'Do you remember back in old L.A, where everybody drove a Chevrolet.....'

‘Do you remember back in old L.A, where everybody drove a Chevrolet…..’

Even typing that article title feels strange. Those that know me well would have assured you that there’s more chance of seeing Bob Crowe and Paul Dacre leading a conga line down Piccadilly than ever there was of me admitting to even a shred of affection for Los Angeles. And yet, after a few recent trips, some revised thinking is quite clearly in order. Hmmm- has that California wine- or maybe the sun- finally gotten to me? Maybe it’s both.

Whoa, sunshine. Focus and recap.

Let me count the ways… In the past, I always sneered that LA stood for ‘lacks atmosphere’. It was made of plastic and, if you kicked it hard enough, it would surely fall over. The pouting of simpering, intellectual black holes such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, plus all the platinum grade, fawning bullshit that goes with that whole celebrity culture, has always left me more than a touch nauseous. Add in the smog, the endless traffic, and the pathetic pretension of some of the city’s more upscale eateries, and you have enough fodder for a barf-a-thon of incalculable magnitude.

And then, two years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts, when I discovered a whole different side of Los Angeles. A kinder, more benign aspect that does not insist on seeing its name up in lights, Because of that alone, Manhattan Beach boasts considerable style, charm and- dare I say it- stage presence.

The background to the story goes something like this; I had to fly out to LA to pick up a cruise ship down to Mexico. And, being booked on British Airways, I had already spent twelve anxious hours in the air, wondering if my luggage and I would enjoy an emotional reunion at LAX or, for that matter, anywhere else.  Add on the effects of passing through all those east to west time zones, and you’ll understand why I was pretty well fried by the time that we were on final approach to la-la-land.

I had been booked into the LAX Hilton hotel for the night, and that suited me just fine. I had stayed here before, and found the place to be eminently comfortable and businesslike. One of the perks attached to staying here was a free shuttle bus to Manhattan Beach, only some three miles away.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach

That first night, I was ready for nothing more than a shower and a quick meal. Both were achieved in record time, before sleep stole up on me and slugged me with a cosh. It was sayonara for a full eight hours. Truly relieved, my luggage and I enjoyed a wonderful night of welcome, mutual proximity

Next day, with a few hours to kill, I thought about taking the free shuttle bus to the beach. Turned out that it wasn’t free, but instead cost all of three dollars each way. Doh.

Still, that shuttle was a dinky little thing. A fire engine red trolley, filled with wooden benches to perch on, it clattered into life and left the morass of hulking hotels that clustered around LAX in its wake.

First impressions were not at all promising. A string of turnpikes and freeways, and an enormous petrochemical plant of such unremitting ugliness that it resembled nothing so much as a boil on a supermodel’s butt. But then, gradually, foliage began to soften the route, and then we found ourselves running parallel to a huge, honey coloured expanse of immaculate sand, drummed gently by the incoming rollers of the springtime Pacific.

This, then. was Manhattan Beach.

Wide, welcoming and virtually deserted on this spring Tuesday morning, the area around it was awash with all manner of local life. A handful of joggers of various ages, and a doddering old dear walking a pekingese along the flower strewn boardwalk that flanks the beach. There was a pair of lovers strolling hand in hand, and random cyclists, barrelling at a dizzying pace past the date palms. On the roaring Pacific rollers, a battalion of early morning surfers did combat with the sea, weaving in and out of the breakers like scores of veteran fighter pilots.

CNV00009Centre stage, a good sized, almost deserted pier jutted out defiantly into the ocean. At it’s farthest end was a sealed up cafe-cum-aquarium, one reminiscent of any deserted seaside scene back in Britain. But there was no whiff of genteel decay here, no line of vultures doing a conga along the promenade. Instead, it was immaculate, and obviously just waiting for the warmth of the summer to bring it back to life.

Overhead, seabirds wheeled and screeched in an almost cloudless, petrol blue sky. I strolled between lanes of pretty, pastel shaded clapboard houses, their open patios already a riot of hibiscus and wisteria in the early spring sunshine. From here, i walked right onto the main drag of Manhattan Beach proper.

‘Bohemian’ was hardly the word. Here there were ditzy arts and craft shops, and a sweep of pubs, bars and restaurants. There was a kiddie’s toy shop and, most pointedly, not a skyscraper in sight anywhere, This was down at home stuff, right down by the ocean, and it was as charming as it was beguiling. More to the point, it was all completely, diametrically at odds with the LA that we all think that we know.

I treated myself to a succulent roast beef baguette the size of a Good Year blimp at Beckers, a local cafe and deli that has been here since 1942. With a cup of fresh coffee and a soundtrack of gentle Pacific surf kissing the beach, it was an absolute bargain at six bucks. Impressed? Yes, so much that I literally did buy the T-shirt.

Just then, the gentle clang of the approaching trolley bell jolted me out of this dreamy little stupor. It urged upon me the imminence of my appointment with my cruise ship, even then disgorging passengers just a few miles away at the port of San Pedro.

Manhattan Beach aquarium

Manhattan Beach aquarium

I left reluctantly, and in the sure and certain knowledge that I would stay here next time I returned. But the real sea change was in the fact that I knew that, next time, i actually wanted to return a few days early, just to soak up the ethereal, gentle vibe here. Smitten indeed.

So what are the lessons in all this? Well, for me it’s the same as always- that there is always something new to be learned, and often savour, about almost everywhere and, once again, to always try and keep an open mind.

To my friends in LA, I mean no disrespect to either you- or your lifestyles- by illuminating some of the city’s less attractive qualities. To my friends in New York, Boston and Miami- no, I have not gone completely ga-ga; I am, and will always remain, an east coast boy at heart.

LA is not my lady. I remain much more enamoured of cool, classy San Diego to the south. But LA has served me notice that maybe, just maybe, I have been just as brash and instantly judgemental as other people in the past. She has thrown open another door, and a chink of very illuminating light has shone through.

It’s official; my curiosity has been awakened, and my reservations, while not yet buried, have certainly been placed in a state of suspended animation.

A bit like Miss Hilton’s personality, really. But Manhattan Beach- I truly am missing you already…..

In the interests of clarity, I should state that the bulk of this article was written in the summer of 2009. I have been back to Manhattan Beach a few times since, but my original observations- as noted in this article- still hold true.


CNV00002If you only have a day or a night to pass while transiting through LA, you could do a lot worse than making the detour to the small city of Manhattan Beach. Though it is located just two miles from the airport, and only a mile or so from Hermosa, you’ll feel as though you’ve somehow stepped back half a century in time.

CNV00004For this is the part of Los Angeles that inspired Brian Wilson and Mike Love to write all those perennial classics for the Beach Boys; Surfin’ USA, Help Me Rhonda, All Summer Long, and all the rest of those peerless tunes. Here, the sparkling white Pacific surf still rolls and drums the broad, honey coloured dream of a beach, a full four hundred feet wide and more than two miles in length.

The surfers are still there; together with the summer volleyball tournaments. In the centre, a stout wooden pier juts fearlessly out into the ocean, with an eclectic, octagonal shaped aquarium cafe located at the very end.

There are roller bladers, strolling lovers, and little old ladies that walk improbable, yapping dogs that bay frantically at the bare chested, flame haired men whose attachment to jogging is less painful than their devotion to purple spandex. All human life is here, and then some.

CNV00005The main drag leading down to the beach is lined with clap board houses, wreathed in multi hued clouds of hibiscus, oleander and jasmine. Gaunt, spindly palm trees stand black against the reddening hues of twilight. A long boardwalk promenade meanders along towards nearby Hermosa Beach.

CNV00008The main thoroughfares are lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, each with a surplus of outdoor seating that has spilled out onto the sidewalks like a class ten roller. There are ditzy little arts, crafts and herbal remedy shops, and more than a few car dealerships. Amazingly, there is not a skyscraper within view anywhere; only the sight of a plane clawing at the sky as it lifts off from nearby LAX even hints at the presence of the vast, seething metropolis just beyond.

CNV00009The whole vibe is more than a little bit like a fantasy bubble in the middle of a vast, chaotic empire; a sort of Brigadoon by the sea, if you will. But the whole area has a kind of subtle, hypnotic charm that gathers you in, and then draws you back again.

Highlight? For me personally, sitting at a waterfront bar and drinking Zinfandel- preferably Beringer- as the sun sags like a slow moving dream into the blush tinted embrace of the rolling Pacific. This is my touchstone- that magical moment when I know beyond doubt that I have returned. And it’s a moment, and a feeling, every bit is warm and full bodied as that same benevolent sun. Wonderful stuff.CNV00012


ImageManhattan Beach at sunset. Spindly palms loom black against a blood red sky as the sun sags into the ocean. A glass of cold zinfandel and a Mamas and Papas sound track in the background…

ImageSounds like a cliche? Sure. But only because, like the best cliches, it happens to be true. There’s something almost other worldy, Something subtle and tender about a California sunset. Explaining is like trying to stuff a cloud into a picnic basket; it’s far easier to feel, to understand, than it is to elaborate.

ImageImageAnd the days… surfers cresting the surging, cobalt blue rollers that kiss and crash against that broad, biscuit coloured sweep of sand. The warmth of the breeze and the mild sting of the spray.

ImageImageAnd there is so much more. The buskers filling the air with soft, soulful strumming. Lovers strolling the jasmine fringed boardwalks. Little old ladies walking impossibly small dogs. Clapboard shops and restaurants in a hundred shades, strung out along gaunt, sturdy piers that jut out into the Pacific.

ImageIt’s all evocative, dreamy stuff. And yet, very real. And if this little intro has got you hooked, then please enjoy these photos. Taken at Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, and Pacific Beach in San Diego.

ImageOh, and if you happen to be anywhere near ‘PB’ late afternoon or early evening, you could do a hell of a lot worse than to rock up to a great beachfront bar called Lahaina, grab a Longboard beer, and drink in the sunset from that great vantage point. You’ll be glad that you did.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage