I very quickly learnt that this is the norm in LA, where the infrastructure is designed to make it car-centric and anti-pedestrian.
The Grand Canyon: on the edge in amazing Arizona
By the time I had reached Malibu on the drive towards Los Angeles, traffic had almost come to a standstill. I very quickly learnt that this is the norm in LA, where the infrastructure is designed to make it car-centric and anti-pedestrian. This instantly gave the city a less welcoming personality than the others I had visited so far. Aside from a great session of people-watching as I walked along the coastal boardwalk stretching from Santa Monica to Venice Beach (a melting pot for exhibitionists and street entertainers), LA left me with little reason to return.
I spent one afternoon at LA's Getty Centre in Brentwood - a museum with a permanent collection of pre-20th-century painting and sculptures, including some Van Gogh pieces. More enjoyable than the museum itself were the tram to get there and the great bird's-eye views of the city and Hollywood Hills from the centre's gardens. There is no charge for admission or the tram ride. Sunset Boulevard (the famous street paved with Hollywood Stars) is fairly run down. Ten minutes away, however, are the gated mansions of Beverly Hills. Much of the city was like this; a mish-mash of highways connecting one run-down road to another palm-tree planted driveway. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood, it seems, is better observed on the screen than in Hollywood itself.
After my first two weeks of beach-hopping, I was heading inland towards Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. The most obvious pit stop (and where most canyon tours operate from) was Las Vegas. For a place known as a city of sin, I was surprised at the large number of families and young children I saw there. Competition along the Strip means you can usually stay in a top hotel for a very reasonable price, especially on a weeknight. Aside from the vices Vegas is famous for, there are shows, music, pools and huge shopping centres that cater to all tastes. Even walking along the Strip, observing the mix of characters and street entertainers, is an activity in itself. Vegas is a fluorescent 24-hour human circus that every visitor is a part of.
Vegas was full of tour operators offering trips to the Grand Canyon. Hotels offer overpriced tours for approximately $400 (Dh1,470), but I found a great direct deal online for $199 that included a propeller plane flight over Hoover Dam and Vegas to the Grand Canyon, with airport pickup/drop-off. When I woke up at 4.30am to catch my flight the streets of Las Vegas were still swarming with crowds of people - there really is no other place like Vegas. I viewed the Canyon from the Western Rim, owned by the Hualapai (a tribe of Native Americans). There were no barriers, which meant I was free to stand as close to the edge as my courage would let me. I found a quiet spot and sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon. As far as my eyes could see, this natural wonder stretched to infinity in both directions.
With a few more days to go in the US, I continued to make my way to San Diego through the Mojave desert and Joshua Tree National Park. Once again, California's diversity impressed me. I came across vast salt flats and intimidating cacti along the highway. Half-way to San Diego, the city of 29 Palms, located next to the largest US Marines base, was a good place to stop to explore the desert region. The 29 Palms Inn was one of the most memorable places I have stayed on this trip. The rooms are standalone eco-friendly desert cabins, each named after a local wild flower, and the hotel is run by the second-generation owner and a friendly ex-Marine, Bill. Complete with a pool, desert lawns, hippie restaurant, cosy home atmosphere and helpful staff, it's well worth a visit ($55 per head including breakfast and Wi-Fi). Bookings do need to be made in advance and plenty of the Hollywood A-listers also book themselves into this great inn as a break from LA.
San Diego was the grand finale to my North America travels. Its eclectic mix of cultures struck me instantly and, similar to San Francisco, downtown was easily navigable. Its close proximity to the border has given the city a reputation (well deserved, I found out) for some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico. I spent one afternoon at Mission Beach, a bustling beach with a distinct personality, full of second-hand shops, independent cafes and street performers. Mission Beach's popularity was evident when I passed a wedding being set up on the beach. Sadly, I couldn't spend more time exploring San Diego as I had a plane to catch to my next continent.
I'm writing this aboard a 15-hour flight to Sydney crossing the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line. Qantas have just served hot chocolate to all the passengers, with a giant marshmallow placed on top - I can't wait to reach Australia!