The Las Vegas lifestyle does not lend itself easily to a 5am wake-up call. Getting to bed at 5am is more the plan. Yet we find ourselves standing under a palm tree well before six in the morning waiting for our tour bus. Orlando is reeled in by an extraordinarily chatty young woman in red tracksuit pants who manages to reveal quite a bit about her life before we are saved.
As I’ve confessed in the past, my hobby is walking on very long beaches. So when we got to LA one of my first priorities was to head to the sea. Technically Melbourne sits on Port Philip Bay, which is off Bass Strait, which is off the Southern Ocean, so a glimpse of the Pacific was high on the list.
We turn the Mustang south for a couple of miles until we pick up Venice Boulevard. Even in morning traffic it takes much less than an hour before we turn into the car park right on the edge of the beach.
Orlando wants to stroll down the boardwalk but he knows I am impatient to get to the water’s edge. We kick off our shoes and walk through a hundred yards or so of sand. It’s a hazy morning and the surf is not huge, but I paddle in through the waves wishing for a moment that I’d brought my swimsuit.
A stop for brunch, LA-style. The Venice Ale House does organic brunch which means that alongside the “free-range eggs your way” and bacon with everything there is chia pudding, a vegan scramble and valerian omelette. Their waffles are multigrain or gluten free, and they only serve a specific brand of water described as “powerful, hydrating, alkalinised and micro-structured.” Well, I am certainly glad it is micro-structured, otherwise all I’d they would give you is a messy pile of disassociated hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a glass, and nobody wants that. I opt for the kombucha instead.
It’s a three-mile walk to Santa Monica Pier, shimmering in the distance through the morning haze. We stroll along Venice Boardwalk, glancing at the street vendor art stalls and dodging tourists getting the hang of their two-wheel driftboards. The bloke outside the Venice Beach Freakshow tempts his customers inside: “Hey girls, have you see our two-headed turtle? He’s right here!”
An old man with a hat and a guitar gives the memory of BB King a run for its money; moments later a young man with an adoring girlfriend and a guitar makes me want to give him “$ for gas” just to stop him playing. But then we see Harry Perry and our lives are complete: this white-clad turbaned dude is a living legend who’s been playing electric guitar whilst roller-skating up and down the boardwalk since 1973.
The row of stalls, bars and medical marijuana shops stops abruptly and the nice apartment blocks start. We are thrust onto the more residential setting of a palm-tree-lined footpath curving alongside the beach.
Families cart boxes, bags and beach umbrellas through the sand to their favourite weekend spot; sunburnt tourists roll along on their fancy resort bikes alongside tandem riders and skateboarders. Two women navigate their elderly mother onto the sand on a beach wheelchair. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen but it won’t be the last today.
Santa Monica Pier is pretty busy on a Saturday afternoon. The shops sell the usual beach tat alongside a raft of Route 66 merchandise: Santa Monica Pier is where the legendary route ends in California.
We wander through the Pacific Park fun fair right to the bottom of the pier where friends and families are fishing for halibut, herring, mackerel and sardines.
The wide sweep of the beach fans out behind us, the Santa Monica Mountains behind. It’s time to head back.
Back at the Venice end, the boys at Muscle Beach are still busy working out, although it’s not a busy as I thought it would be on a Saturday. Fangirls take selfies or ask for photos with the athletes. I’m not sure if any of them are actually famous or whether the girls just like their men extremely well sculpted.
A small group of street performers near the skate park are being challenged by a couple of police officers. The performers look like young students, dressed in dance practice clothes. We’ve not seen the performance, nor can we understand what they are being arrested for, but they look a little bewildered and shocked rather than defiant or aggressive. The officers have already called for backup, it seems; within two or three minutes the original two officers are joined by another two on horseback and four more screaming to a halt in their cars.
Some of the performers are made to sit on the ground with their hands cuffed behind them. Onlookers take photos and videos with their mobile phones, calling to the police officers to explain why they are being arrested. The performers themselves are being very compliant and quiet. There is now at least one police officer for every individual being detained, although only some appear to be getting arrested and cuffed. But just in case, a police helicopter appears overhead, adding to the noise and the drama. I suppose this is the USA and any of the performers might have had a firearm, but they just look like enthusiastic, earnest students keen to put on a street performance of something they’ve probably been rehearsing for weeks. I simply can’t fathom why this whole episode required the police presence and action I see unfolding.
Back near the car we turn inland towards the picturesque enclave of the Venice canals.
Orlando is interested in seeing where the characters from Californication live, but I just want to see the houses and imagine what it would be like to live in a place where I could moor a boat outside my front door. It’s a beautiful, peaceful setting, or it would be if there weren’t hundreds of tourists walking along every footpath and over every bridge.
I look enviously at the verandahs, gardens and balconies, making mental notes of things I like. I decide to give our own tiny back garden a makeover when I get home.
The sun is far over the yardarm by now, so we head back to the beach for a drink.
We score a couple of bar stools on the balcony of the Venice Whaler and watch the sun sink towards the horizon.
Walking back to the car along the water’s edge, the evening colours are perfect and I take a thousand photos trying in vain to capture the beauty of the moment.
Back on the boardwalk the evening crowds are out, bikinis and boardshorts swapped for only slightly less casual attire. The bars are filling up and the palm trees are beautifully silhouetted against the darkening sky.
We have a one-night stopover in LA planned for December. I might change our boring airport hotel booking and see if we can come back here for 24 hours instead. All life is here!
Go to LA, and you know that one of the top ten things to do is get as close as you can to the Hollywood sign.
It’s not that easy to walk right up to it, and anyway the closer you get to a forty-five foot tall sign, the less you will really see of it.
The most famous and most accessible viewing point is probably the Griffith Observatory, but the sign is still a good distance from there and it’s easy to get closer if you have a car.
From Hollywood itself, a good moving vantage point (if you are not the driver) is to drive up North Beachwood Drive, a north-south residential street lined with tall palm trees, because the sign is pretty much right in front of you the whole way. It’s still tricky to get a good photo of it from a moving car, but it’s fun driving through the Hollywood homes with palm trees swaying and the sign always in view. Especially if you’ve hired a convertible.
One excellent vantage point is at the end of an anonymous cul de sac, outside somebody’s house on another quiet residential street. Punch 5825 Green Oak Drive into your car’s GPS and it will take you up a steep winding street that gets narrower and narrower until you reach the last home and a gated entrance. Stop and take a look north-west – there she is. If you’re lucky there won’t be anybody else there and you will be able to take lots of shots unencumbered by photobombers.
Another (likely busier) spot is at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive, which is a bit closer again. If you can get parking nearby you can also walk towards the sign, which is probably less than half a mile away at this point. That, of course, is illegal but I’m told it’s unlikely that you will get stopped. The 24/7 security guard is stationed elsewhere at the gated roadway to the sign, and not looking your way.
But the most fun place to view the sign is from – wait for it – the original Batman’s Cave.
Type 3000 Canyon Drive into your car’s GPS, which weirdly will take you into a park where you can park your car and walk the ten minutes or so up to a set of caves. Follow the walkers – it looks steep but it’s not far. At the end of the walk you will find a couple of shallow caves and a small clearing, where somebody has set out lots of concentric rings made of small stones and rocks.
These are the Bronson Caves, most famous (to people of a certain vintage) as the exit of the Bat Cave from the original TV series. Standing by the concentric stone circles you will have a pretty great view of the Hollywood sign, and lots of opportunities to take photos with nobody but you in them.
The best thing about this vantage point is that it’s a really accessible remote-looking setting, so it’s been used in lots of TV shows and movies, from low budget to blockbuster. As well as Batman this natural setting has been used to film everybody from Zorro to the Lone Ranger, Wonder Woman to the Might Morphin Power Rangers. As a Star Trek fan I was delighted to find out that almost every Star Trek TV show (and at least one Star Trek movie) has a scene filmed at the Bat Cave. Where better to view the iconic Hollywood sign?
It’s easy, when you live very far from places you love, to go back and see them through the same lens again and again. So it has been recently with Galway and Connemara. The Cois Fharraige road out of Galway towards Spiddal and beyond holds so many memories for us that it has become our default entry and exit route from the rest of the region.
Today, we start our slow journey home from the west coast, taking a road less travelled for us. Heading back from Leenane towards Clifden, we take a narrow left turn just before Kylemore Lough, towards Lough Inagh and Recess. This is the Inagh Valley or Glen Inagh, a wide sweep of staggering beauty nestled between the Maamturk Mountains to the west and the Twelve Bens to the east.
The Wild Atlantic Way signposts do not direct tourists this way, and we encounter only a few other souls on the ten-mile stretch. The weather is blisteringly hot and unusually calm for a late summer’s day in the west: as we move further from the coast we watch the car’s temperature gauge rise from 20C to 26C.
Neither of these mountain ranges are high. The highest point in the Maamturks barely scrapes above 700 metres, whilst Benbaun in the Twelve Bens reaches 729 metres. By contrast, the highest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntoohil in County Kerry, reaches 1,038 metres. But the wide sweep of the valley, the dappled sunshine, the vivid greens making way for silver-grey quartzite rock, make this one of the most beautiful vistas in Ireland.
Lough Inagh itself is a great fishing spot along with nearby Derryclare Lough. Fishing enthusiasts come from all over the world to fish these waters for spring salmon, grilse, sea trout and large indigenous brown trout. We stop at the gates of Lough Inagh Lodge and take in the view.
Turning left and eastwards at Recess, we drive to Maam Cross then north to the little town of Maam. We’re in different country already. The higher mountains have given way to lower hills and a little more vegetation. The short road from Maam Cross to Maam is again spectacular, and we pull over to the side of the road more than once just to take it in.
Down in the village of Maam, we are surrounded at all sides by the Maamturk Mountains. Keane’s pub has a blackboard outside offering soup and sandwiches. It seems the right place to stop for a pot of tea. Mum finds us a seat outside and I navigate the dark interior to place our order. “What sandwiches do you have?” I ask. “Well,” says my man, “we have ham, and cheese, and tomato, or any combination of the three.” Right so. Two pots of tea, two ham and cheese toasted sandwiches, two packets of Tayto. We’re all set.
Last time Mum was here she said she thought this was what heaven looks like. Sitting in the summer sunshine with the beauty of Connemara all around, I’m inclined to agree.
An Englishman sits beside us with his little blind dog called Shaddy and a half-finished pint of Guinness. He points to a white bungalow with a black tiled roof a couple of miles away. “That’s our house. My wife comes from round here, and we spend a couple of months here every summer.” God’s own country, indeed.
Refreshed and ready for the off, we have another choice to make. Back to our “normally, usually” route, or find another road home? The Englishman recommends a route around the eastern shore of Lough Corrib, the westernmost edge of which is just down the road. I have not travelled that road for decades.
We set off in the evening sunshine and almost immediately come across a sequence of beautiful views across Lough Corrib, each one offering up a little more of the second biggest lake in Ireland.
We stop briefly in Cornamona and wish we had packed some food to take advantage of a lovely little picnic ground right on the shores of the lake.
A little further away from the lake shore, the picturesque village of Cong is decked out with more street flowers than seem possible. We don’t have time to stop and enjoy the waterways connecting Lough Corrib to nearby Lough Mask, or the riverside pubs and footpaths: the shadows are lengthening and we are a long way from Dublin. Nonetheless we can’t help ourselves one more detour towards the similarly pretty village of Clonbur and onwards to the Mayo border. We sit on the shores of Lough Mask, wishing we had one or two more days to explore this beautiful region.
The road from Cong through Headford to Galway city takes us a little further from the shores of the Corrib, but we catch glimpses of the dark water in the evening sun. Our next trip to Galway will likely include a few days in this neck of the woods, still technically Connemara but a gentler landscape somehow.
Now and again it’s good to take the road less travelled, to remind yourself what else of beauty is right around the next corner.
Supertramp: Take The Long Way Home
Day three of our Wild Atlantic Way road trip brings us north to Leenane, on a sunny morning promising to turn into a late summer scorcher.
We check in at Killary Fjord Boat Tours for a ninety minute cruise. The twin-hulled Connemara Lady carries 150 passengers and promises a stable ride: no seasickness or your money back. We are welcomed on board by a local crew member whose smile and easy manner seem to indicate how happy he is in his work.
We’re still not convinced by the sunshine: this is Ireland after all, and a cruise to the mouth of a west-facing fjord still promises to be pretty chilly. I’d convinced myself to wear shorts that morning and now I feel a little exposed. We steel ourselves and choose an outside spot nonetheless.
The Connemara Lady departs on time. The scenery is outstanding, made all the more beautiful by the sunshine which continues unabated.
The recorded commentary points our gaze to the aquaculture in the fjord – mussel and salmon farming for the most part – and also to the signs of pre-famine life along the banks of the river.
We see clear signs of “lazy beds” on the nearby slopes, the grassed-over ridges and furrows of failed potato crops that were never harvested. Nearby, ruined villages stand as monuments to families who died, emigrants who never returned, communities that were decimated by the potato blight.
Even with echoes of this sorrowful time all around us, the green and blue backcloth all around us is just spectacular and made even more so by the strengthening sunshine. Passengers quietly remove sweaters and rain jackets or move into the shade. We turn our faces to the sun and know that somebody above is looking out for us. Today is the perfect day to take this journey.
At the mouth of the fjord, at Fox Island, the Connemara Lady turns around and heads eastwards towards Leenane. I can see a group of people walking an old ruined road on the south edge of the fjord, something I file away for another trip, another late summer morning. The greens and blues of the landscape become even deeper as we watch the world go by from our vantage point.
Who could have imagined such stunning weather after the terrible summer Ireland has just experienced? I close my eyes and tilt my face to the sun, breathing in the clean Atlantic air. This is why Connemara is my favourite place on earth.
My second day on the Wild Atlantic Way starts early with an early morning walk. I ramble through the deserted streets of Clifden, past the Alcock and Brown Hotel, and take a left at the fork in the road. Past the old handball alley and the new children’s playground, fishing boats are moored alongside newly painted white bollards, and the Quay House B&B is a riotous colour of summer flowers and hanging baskets.
The laneway winds its way along the narrow inlet of Clifden Bay, lined with red fuchsia, orange montbretia, white meadowsweet and early flowering blackberry blooms.
The narrow bay is millpond-still. I feel as if I have the whole of Connnemara to myself.
Later, after breakfast, we head north on the Wild Atlantic Way towards Leenane. The view alternates from rural hedgerows and pretty roadside gardens, to huge vistas taking in the beauty of the Twelve Pins and countless bog lakes and ocean inlets.