as the tar pits.
The fossils collected at La Brea date back to between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. Nearly all of the skeletons on display in the museum are real fossil bones found at the tar pits. Since 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits representing 231 species of vertebrates. Another 159 kinds of plants and 234 kinds of invertebrates have been identified.
Hollywood's definitely worth the short trip from downtown L.A. The famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine really isn't all that appealing, although there has been some major renovation in the area just in the past few years. Hollywood at Highland — a great place to park, by the way -- is an impressive new upscale shopping complex adjacent to Grumman's Chinese Theater (with its foot and hand prints), and the Walk of Fame stretches from the complex on down Hollywood Boulevard for several blocks.
It is interesting to watch the people who, in other cities, might be called street performers. In Hollywood, they're movie characters with elaborate costumes that lure unsuspecting tourists into taking pictures of them with their arms, tentacles, paws or whatever wrapped around other tourists.
In this same area is the Kodak Theater, where the Academy Awards are handed out each year. For only $15 a person, one can take a half hour tour of the theater.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Los Angeles is at the center of the entertainment universe, 400 miles south of San Francisco, 125 miles north of San Diego.
WHAT: A large, sprawling metropolitan city with enough interesting attractions to keep you occupied for weeks.
WHEN: Anytime. Great year-round L.A. weather is legend.
WHY: There is something for everyone: culture, beaches, amusement parks, fine dining, you name it.
HOW: For more information on Los Angeles, contact Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau at 213-689-8822 or visit www.seemyla.com. For more information on the Omni Los Angeles at California Plaza, please phone 1-888-444-OMNI or visit www.omnihotels.com.
Photos: Walt Disney Theater; reflections of downtown; filming in downtown L.A.; three-dimensional "puzzle" of buildings; a creation at the Museum of Contemporary Art is just outside the Omni Hotel
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway