L.A.
Swimming pools, movie stars -- and plenty to love

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 the 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.

The generic Los Angeles refers to just about everything in the Los Angeles Basin north of the OC -- Orange County for those of you who don't watch Fox television or perhaps may be over 25 years old. Such famous places as Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Malibu, Pasadena and Disneyland all are in the general vicinity. Just choose your hotel, fill your gas tank and explore all of the places you've heard about. Fortunately, they're all connected by the LA freeway system so, barring rush hour traffic, it's easy to see quite a few different and exciting places in just a few days.

We won't cover everything here. But here is just a sampling of a few places we have particularly enjoyed in the Los Angeles vicinity:

Getty Museum

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 eight 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.

Not that the Getty Museum is any less popular. On our recent visit we noted a steady stream of visitors of all colors and stripes running the Disneyland-style gamut that takes you several revolutions down into the 2,000-car garage and then through a fast-moving line to board your tram. By mid-day, it looked like most parking spots were spoken for, and probably would be for the rest of the day.

The Getty Museum is all about the visual arts and, far from being snooty like some Big City museums we won't mention by name, the Getty welcomes the masses by offering free admission and presenting all kinds of tours and aids to educate visitors about the significance of the treasures on display. 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.

An afternoon at the Getty also seems to be a popular date activity judging from the many young couples we observed. Lots of families and kids were enjoying the museum -- in fact, the museum goes out of its way to offer special kids programs and activities that help make the visit enjoyable even for the very young. And then there were the somewhat older Red Hat Ladies who hit upon the Getty as the perfect place for a Girls Day Out.

What's attracting these many segments of society is a modern-day palace that cost the Getty Foundation a billion dollars and took 13 years to build. Situated on perhaps the last 124 acres in the L.A. hills not reserved for a movie star, the museum is worth the tram ride just to enjoy the spectacular views of the L.A. basin. Even on a smoggy day, it's impressive.

Santa Monica

If you're looking for cool factor on your next California getaway, 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.

Our recent visit to Santa Monica reminded us of why we moved to California. The weather was one of those clear-as-a-bell L.A. days that do come around more often than you might think, the haze having been efficiently removed by some winds and moisture the day before we arrived. It was reminiscent of a trip years ago we took from the soggy Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles that introduced us to what bright sunshine was all about. We couldn't wait to return and eventually relocated to Southern California to get our regular dose of California sun.

Such weather shows off Santa Monica as it was meant to be. 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. It's no wonder that half of L.A. seems to be down here jogging or walking. Wide, tree-lined and well-landscaped Ocean Avenue stretches along the coastline offering about as pretty a downtown street as you'll see considering this is all modern office buildings and not historic mansions.

The Santa Monica Pier is the dominant feature on the water's edge — and also over the water -- and is a favorite for families. We lingered with our five-year-old in Kids Cove, the part of the pier's Pacific Park that has kiddie amusement rides and, when all was said and done, our daughter declared her time on the pier "the best day ever!"

But the Santa Monica Pier can also be very adult. During our visit a local anti-war organization had put up more than 2,000 white crosses on the beach to help people visualize the number of casualties from the war in Iraq. While most crosses didn't have names, many of them did and it was obvious that grieving families had brought flowers and photos to create makeshift memorials on the beach.

Just up from the pier are blocks and blocks of shopping in the popular Downtown Third Street Promenade, an area where city fathers have taken a street and turned it into a pedestrian mall. There are fascinating shops and an unusual number of movie theaters along this walkway that seems to attract people from all walks of life — young and old, wealthy on down to the homeless. On weekends there is always an assortment of street musicians and entertainers willing to do just about anything to get a tip and a warm round of applause.

La Brea Tar Pits

If you're fascinated by things archeological, be sure that your next trip to Los Angeles includes a stop at 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 archelogical 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.

The large number of fossils resulted when the sticky asphalt entrapped many Ice Age animals. Interestingly, such entrapment is ongoing today — mostly birds, rodents and rabbits. A fence surrounds the pits to prevent visitors from spending more time at the site than they had planned.

Dire wolves are the most common large mammals found at La Brea — in fact, several thousand have been found. About 2,000 saber-toothed cats also have been found.

To help visitors envision these ancient and extinct creatures being trapped in the pits, the museum has life-size replicas of mammoths and other animals positioned in and around the tar pits. As you walk along the park trails, you'll also come across several ongoing excavation sites and, during certain periods, be able to watch as bones are taken from the ground, cleaned and catalogued.

Hermosa Beach

While Santa Monica, Malibu and Venice seem to get a lot of the media attention, the other Los Angeles area beach area that's "hidden" in the neighborhoods just south and west of LAX is the scrappy little community of Hermosa Beach.

The beach bunnies in Hermosa Beach have a little more attitude than their counterparts a little farther north — after all, many of them are world-class volleyball players who are not on this beach to just soak up the rays. They and their hunky boyfriends hit balls back and forth all hours of the day, prepping for one competition or another, and just generally flaunting their usually close-to-perfect looks.

This is why the little village of Hermosa Beach attracts a lot of the city's singles as well as travelers who are single hoping not to remain that way very long. Not that families don't come here as well — there's much more to Hermosa than the opposite sex and the area can be an ideal base of operations for couples and families wanting an L.A. beach location that is reasonably close to many of the city's tourist attractions.

The hotel infrastructure in Hermosa is not huge — if you're planning on spending part of your California beach vacation here, it's best to book way ahead. There are a few lodgings sprinkled here and there, precious few on the beach. We stayed a few blocks from the beach at the updated and comfortable Quality Inn where we were close to the action but not so close that the room rates reflected the usual cost of staying "on the beach."

The people who live in Hermosa are young — median age is 32 — and the local architecture is what is typical nowadays for an urban beach setting: small lots and houses, many bungalows, condos and apartments clustered close to the beach area. The residents are also hip: Hermosa was one of the first cities in the country to install free wi-fi internet service for the city's residents.

Vacationers come to Hermosa because everything is neatly compacted into a 1.3-square-mile area — the shops are all within walking distance of the beach, the beach is wide and beautiful, and the people-watching is some of the best in the L.A. area. The California surf culture is ever-present as you spot many tan young surfer boys and girls strapping their boards on cars, bikes and their bodies. Many of the shops cater to this clientele, and restaurants serve up good helpings of surfer food, an eclectic mix of greasy hamburgers, salads, veggies and, of course, beer.

Pasadena

Springtime may not be the most likely time to think of Pasadena -- known worldwide as the site of the spectacular Rose Parade every January — but this Southern California city offers a surprising mix of attractions that makes it an ideal getaway just about any time of year.

Consider, for example, the spring flowers that aren't just used to cover the magnificent floats you see in the Rose Parade. Visit Pasadena in the spring and you'll find them all where they belong — in the ground along with a kaleidoscope of colors and vegetation that are visible all over town. Among the city's major attractions are gardens and arboretums that are nothing short of breathtaking.

This combination of a garden-perfect climate and a picturesque setting at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains was what attracted new residents to Pasadena in the first place. There was no Rose Bowl or major parade back in the early 1900's when wealthy easterners became enchanted with this part of Southern California. People like David and Mary Gamble — that's the Procter-and-Gamble Gambles — would endure a week-long train ride and bring trunks of belongings to settle in for the winter.

The Gamble House was one of the first attractions we visited while on a recent weekend getaway to Pasadena. Now owned by the city and the University of Southern California, the house is a work of exquisite craftsmanship with tremendous attention to detail — so much detail, in fact, that the house cost 47 times the $1,500 average price of a home built in Pasadena back in 1908.

The Gamble House is an example of the Arts and Crafts movement that occurred about the turn-of-the-century. A couple of architects by the name of Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene were busy in Southern California for about a 17-year period, leaving examples in Pasadena and elsewhere of their visionary work. Nowhere is that more evident than the Gamble House, where the brothers included such special Southern California touches as open-air sleeping porches, careful cross-ventilation and overhanging eves to shelter the house from the California sun.

From all appearances, the house is a popular Pasadena attraction — we had to wait 45 minutes from the time we got our tickets until we were able to join one of the 75-minute tours. Every nook in the house is explained during the informative tour and, for visitors interested in history, architecture and just a glimpse at how the other half lives, the Gamble House tour is well worth the $8 price of admission.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.

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