How to experience the best of LA in just one day

Leon’s holiday horror story has a happy ending.

The best of LA in one day

It began as a holiday horror story but turned into a dream birthday in LA for Leon. And if you ever find yourself in Los Angeles on a stopover or with a day to spare, he shows you how you, too, can experience the best of West Coast culture in less than 24 hours.

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It’s been a long road through Nevada, where I've just undertaken a four-day road trip across the desert to visit American Indian reservations and historic, sacred sites. Then, after having attended an inspiring, though tiring, three-day Governor’s Travel Summit in Reno, I am finally on my way home.

What joy then that I've been upgraded to a Premium Economy seat on a United Airlines Dreamliner from LAX direct to Melbourne. And even better: I have no one on either side of me. Visions of stretching out over the long-haul flight are already giving me butterflies – it’s a dream situation for every traveller who’s ever been cramped in cattle class, as I was on my way to the States.

After sitting on the tarmac for three and a half hours, I learn that the flight has been cancelled due to cabin crew shifts ending mid-flight and the inability of the airline to find replacement crew, and my dream turns into a nightmare.

The crowd shuffle off the plane, 1.30am. We enter the gate hub and see hundreds of other passengers stranded in the same situation, and I'm worry that I’ll be sleeping at the airport for the night and forced to wander about like a terminal zombie tomorrow.

Lined up like stock animals awaiting the chance of being assigned accommodation somewhere in LA at, now, 2.30am, we're informed that, due to the immense pressure on gate agents, we have to find our own digs for the evening.

Fat chance. All seems lost. And then an angel appears before me, almost in tears.

I met this person before when she was merely human, at a travel road show back in Melbourne. Michaela, my soon-to-be heroine, works for AMEX as a travel consultant for high-end card holders. Her job is to deal with exactly these types of crises. She had also been at the Travel Summit in Reno. She misses her two young boys and this cancellation is a massive blow, you can see it reflected in her tears.

We chat, exchange gripes, and I remind her of a talk we’d both heard in Reno from an amazing man named Dr Jeff Salz, who spoke about how adversity is the key to having a true travel adventure. We both buck up.

Here we are facing adversity. Our flight would not be leaving until 11.30pm the following night. Finding a hotel in one of the busiest cities in the world at 2.30am is a monumental challenge for many. Not for Michaela. A quick call to one of her contacts and we find what could be the last available room in LA. It’s a double. We agree to share it and we make our way to pick up our luggage and catch a cab to the hotel.

The Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows is a luxury oceanfront hotel overlooking Santa Monica beach. It’s nice. Very nice. Michaela swings us a deal for breakfast and we check in. It’s 3.30am and we’re both bloody tired. I open my bag to change my clothes and realise I have someone else’s luggage. Same style of bag, just not mine.

So, begins an hour of trying to track down the fellow whose bag I have. No joy. Luckily, I follow sage travel advice and have a spare of pair of undies, socks, a T-shirt and some toiletries in my carry-on. After a turkey club sandwich dinner from the 24-hour room service, I lay down my weary head thinking about what a pickle I’m in. My bag could be anywhere.

Next morning, there’s a message from ‘Tim’ saying he has my bag. He leaves me a number and we coordinate to meet prior to boarding that night.

Okay, with that dilemma solved, what to do with a full day in LA? Temperature 20°C. Sunny, swanky hotel, great company, Oh, and it’s my birthday.

We find a table at FIG restaurant in the hotel and eat and plan our day. Michaela says she would have just stayed in her room all day if I wasn’t there. If I hadn’t met her I wouldn’t be there. So, after a bit of adversity, Dr Jeff’s theory is proving itself true.

First stop after breakfast is a walk along the boardwalk to Santa Monica Pier, right at the end of Route 66, home to Pacific Park – a place I quickly recall from scenes in around 100 movies and television shows I’ve seen throughout my life. Classic cars literally drive off Route 66 onto a pier lined with blues-singing buskers, crowds of carnies, a man literally covered from head to toe in live pigeons, soul-singing songstresses, and magicians and tricksters, for photo opportunities.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Big, you’ll know about Zoltar. A couple of quarters in the slot and the animatronic fortune teller proffers me words of wisdom and spits out a slip of paper with my fortune.

There’s a wonderful feeling here that's difficult to describe. People in a childlike state, everyone’s faces stretched by smiles, the place reeks of laughter, thrills, fairy floss, popcorn and ocean air.

The rollercoaster may be small but after two circuits my cheeks hurt from the sheer joy of the ride around. So, we ride again. A quick game of skee-ball is followed by a wander to the ‘end of the trail’, where anglers dangle lines in hopes of hooking tonight’s dinner. I look back along the old wooden wonder at a rainbow of ramblers relishing the fun of the fair in the LA sun on a perfect day.

Wandering back along Santa Monica Boulevard, you witness legitimate LA culture. A shiny woman walks by, fake tan, cork platform shoes, tied-in-front pink and orange crop top and denim shorts that barely cover what’s beneath. Groups of bongo-playing (and possibly bong-smoking) kids sit in circles under shady palm trees. Palm trees line both roads that run alongside the coast. People running, walking, riding cruiser bikes and people watching myriad beachside performers. Carefree and cruisy is the vibe.

Time for a beer, so we head back to the hotel bar, sit poolside with pizza and a brew and ponder our next move. The Fairmont offers free bike hire. Next thing I know, I’m riding along the boulevard towards the eponymous Venice Beach.

With the wind in what hair I have left and the sun at my back, we make our way to the see real Los Angeles. Forget Hollywood and Beverly Hills and Bel Air: if you want to experience the true LA vibe, spend an afternoon at Venice Beach, among the hippies and skateboarders, roller bladers, artists, musicians and sidewalk psychics. It’s a real treat.

Michaela and I decide to have our palms read and laugh that the ‘psychic’ thinks we’re partners. Still, she manages to get some things right. After today, we agree that we'll be friends for life.

Watching a sunset over Venice Beach and Santa Monica pier is a sight to behold. The athletic, gymnastic and body builder set at Muscle Beach stops in its tracks, as do hundreds of wanderers, to watch that famous golden glow. The Pier, Pacific Park, the palm trees and people all silhouetted against a burning orange backdrop then all but wink out of existence for a few minutes while my eyes adjust to the new blue evening sky.

Back on our bikes, we head ‘home’ and then to Santa Monica proper to find some dinner. Whilst we are spoiled for choice, we can’t make up our minds, and decide instead – because we are both In-N-Out Burger virgins – to seek out an In-N-Out Burger joint on the way to the airport.

For the uninitiated, In-N-Out Burger is a family-owned chain of traditional burger joints that has operated for 70 years throughout the States. It’s a quintessential American experience. Our Uber driver finds us a spot and we shout him a meal. We sit and gourmandise ‘Animal Fries’ and Double-Double Burger – delicious.

The road back to LAX is as expected – bumper to bumper and smoggy as hell. I meet up with Tim, who has my bag, and I breathe a sigh of relief, ready to board my plane with my own belongings. Michaela and I finagle seats together so we can keep the good vibe alive all the way home. United Airlines oblige and we’re again in Premium Economy seats heading back to Melbourne.

The moral of the story is: there is no story without trouble. Adversity creates opportunity and it’s how you handle such situations that will provide you with an adventure worth recalling. Also, if you want to experience true LA culture, steer clear of the theme parks, shopping malls and movie sets. Head for the coast, hang with the locals, swallow some suds and soak up some rays on the way.

Have you been to Santa Monica or Venice Beach? Have you had a holiday that began badly but ended well? Why not share your tale with our members?

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