Downtown LA beckons

By Richard Irwin
Staff Writer
Sure, “Sex and the City” makes a trip to New York City seem glamorous. Any chance to take a bite out of the Big Apple is always fun.
But with the cost of airline tickets skyrocketing, it’s easier to take a short drive to have our own urban adventure on the weekend.
Downtown Los Angeles offers a unique weekend getaway for those of us living in the ‘burbs. Best of all, the city center is infinitely easier to get around in when all the office workers are gone.
Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway or a fun family outing, downtown offers a variety of activities.
The city’s art museums offer an enriching cultural experience. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened a $156 million expansion in February.
The museum offers its largest-ever exhibition of Chicano art, “Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement,” through Sept. 1. A new exhibit, “The Age of Imagination: Japanese Art, 1615-1868,” opened Sunday and runs through Sept. 14. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue has a new exhibit of Marlene Dumas’ work. It also opened Sunday and runs through Sept. 22. Her work has been described as erotic, primal, violent and beautiful.
If shopping is your vice, you can find great deals in the jewelry district, as well as Grand Central Market.
And to save on your lodging, come in on Saturday morning and ask for a late check-out on Sunday. This gives you two days to explore.
Personally, I’m always entranced by the sweeping cityscapes. That’s one of the reasons I like to stay at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.
Located on South Figueroa Street, the futuristic hotel features floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s fascinating to stand in your room and see the city spread out 30 floors below.
While this grand hotel is definitely showing signs of aging, the Bonaventure is still an architectural gem.
The exterior glass elevators have been featured in several movies. Who can forget Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger riding a horse into one of them in “True Lies”?
And you can get some great summer rates. This month, you could book a room for only $129 plus tax. For information, call (213) 624-1000 or see the Web site at
If your tastes run to something other than ultra-modern, there are many other downtown hotels. The nearby Millenium Biltmore is certainly a gem. The grand dame of L.A. hotels features an impressive interior.
There’s also the Hilton and Sheraton nearby. All offer different amenities, but share the same urban experience.
On Saturdays, I highly recommend the walking tours sponsored by the L.A. Conservancy. The Historic Core tour gives a wonderful overview of the historic landmarks in the downtown area, including the Central Library, Angels Flight and the Bradbury Building.
This time I opted for the Art Deco tour, a rambling 2 1/2-hour exploration of this unique architectural style.
While the building exteriors were interesting, some of the lobbies were breathtaking. And the guides really add a lot with their anecdotes about the builders.
The lobby in the Southern California Edison Building was beautiful. While you can visit on your own, you won’t get past the security guard without a conservancy guide.
The tour also visited the penthouse in the Oviatt Building. This grand apartment recalls the fabled past of film’s golden era, when movie stars frequented this art deco palace.
Other popular Conservancy tours include City Hall, Biltmore Hotel and Broadway theaters. The theater tour has been sold out for months.
Tours leave Pershing Square at 10 a.m. Saturdays. While the Conservancy will accept walk-ins for the Historic Core and Art Deco tours, it’s probably best to make a reservation at Tours are $10 per person.
After a day of touring, you’ll probably be looking for a great place to eat. While downtown has all the chain restaurants, it also shares some unique venues.
A friend treated me to one of her favorite downtown restaurants, Engine Co. No. 28. Located at 644 S. Figueroa St., it really is a beautifully restored fire house.
Visitors can still see the circular openings where the firemen slid down brass poles to their fire equipment. One of the poles can still be seen in the back. Large photographs and antique fire gear fill the soaring space.
Firemen have long been known to be great cooks, so firehouses in general are good places to eat. Engine Co. No. 28 is no exception. There are Creole red beans and rice with grilled andouille sausage ($16.75) to braised lamb shank with pappardelle noodles ($20.50). Check out its menu at
For a totally different dining experience, try Clifton’s Cafeteria at 645 S. Broadway. Branch cafeterias could be found for many years in Whittier, as well as West Covina. These are gone now, leaving only the Los Angeles site. But it’s still fun to push your tray along and sample the dishes that mom used to make.
A weekend getaway in downtown Los Angeles offers a smorgasboard of activities. Whatever you decide to sample, L.A. is a world a way from our lifestyles in the suburbs, but it’s only a tank of gas away.
(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2801

Enjoy the surf and sand at Laguna Beach


By Stan Wawer, Staff Writer

It was early May, weeks before the crowds of summer. My wife and I sat sipping champagne on the balcony of our elegant room at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach.

The sun was setting on the horizon. The tide below us crept up the sand, inching its way toward the resort. I don’t know about you, but the constant rush of surf puts me in Dreamland.

No wonder artists discovered Laguna in the 1920s and took up permanent residence. The Hollywood crowd followed in the 1930s, giving Laguna its reputation as an “artists colony.”

The Festival of Arts was started in 1932 and eventually grew to include the world-famous Pageant of the Masters. This year the pageant runs from July 9 to Aug. 30.

A nightly event highlighted by exquisite tableaux vivant, the pageant features local residents who transform themselves into figures from famous artworks, re-creating multiple pieces live in front of the audience.

The art colony is still a magical place, its time-warped ambience as inviting today as it was 50 or 60 years ago.

The Laguna Art Museum is one of the state’s oldest. It showcases unique exhibitions as well as the largest permanent collection of artwork by California artists.

Dozens of art galleries offer a wide variety of original artwork. Historic Gallery Row is just north of downtown.

Gone from Laguna Beach is the town’s icon, “The Greeter.” Eiler Larsen, the beach town’s colorful character, spent 33 years waving to motorists on South Coast Highway. Two statues honor Larsen.

Beautiful beaches and ideal weather continue as Laguna Beach’s premiere attractions. Its oceanfront is lined with parks, steeply rising hills offering a scenic backdrop. The inland access route, Laguna Canyon Road, travels through one of the state’s matchless canyons.

The main beach features a boardwalk, basketball courts and beach volleyball. In the summer, you can watch a basketball game or volleyball match any time of the day.

Laguna Beach also offers an eclectic list of excellent restaurants.

The oldest continually running playhouse on the West Coast, Laguna Playhouse is a must-see for theater aficionados.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a rescue center in Laguna Canyon, offers up-close viewing of marine mammals. After treatment, healthy animals are released back into their natural habitat.

But this weekend, my wife and I just wanted to relax and enjoy the soft ambiance of Laguna Beach.

Sitting only 20 feet from the blue waters of the Pacific, all 165 beautifully appointed rooms at Surf & Sand have a view of the ocean from private balconies.

Guests can enjoy 500 feet of pristine sand on Bluebird Beach to sunbathe, explore tide pools, do morning yoga or relax at the Aquaterra Spa.

The Surf & Sand Resort isn’t for everyone.  Everything about it is pricey. But if you can afford the price tag, it’s as good as it gets. (888) 869-9299 or visit

The resort is offering guests a three-day, two-night “Art of Relaxation” package, running in conjunction with the Pageant of the Masters.

The package includes tickets to the pageant, plus transportation to the festival and a special menu in Splashes Restaurant crafted by Executive Chef Lewis Butler.

“The arts have always been an integral part of the Laguna Beach experience,” said General Manager Nick Bozych.

The “Art of Relaxation” package is expensive, priced from $1,200. It is available Sunday through Thursday.

For those on a tighter budget, the Inn at Laguna Beach offers a midweek special through June 30. Guests get 25 percent off ocean-view rooms with balconies and breakfast. Call them at (800) 544-4479 or visit


Helping Hand

The Claremont Resort & Spa, perched on a mountainside in the Berkeley Hills, has introduced an economy-friendly Fueled for Fun rate including a $50 gas card for families to travel and soak up the California sun. With upwardly mobile gas prices heading to $5 a gallon, The Claremont, a 22-acre historic San Francisco Bay landmark, provides accommodations starting at $239 per night and a gas allowance.
The Claremont offers a AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, an exclusive spa, two swimming pools, 10 tennis courts and the Kids Club with its daytime adventures ranging from dance classes, scavenger hunts and adventure hikes to arts and crafts sessions, poolside games and tennis classes.
For more information on the Fueled for Fun rate at The Claremont Resort & Spa, call (800) 551-7266 or visit

Paper or Plastic?

Paper or plastic? You better have some cash or a credit card if you want to check-in a bag at the airport these days.

Yes, some airlines are charging $15 to check in the first bag. This fee jumps to $50 or $60 for the second piece of luggage and more than $100 for the third. Wow!

The only free piece will be your carry-on luggage. Personally, I don’t care because I NEVER check in bags anymore. You never know WHEN or WHERE your bags will end up.

But I’m sure a lot of others will be inconvenienced. What do you think? Are the airlines nickel and diming us to death or are they just trying to SURVIVE with these monstrous gas prices?

Death Valley lures visitors


By Marlene Greer
It was mid-April, just past the official end of the busy winter tourist season at Death Valley National Park, when my husband and I pulled our RV into Furnace Creek Campground, one of the few campgrounds within the park open year-round. One plus we immediately discovered was that camping fees were lower — only $12 a night — in the park’s off-season.
And the weather at that time of year, we felt, was still quite pleasant. Although it was warm (in the high 80s) and windy during the day, the nights were cool and comfortable. At the park’s higher elevations, it was actually chilly.
When the heat starts to climb, campers can head to Wildrose Canyon at 4,000 feet. Or visitors can stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which is open year-round.
My husband and I tow a Jeep behind our RV, and we came to Death Valley, which lies between the Amargosa and Panamint ranges, to experience some of the hundreds of miles of off-road trails that crisscross the valley floor, circle the sand dunes and climb the mountain passes.
From several of these passes, looking down on Death Valley an observer may see nothing more than a vast wasteland — a massive basin of salt stretching over 200 square miles. But Death Valley is much more than its salt beds. And much of it is readily accessible by car and short walks or easy hikes.
Some highlights
Badwater Basin: The lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Interpretive signs explain the presence of the water and salt. A half-mile trial leads to the edge of the salt basin. Hikers can continue on for five miles across the valley floor.
Devil’s Golf Course: A short dirt road takes visitors deeper into the salt pan to view the jagged and very sharp salt crystals. Interpretive signs explain how the salt spires are formed. Visitors can walk, with care, into the salt bed.
Artists Drive: A one-way scenic loop drive winds among colorful volcanic and sedimentary hills. The bright turquoise is stunning. Best just before sunset, but also when it’s most crowded.
Harmony Borax Works: Borax was a big commodity in Death Valley in the 1880s, and the company’s need to transport its product over the vast desert landscape brought about the creation of the now-famous 20-mule team. Interpretive signs along the paved trail explain the history of this “white gold.”
Ubehebe Crater: Jutting up from the valley floor, in sharp contrast to the white sands and salt flats, is the black, 600-foot deep Ubehebe Crater. Created in the aftermath of a massive volcanic explosion, the crater can be reached by a paved road. Visitors can walk to the rim for a look or can take the 1.5-mile rim trail for views of several smaller craters.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Near Stovepipe Wells, the dunes are popular with kids. Although easily seen from the road, visitors can park and walk anywhere among the dunes. Great at sunrise or sunset and fabulous under a full moon. Watch out for snakes.
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Wildrose Canyon: The pinon pine woodlands of Wildrose Canyon on the southwest side of the park, at over 5,000 feet, are much cooler than the valley floor. Here, you can hike among the pines, picnic and roam through the old charcoal kilns (beehive-like structures designed to hold fuel for processing silver ore). The paved road ends a few miles before reaching the kilns, but the gravel road is good and, in good weather, is suitable for all vehicles.
Scotty’s Castle: The 1920s Spanish-style home was built, at a cost of over $1 million, by Easterners Albert and Bessie Johnson. But it was the antics of their friend, legendary gold miner/hustler “Death Valley Scotty,” that gave the home its name. Scotty claimed the home was his and that he built it with money from his Death Valley gold mine. Docents in period clothing lead 50-minute tours through the home’s main rooms and spice it up with tall tales of Scotty’s outrageous behavior. All of it fascinating. Adults $12, children $6, seniors $9. Arrive early, as you may have to wait an hour or more for the next available tour.
Best hike: Mosaic Canyon, a beautiful area of water-sculpted polished rock dotted with “mosaics” (pieces of rock cemented together and forming unusual patterns), is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley. The canyon is very narrow for the first mile, then it opens up for the last 1.5 miles. Some stepping over boulders. Traihead parking area is down a graded gravel road two miles from Stovepipe Wells.
Best off-road track: The Titus Canyon Road begins off Highway 374 just outside the park’s eastern boundary. The 26-mile, one-way route climbs up to 5,000 feet, crossing the Grapevine Mountains, then passes an old mining town and descends through the narrows of Titus Canyon. The first eight miles or so of the track is an easy dirt road and, frankly, not very interesting. It’s after you begin the climb that the views shine. The road, in good weather, is easy. It’s well-maintained with only a few steep climbs and rocky spots. It narrows to only about 20 feet in Titus Canyon.
Quirky sidetrip: The deserted mining town of Rhyolite, about five miles outside the park going east on Highway 374, is interesting for its history, historic buildings and a house made out of beer bottles. But what really strikes visitors is the “Ghost Rider,” the 25-foot tall “Painted Lady” and a life-size ghostly replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The Goldwell Open Air Museum, a modern art sculpture garden, is the work of a group of Belgian artists. Their ghostly white forms are their way of tying art to the “death” in Death Valley. The artists designed the sculptures so you can sit on the lap of a ghost or give a ghost a hug. A great photo op!