Friday, 28 June 2013

LA by Rail

An interesting discovery on my recent visit to Los Angeles was the existence of a passenger rail network.

As LA is often seen as the quintessential car-oriented Western city, you might not expect it to offer much public transport beyond buses. Yet, since the 1990s, the city's authorities have been responding to ever-increasing road congestion by building a subway system.

Ironically, in doing so they're having to reinvent the wheel (so to speak). For before World War II, the city had an extensive rail and tram system.

Infamously, it was largely purchased in the postwar years by a company with backers in the car, tyre and oil industries, then closed down in favour of buses. Vested interests, anyone?

As I had some spare time one day, on a whim I decided to test out the system. First I jumped aboard the light rail Expo Line to Culver City, which runs west along a former railway corridor.

The newly laid tramway (they call these vehicles trains, but I know a tram when I see one) will eventually reach Santa Monica when completed.

It's a very good piece of infrastructure, with neat, clean vehicles using dedicated track to serve attractive stations (see pic above). Palm trees are dotted along much of the line, which is occasionally elevated and thus delivers interesting views.

When I returned to 7th Street Station, I switched to the older Red Line. This looked a bit grittier, more one's idea of a subway, and ran underground to its terminus at North Hollywood.

I had heard that the terminal station hosted some interesting public art, and I wasn't disappointed. The first kaleidoscopic image I saw on the platform wall was this:

The El Camino referred to in the text was (I later learned) a utility vehicle introduced in the late 1950s by Chevrolet. I was pleasantly suprised to discover it had an Australian connection, having been indirectly inspired by the similar "utes" which had existed in Australia since the 1930s.

Nearby, this image referenced the Lankershim Arts Center and the recent emergence of the local arts district known inevitably as NoHo:

The meaning behind this image was easy to divine - paying homage to the orange groves which once filled the San Fernando Valley before giving way to residential districts:

I took the escalator up to the surface, then down again in order to view the art above the moving stairway. The first piece depicts the building of those new postwar suburbs:

The next image down the escalator goes back in time to reference the Mexican era of two centuries ago:

And finally, the time travel journey is completed via this reference to the crafts of the Native American people who preceded everybody else:

There were more images dotted about the station's platforms, but the last one I snapped before boarding a train back to Downtown was this portrayal of Amelia Earhart.

The aviator lived in the area before departing on her ill-fated round-world flight in 1937. Disappearing somewhere over the Pacific, she was never seen again. A loving tribute to her lives on here, ironically, underground:

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. You can discover more about exploring Los Angeles by rail at the Car Free LA site.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

LA: Figuring the Figueroa

I've been in Los Angeles for a few days at the end of my current US trip, focusing on the lesser-visited Downtown area. It's an interesting part of the city, with a wealth of history and quite different from anywhere else in the City of Angels.

That description could also be applied to my accommodation, the Figueroa Hotel. When I first stepped into this unusual hotel, I wasn't sure I'd like it.

I'd just transferred from a shiny hotel near LAX with sleek contemporary decor, the sort of look I love, and here I was in a cavernous dimly-lit lobby which sported a strange range of enormous vintage light fittings and odd wooden statues.

My room, too, was unlike anything I'd stayed in before... except, perhaps, in my years living in the Middle East. The room had plenty of space and a king-size bed, but in all other respects it was unconventional.

The walls were painted red, there was a decorated arch separating the bed from the rest of the room, and colourful cloth adornments on the walls. Two inset closets sat side by side, and the bathroom was split across two rooms - one containing the shower and toilet, the other with the sink and mirror.

Other furnishings included an ornamental Arabian water pipe standing on a tiled shelf by the door, a cowskin rug on the floor, and two enormous timber chairs which could double as thrones.

It was all very odd.

But last night, after I'd returned to the hotel after a day exploring the Downtown and neighbouring El Pueblo district, it all came together.

Too tired to traipse the nearby streets for dinner, I went down to the cafe which occupies a section of the hotel's capacious foyer.

From the short menu I ordered a hamburger and, as is laudably the way in this country, was asked how I'd like it cooked. While waiting for it to arrive, I took a seat in the quiet dining area (there was only one other table occupied) and sat back to take it all in.

At the end of a busy day of sightseeing and note taking, it was perfect. The dim light, the insanely ornate fixtures, the soft, hard-to-pin-down world music drifting from speakers high above. For some reason, I felt extraordinarily relaxed by it all.

Judging from the Middle Eastern tiles, the Indian timber furniture or the statues of Buddha, to name but a few elements, we could have been anywhere. Or nowhere. Certainly not the streets of LA. But maybe that was the idea.

Here are some pics of the lobby and dining area, to show you what I mean:

I later spoke to the hotel's owner, Uno Thimansson, an émigré from Sweden who bought the hotel in the 1970s when Downtown was at its lowest ebb.

He told me it had started life in the 1920s as a YWCA, but the Depression had put an end to that and it had transformed into a hotel. Upon taking possession of the place decades later, Thimansson had had to make a lot of changes to bring it up to scratch.

One of these changes involved knocking down walls to combine rooms lacking bathrooms with rooms that had plumbing. My own, I learned, was once two rooms which had been melded together - thus explaining the strangely disjointed bathroom.

So here I am, typing this in an eccentrically arranged room I've grown strangely fond of, and didn't initially think I'd enjoy. I shall miss it when I fly home tomorrow.

The Figueroa Hotel's rooms start at US$148 per night; see

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board and the Figueroa Hotel. All opinions, however, are mine. For more information on visiting Los Angeles, check out the Discover LA website.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Welcome to Tonopah

I've spent the past few days on a media tour of Nevada, USA. There's more to the state than Las Vegas, and as we tracked northwest we left the party city behind and entered a completely different realm of small towns, many with a mining past.

The one I liked the most was Tonopah. It was founded just over a century ago by Jim Butler, a prospector who was on the track of his absentee donkeys. Picking up a rock to heave at one in annoyance, he noticed it was unusually heavy. Threaded through with silver, it started a mining boom and the town sprang up.

Over the years, Tonopah's prosperity and population have ebbed and flowed. Aside from mining, its proximity to nearby military bases have helped its economy along (interestingly, the town lies not far north of the mysterious Area 51).

There's also an impressive Solar Reserve currently being installed outside town, a massive project with a multitude of solar cells which will store power within a tower containing molten salt.

But it's the older buildings of Tonopah which most impressed me. Perhaps because of its cycle of booms and busts, there seems to have been no wholesale demolition of old buildings in the town's heart. As a result, its downtown area is a classic slice of small town America...

1. This was the grand Mizpah Hotel, where we stayed the night. Unusually large for Tonopah's current population of 2500 people, the century-old hotel has been beautifully restored in recent years. The rooms are compact but the main bar area is a wonder to behold:

2. On a hill behind the hotel, these old buildings are an attractive backdrop. One of them houses the office of the Town Manager, an official appointed by local government to manage Tonopah's public services:

3. Across the road, this impressive boarded-up structure was once an office block, no doubt the workplace of the respectable townfolk such as attorneys and clerks who drank at the Mizpah:

4. Can't go past the A-Bar-L for all your bootscooting needs:

5. The rather austere post office building speaks of an age when it was one of the most important buildings in town:

6. There's the Kozy Korner Deli for that morning coffee:

7. Or something stronger from the Tonopah Liquor Company:

8. And I love the diversity of the stock at the business next door:

9. Finally, there are the structures of the Mining Park on a hill just behind the Main Street. Here, some of our group joined local astronomers to peer at the heavens. Tonopah is said to provide America's best stargazing - a neat summation of its contrast to the bright lights of Vegas.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Viva Las Vegas (Signs)

I'm in Las Vegas this week, attending the massive IPW, an annual travel trade show at which the USA sells its attractions to the world.

It's been a busy schedule, but on Monday night I finally got the chance to walk along The Strip, on the way to and from my accommodation at the Tropicana and a show at Planet Hollywood.

The Strip is rightly famous for its vast and sometimes bizarre resorts, often shaped into outlandish themed landmarks. New York New York has its Statue of Liberty and cityscape facade, Paris its Eiffel Tower, and Excalibur an eye-catching set of Camelot turrets and towers which glow at night.

This, for example, is the nighttime view from my hotel window, looking out toward the MGM lion:

Big resorts aside, I had fun on my walk in spotting smaller signage and other items that were still garish but presented at a more human scale (well, comparatively). Here are a few examples...

To start with, I passed this this beautiful car parked permanently in front of the Tropicana, recalling the resort's 1950s origins:

Then I saw this huge old-school Pepsi ad on the side of New York New York:

A lurking demon atop the sign for Cantina Diablo:

The garish disco entrance to Planet Hollywood:

A giant motorbike suspended high above the street at the Harley-Davidson Cafe:

And finally, the sign for a McDonald's. In Las Vegas, it seems, even mundane fast food joints become glam:

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by Air Pacific and IPW.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Fiji & the Palm Tree

I'm in Fiji for a few days, staying at the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort on the island nation's Coral Coast.

It's an easily likeable place to stay, spread over numerous levels from the hilltop spa treatment centre and bar, down through the main building to the numerous bures (the Fijian word for bungalows) across the grounds.

Right by the ocean's edge are very posh bures with butler service and views directly onto the Pacific. Not for the likes of you and I, possibly, but very nice indeed.

Connecting all this together is the greenery. Swathes of it. Vast amounts of beautiful tropical plant life everywhere you go, and very evident in the view from my balcony (see photo above).

A key element of this foliage is, of course, the palm tree.

The "of course" in that sentence started me thinking about the iconic place the humble palm holds in Western minds. When thinking of the word "travel", the silhouette of a palm tree is one of the few images that we agree sums the concept up.

Why is it so? It was possibly Gauguin who started it all, with his romantic paintings of winsome bare-chested Polynesian women placed against colourful backgrounds of palm trees.

Palms are found in many parts of the world, of course, not least the Middle East. But I think it's their Pacific incarnations which most strongly pluck the strings of our Occidental hearts.

For Pacific palm trees have an extra special quality: they're found on islands. And not everyday vacation isles such as the Isle of Wight, Long Island or Phillip Island. These are islands dotted within the vastness of the world's greatest ocean, mere specks in that vast expanse of water.

When we think of the phrase "getting away from it all", a place like Fiji - with its numerous islands of varying sizes, down to uninhabited beach-ringed atolls - is what we have in mind. That tiny speck-like size feels human-scale, something we can cope with when overwhelmed with the stresses of work and big-city life.

And the palm tree is another layer of reassurance on top of that: its unmistakable shape signifying that here lie balmy evening breezes, lazy afternoons by the pool, relaxing massages and comforting buffet dinners.

It's a nice illusion to live within, for a week or so. The "real world" is still there of course, but the palm fronds help obscure it. For just long enough.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort.