Each spring, when summer can't arrive fast enough, I jet to Los Angeles where the feeling of sun on my face is like a victory dance: One more winter conquered. My body's vitamin-D deficiency makes it impossible to drag myself indoors, so I devise an itinerary that necessitates only SPF and all the motivation (or lack there of) of a Parisian flâneur. A flâneur with a convertible, that is. Come along for a day of strolling in the sun in a city that sprawls so far you'll need two legs and four wheels to even make a dent.
While the rest of the city slogged through rush-hour traffic, I enjoyed a morning commute in the style of a turn-of-the-century downtown resident by riding Angels Flight (351 South Hill St., Los Angeles; 213-626-1901; angelsflight.com), a peculiar funicular rail in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood. Dubbed "the shortest railway in the world" when it opened in 1901, the railway has relocated, closed twice (once because of a fatal accident) and reopened this past March with new safety features and the same old wood-panelled carriages that chug and lurch up 350 feet. As something both out of time and out of place, it's a steal for a quarter per ride.
Having already experienced more public transport than many residents do all year, I decided it was time to roll like a native, so I bee-lined it to Midway Car Rental (Multiple locations; 800-824-5260; www.midwaycarrental.com), an independent agency that offers a fleet of exotic cars such as Aston Martins and Lamborghinis and, most important, dozens of convertibles. The best way to tolerate traffic is with the sun on your arms - driving plus tanning equals multitasking in my book - and open-air transport allows for one of L.A.'s greatest pleasures: enjoying the scent of laurel and flowers the pervades the more verdant neighbourhoods. I settled on a handsome but low-key Lexus IS250C with built-in navigation (a must!) and quickly entered one of the city's most famous streets: Rodeo Drive.
After my cruise along the world-famous shopping avenue, I gawked elsewhere: at the multimillion dollar manses due north. The hills of Beverly Hills are laced with residential streets that begin and end at Sunset Boulevard. It's nearly impossible to get lost - all I had to do was head downhill until I hit Sunset. Or turn on navigation, of course. Name an architectural style and you'll find it here: Georgian manors, nouveau riche stucco haciendas, staid Colonials and ultra-mod abodes. And the only unifying feature is electric-green lawns. I like to think I blended right in with my Lexus, but there were few locals around to judge me, the only signs of life being teams of gardeners tinkering with already perfect landscapes.
Not satisfied pressing my nose against the glass, I opted to nestle in with the pretty and the posh and so I utilized the greatest democratic tool I know: a lunch reservation at the Beverly Hills Hotel (9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; 800-650-1842; www.beverlyhillshotel.com). So iconic is "the hotel" that the green-and-white striped portico and pink columns gave me goose bumps as I pulled toward the valet. The hotel's guest roster is a Hollywood who's who - Yoko Ono and John Lennon camped out in Bungalow 11 years after Marlene Dietrich slept there and for years, Charlie Chaplin had a standing table in the Polo Lounge, the same place Richard Nixon's deputies learned of Watergate. I sat on the patio where a canopy of white umbrellas shaded a local friend and me. On his advice, we order off the Polo Lounge Favorites menu - "they really are the favourites," he said. Cold-poached salmon and the waiter-recommended mango iced tea were far better than they had to be, the ambience alone is worth the tab. I returned two nights later to find myself sharing the room with American Idol's Ryan Seacrest and Oscar winner Javier Bardem.
Strolling the Original Farmers Market (6333 West 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-933-9211; www.farmersmarketla.com) with a full belly turned out to be a good idea, as it helped me think with a clear head. The open-air cluster of cafés and shops has been selling produce and specialty foods to celebs and regular Joes since 1934, and many of the businesses date to near then. Homemade doughnuts (Bob's) and authentic Mexican (Loteria!) are two top food offerings, but there are also shops galore, such as Sticker Planet, Kip's Toyland and Light My Fire - a hot sauce vendor. In the end, I couldn't pass up a single scoop of homemade Bennett's Ice Cream. I chose Fancy Nancy, a coffee, caramel and banana concoction that the menu stated as Mrs. Bennett's favourite.
I could have whiled away hours shopping on nearby West 3rd Street (vintage store Polka Dots & Moonbeams never fails me), but I was determined to see the ocean in the boho enclave of Venice all the way across town. Once there, the characters on Oceanfront Walk made the Venice Freak Show seem redundant, though only the latter boasted "10 living animals with two heads." I skipped that and the opportunity to get a henna tattoo, Mexican handicrafts and a glass pipe and instead met friends at High, the rooftop lounge atop Hotel Erwin (1697 Pacific Ave., Venice; 800-786-7789; www.hotelerwin.com), a cheap 'n' chic hotel just off the boardwalk. Despite having opened about six months earlier, all my pals knew it well and it was clear why: The unobstructed views of the Pacific and the city beyond were staggering. The temperature dropped with the sun and our server delivered huge waffle blankets for my friends and I to cuddle under while we sipped Lifeguard's Lemonade and nibbled on small plates.
I waited until the traffic died down (and I had sobered up) to head east for a late dinner at Culina (300 South Doheny Dr.; 310-860-4000; www.culinarestaurant.com), the new boîte at the Four Seasons hotel. The dining room was glitzy, but I wasn't here to be inside, so my architect dining partner and I headed to the lush patio, which glittered with flames from a watery fire pit and what my date dubbed the most architecturally significant heat lamps he had ever seen. Crudo - raw seafood flavoured with lemon juice or vinaigrette - was the specialty and a good place to try uni, or sea urchin, for the first time (which he did) while I experimented with the cocktail list and settled on a swimming pool-sized rosemary limoncello martini. Keys securely in my friend's hand, I ended the night with the second-best thing to driving a drop-top - being the passenger.
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