I have no idea why somebody took it into his head, some 40 years ago, to put three 60ft-tall model dinosaurs around the parking lot of a perfectly ordinary truckstop, but it certainly proved a bonanza last year, when Jurassic Park swept dino frenzy through the nation. Suddenly what had been merely matter for casual comment between bites of cherry pie was a major-league commercial at-traction, and the hunched truckers fell out of their Kenwood Full Conventionals into a sea of tiny squealing souvenir-hunters. But that is not the matter on the table here. We can't stop yet. This is where Route 52 leaves the Interstate to climb a little way into the hills, birthmark purple in the evening light, up and down a couple of switchbacks into Yucca Valley.
It is one of the great things about America that hubris never goes unpunished, however great, however rich, however apparently safe, fire, flood, blizzard or The National Enquirer will eventually do you in. The forces of nature are always in wait. It is one of the great things about Los Angeles that within 10 minutes of Hollywood Boulevard your cat can be eaten by coyotes in the rough, untamed eucalyptus scrub that surrounds the world's most expensive shanty town. Los Ange-lenos love the hills and the ocean and the mountains, and most of all, when the stress of keeping up appearances is just beyond bearing, they love to pack the dog and the Stussey threads and head out to the desert.
Two hours outside the city there are sociopathic Vietnam vets cradling their shotguns in hot tin shacks, forgetful hippies purifying water for their peacocks under solar cells, and cowboys, jarhead Marines and musicians kicking up a strangely formalised Saturday two-step in Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Ranch.
Pioneertown was built as a Western filmset in the early Twenties, and is now pretty much abandoned, but for the saloon, which serves up hulking portions of primitive Mex (chicken burritos and cheese fries) to a rowdy weekend crowd. The high point of their year is the Chilli Cookoff in late June, the chillis and the sun toughing it out blister for blister through the day, till Big John, overall champion for the third year, in a scarlet stretch jumpsuit and spurs, consummates his triumph in the Men's YeeHaw contest. It ought to feel hokey but actually it feels every bit as real as any church fete or jumble sale in an English village: the same small community of oddly disparate people who tolerate each other's differences and come together to fight off intruders; the same relish in rediscovering familiar rituals every night or every week, and the same proud love of their apparently unremarkable land.
Pappy and Harriet's is a good way-station and about as gussied-up as the desert can bear - which is to say, not much. The first impression on tumbling over the hill into these high desert communities is how the works of habitation scar and deface the landscape. There is little planning control and less scrutiny, certainly of aesthetics, and for the most part the folks who pitch up here are poor or desperate or heedless enough just to do what is easiest - whether that is a pink box ready-made from a brochure, or a random assemblage of what the hardware store can find and the pickup can carry. But it is not just a negative thing; it is a reminder that these are serious, working people, trying to make a living from ungiving land in a mean-spirited time. They are not playing at cottages like the weekenders of the Cotswolds or the beachdwellers of Malibu; in the very pragmatic plainness of the place is its seal of integrity. Taste, indeed, can be a drawback where it is evidenced at all. Give a Calif ornianan extra 20 thousand and watch it shapeshift into a peach stucco deck or a hot-tub bedded in fake lava.
And when these honest workers, honestly dressed up in suffering stretch denim and chain-store cowboy trim, start to shout and sway a little too oppressively, you can always drain the Corona and head on up the road, to Gamma Gulch or Rimrock, where only ambling dogs, malformed over the years by tussles with wildife, disturb the thick clear silence of the desert night.
The ocean and the desert are not so different in the dark, and even in the day they soothe for the same reasons: wide, far horizons relax eyes strained from too much staring, the air stings the nostrils and sings in the skull, and the space of nothingness stretches time out to infinity. In summer it can be unbearably hot, on winter nights seriously cold, but in between it is a magic land, and there is a quiet but profound lesson in being surrounded by fallen boulders that are, simply, bigger than your house. This is where Hollywood comes to forget its pretensions and restore its dwindling fragments of soul. No effort, no vanity, no city pushiness, that is the whole thing of it.
So it was a bit of a shock, last time I got as far as the Twenty Nine Palms Inn, where people have come for weekend breaks since forever, and where Gram Parsons, father of country rock, famously met his end, to find it full of Hollywood people being justabout as Hollywood as they could be.
The Inn is a rustic, random aggregation of bungalows around a little oasis of palm trees, with a duck pond, and a restaurant of sorts, and a small but extremely welcome pool; one of those places where you pay more to have less: no television, no room phone, no wallpaper, air conditioning, room service, sewing kit or guide to local nightlife in your bedside drawer. No local nightlife; no bedside drawer. Its primary attraction, beyond the pool, is its proximity to the Joshua Tree National Monu ment, a big expanse of rubbly rock, exotic cactus and Joshua trees, where you can climb for an hour through mists of spring bloom to be depressed by the view down on to a pall of brown smog. Even in the desert now there is smog, and the park authorities have thoughtfully planted schematic diagrams at lookout points detailing the distances to notable features, so tourists can judge how bad it is by which ones are actually visible.
Anyway, for those unwilling or unequipped to camp in the shelter of the rocks and wash in public showers, there's the Inn, with its limited but tasteful amenities and - as I thought - its limited but tasteful socialising. lt was always true that the person in the big hat under the umbrella next to you might be reading a script, and might indeed be rather famous back in the city, but it certainly wasn't done for either of you to acknowledge this in any way.
Hence my shock, on turning up at Twenty-Nine Palms, and on wandering round to the pool, to find it seething, like a piranha tank at dinner time, with yapping, stalk-thin figures in black bikinis, black clogs, black hats and black Wayfarers, demanding a place to plug in their Powerbooks so they could write their screenplays poolside. There was a 12-year-old in a black sarong and a black cowrie-shell hairwrap. A 12-year-old boy. He was whining for the keys to the black Jeep so he could take it for an off-road spin.
In a proper world, he would never have been given the keys; somebody like Pappy, some local hellcat or rancher would have made him a spit sandwich. Too late for this, the second line of defence in these parts is usually canine. I looked around for a big black dog to loose on them. I was thinking of something the size of a small horse, bodyweight 85 per cent jaws and teeth, the sort of thing usually commonplace in back country where the law comes from the barrel of a Smith and Wesson. Maybe one of Pappy's regulars would have one. . . I swung my beat-up, not-at-all black wheels on the sandy drive and headed out to Pioneertown.
Rage soon evaporates in the heat out here. Let them be. If there is one certainty in Hollywood, it is that Hollywood itself will disappear long before it can colonise the whole desert. At least I could be sure that they wouldn't follow me into the white-trash wilderness. A high- cholesterol meal is as good as a shotgun any day for staving off movie people. In fact, its rawboned ugliness is probably the best protection this community could have. If Joshua trees and Native Americans can be corralled on desert reservations, I suppose screenwriters and actors can be, too.
! Getting there: Virgin Airways (0293 747747) has return flights to Los Angeles from £638. Trailfinders (071-938 3232) offers flights from £231. Car hire from Eurodollar (0895 256565) starts at $152 (around £100) a week.
DESERT SANDS MOROCCO BY CAMEL Four-night camel treks into the Sahara plus a three-night stay in the oasis town of Ouarzazate, in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, are organised by Inspirations. The firm warns that life in the desert is simple. Holidaymakers camp at Tizi Tafillat and Tinfou, drink water from wells, and any bathrooms they see will be mirages (£597-£689 half board, including flights). The trek can also be combined with a stay in the lovely walled city of Taroudant, at the Moorish-style hideaway of Palais Salam (£666-£758 half board).
Other treks in the High Atlas are also available, combined with a stay at the somewhat westernised beach resort of Agadir. They include a five-night riding trip, a three-night mule and walking trek following the Legionnaires' route, and a five-night Kaid's Trek staying in hostels and with villagers.
Inspirations (Morocco): 01293 822244
SAHARA FOR STARTERS The Tunisia specialists Panorama offer a four-day "beginners Sahara" safari. (It was just such a trip that turned me into a desert addict.) The tour, by coach (£69-£79) or, preferably, by Landcruiser (£99) takes in the Roman Colosseumat El Djem, the Holy City of Kairouan, the troglodyte dwellings at Matmata where people live in craters cut deep into the earth. The highlight, though, must be the crossing of the Chott El Jerid salt lake, a desolate, shimmering expanse, along with the welcoming oasis at Tozeur. The tours are combined with a beach holiday.
Panorama: 01273 206531
CYPRUS TO JORDAN Another desert and beach holiday combines a week at a Cypriot beach resort with a seven-night Jordan Explorer tour, visiting the capital, Amman, the Roman city of Jerash, the Crusader fortress at Kerak, and the once-hidden (now discovered with a vengeance) old Nabatean Roman city of Petra. One of the desert expeditions is to Wadi Rum, stomping ground of T E Lawrence. (Lawrence of Arabia was shot here too.) The holiday costs from £837 (some meals). A two-night Taste of Jordan tour costs £239 from Larnaca.
Inspirations: 01293 822244
EGYPT UNDER CANVAS Groups travel by camel, truck and boat on Encounter Overland's 1,400-mile trip through Egypt, visiting Cairo, Alexandria and El Alamein, and crossing the Western Desert, sleeping under canvas and visiting Red Sea coral reefs. At Luxor,the journey continues to Aswan by Nile felucca and there's a day's relaxation at the Red Sea village of Sharm el Naga, ideal for scuba divers, before heading back to Cairo via the Suez Canal. The price of £525 for three weeks includes all transport in Egypt, food an d camping equipment, local guides and one night's hotel in Cairo. Return flights from the UK can be arranged from £215.
Encounter Overland: 0171-373 1433
ARABIAN NIGHTS The desert city of Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan, on the old caravan routes between India and Central Asia, comes straight out of Arabian Nights. It was named the Golden City because, some say, of the colours of its ramparts reflecting the setting sun. Others hold that it was named for the wealth of its merchants.
The best way to explore the surrounding desert is on a camel safari - indeed there is so much hustling, it is almost impossible not to take a safari - but the trips (three to four days, or longer) are cheap enough, especially if you haggle, meals are provided and you camp en route.
The most colourful desert festival is not at rather touristy Jaisalmer, but at Pushkar, where the Camel Fair takes place in November. The tourist authorities set up a tourist village for visitors especially for the occasion.
For independent travellers, Trailfinders can book tickets for £385 return to Delhi, while specialist firms such as Cox & Kings will tailor holidays to your needs, Trailfinders: 0171-938 3366; Cox & Kings: 0171-873 5000
NIGERIA FOR NOMADS There is a great choice of desert adventures among the Dragoman Overland Expeditions aimed at the young (aged18-45) who want to see a lot for little, to have plenty of time and are prepared to travel fairly rough (in Mercedes Campers),to camp en route, sharing the chores and contributing to a kitty.
The Sahara Nomad takes six-and-a-half weeks, including three weeks crossing the desert, and costs £805 plus the share of food. Groups of about 20 travel from the UK through Spain to Niger and Kano in Nigeria, via Morocco, Algeria and the Tuareg capital, Tamanrasset. Other trips, starting in Africa, include Journeys to the Source of the Nile (four weeks, £820), the Bushland of the Kalahari (five weeks, £860). Connecting flights can be arranged through the company.
Dragoman: 01728 861133
NAMIBIA BY ROAD With the highest sand dunes in the world, (about 1,000 feet) and its landscape of deserts and canyons, salt flats and jagged granite peaks, Namibia has proved a big success as a recent arrival on the African safari and adventure scene.
Sunvil's itineraries are for independent holidays on a self-drive basis. Roads are empty and driving is on the left, even if the roads still have their old German colonial names. Holidaymakers stay in small lodges and farms catering for up to 12 guests, where travellers can get to know their hosts, as well as learning about the local area. A two-week fly/drive holiday costs around £1,500 b&b.
Sunvil Holidays: 0181-568 4499
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF LAWRENCE Deserts galore from Middle East specialist Jasmin Tours - they can take holidaymakers across Sinai to St Catherine's monastery, through the Bible Lands, deep into remote villages of the Yemen and through the Sultinate of Oman.
A special 12-day escorted holiday held in conjunction with the T E Lawrence Society to Syria and Jordan retraces the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, and costs £1,426 half board. Many tours include Petra in Jordan. A seven-day trip, Jordan Express, travelling down the King's Highway via Mount Nelso and Kerak, costs £599-£736 (with air fares and some meals).
Jasmin Tours: 01628 531121
RED SEA RESORTS Desert resorts with watersports and scuba diving, as well as trekking and camel safaris in Sinai, are the specialities of Red Sea Holidays. Among them, Israel's Eilat and Egypt's Hurghada and Safaga wouldn't win any beauty or character contests. I would favour Nuweib with little Dahab nextdoor - both are attractive oasis towns at the water's edge, with beautiful beaches and stupendous underwater swimming - although probably the best snorkelling and diving in the world is at Sharm El Sheik, farther down the coast.
Special diving packages and "live-aboard boats", purpose-built seagoing vessels equipped for divers, can also be booked. A week's hotel holiday package based at Sharm El Sheik costs £403-£547 b&b.
Red Sea Holidays: 0181-892 7606
CITY STREETS South America for a song Low-cost flights and airpasses from STA, as well as internal travel passes, link some interesting South American cities. Until 1 July, from London to glittering Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, all the way down to Santiago in Chile, then on to Buenos Aires and Montevideo in Argentina, back to Sao Paulo and London, costs just £685, not including the ferry or hydrofoil journey between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
National airpasses for individual countries are also good value for those planning to travel extensively within one South American country.
STA Worldwide: 0171-937 9962
Happy campus Universities provide some of the cheapest and most convenient accommodation during the long student vacations in cities all over this country, from York and Canterbury to Swansea and St Andrews. Many rooms are in self-catering flats, others in halls of residence, and facilities such as libraries, tennis and squash courts and swimming-pools can often be used.
Many of the universities also run holiday courses in subjects such as painting or yoga, even steam railways and golf.
Costs are from about £17 a night.
British Universities Accommodation Consortium: 0115 9504571
Cape escape Cape Town and Durban are the latest long-haul additions to specialist Travelscene's city break programme. Three-night breaks using scheduled flights are expected to start from around £599. The fact that there is no time change, and therefore no jet lag, between this country and South Africa, makes Cape Town a more realistic short-break option than most long-haul cities, though holidaymakers can, if they wish add up to four further nights there, or they can twin the cities as a two-centre break, which makes sense on such a long flight.
There are few visitors who don't fall in love with Cape Town. Travelscene offers a range of hotels there, including the old colonial Mount Nelson, just reopened but still offering their traditional afternoon tea with, at the last count, 19 items from which to help yourself - he best value mid-afternoon break in the world.
Travelscene: 0181-427 8800)
Town and around Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Seville, Oporto and Milan are the five new destinations in independent inclusive tour operator Time Off's city selection. Their hotels range from modest pensions to a former 16th-century Archbishop's palace, from old restored Andalucian mansions and an olive mill in Seville, to a converted harbour warehouse in Copenhagen.
Among the excursions, an unusual trip from Ireland's capital to either the Westman Islands, flying over glaciers and geysers, or to the Blue Lagoon for a swim in its warm mineral-rich waters.
Another first for Time Off: a Eurostar day trip to Paris for £125, which includes lunch an well as time for shopping and sightseeing.
Prices vary widely according to date, accommodation and type of transport.
A two-night break in Seville, flying from Heathrow, starts at £264; Reykjavik from £289.
Time Off: 0171-235 8070)
Tsar-studded tour The Romanov dynasty ruled the Russian Empire for centuries, until the murder in July 1918 of the Tsar, his Empress and their children. Their influence on Russia can still be seen in many of the buildings and art treasures that have survived in St Petersburg.
A one-week holiday, led by Russian specialists, immerses the visitor in the reign of the last three Tasrs -Alexander II and III and the ill-fated Nicholas II, and visits the Hermitage, the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin met his death, and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the burial place of the Tsars.
Flying directly to St Petersburg, the seven-day trip, departing on the 24 July, with all meals, costs £985.
Holts Battlefield Tours: 01304 612248
Bellissima Italia There's a collection of cities and towns for the cognoscenti in Italian Escapades` programme alongside such classic destinations as Rome, Florence and Venice.
Only 25 miles from its glittering neighbour Venice, Padua has one of the oldest universities in Europe, with masterpieces by Titian and Giotto. Little-known Bologna, the capital of Emiglia Romana, always delights, while the history of the hilltop town ofPerugia, Umbria's capital, can be traced in its network of ancient streets.
Each of the cities, plus Palermo in Sicily or the Amalfi coast's Ravello, is worth a stay in its own right - and two-night city stays by charter or scheduled flights start from approximately £200.
Italian Escapade: 0181-746 3116)
Home from home Apartments and houses are proving a popular alternative to city hotels, particularly for visitors with families or those who want to stay longer than a weekend.
Apartments overlooking the Seine in central Paris are on offer from Stena Sealink from £199 for four people per night, including the ferry fares for car and passengers, while Hoseasons has introduced them in lovely little Bruges, where a flat sleeping four costs £330-£436 a week, with weekend breaks available, fares extra.
There are some splendid apartments in Florence, Rome and Venice let by Inernational Chapters. Those in Florence's Palazzo Antellesi have a facade painted by Giovanni da San Giovanni in 1620, with 17th-century frescoed ceilings. Sleeping two-six, the apartments have eitherprivate courtyards or terraces, and cost from £720-£1950 a week, travel extra.
Stena Sealink: 01233 647033
Hoseasons: 01502 500 555
International Chapters: 0171-722 9560
Baltic beauty This is a heartwarming time to visit the Baltic capitals as they reassert their pride, freedom ard individuality. Tallin, Estonia's capital, the Hanseatic port with an old town of cobbled streets is perhaps the liveliest and most beautiful,with a thriving cafe life.
Vilnius, the amber capital, in Lithuania, is most famous for its churches (the Pope celebrated Mass there last year), while Riga, Latvia's capital, has some fine Lutheran and Baroque architecture, though you have to go through the Stalinist apartment blocks to find it.
Instone Travel combines the three cities in a nine-night half-board holiday, price £747-£829, travelling via Copenhagen and Stockholm, where extra time can be added. Weekend breaks can be arranged from £425.
Instone Travel: 0181-983 0204
Tour de force Four of Central Europe's most fascinating cities - Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest and Prague -are featured in this 10-night tour offered by Thomson Holidays in its Lakes and Mountains brochure.
An overnight stay in Mozart's Salzburg is followed by a short walk through this elegant city before moving on to Vienna through the great vineyards of the Wachau, with a cruise along the Danube. The next two nights are in the Austrian capital.
On the fourth day the coach crosses the border into Hungary, to Budapest, then into the Slovak Republic to Prague, with a full day's guided walk. After Prague, and the beer capital of Budweis, the tour ends with two further nights in Salzburg.
The price of this "Imperial Cities Tour" is £525-£587 including flights and b&b.
Thomson Holidays: London 0171-707 9000; Birmingham 0121-632 6282; Manchester 0161-911 9000.
Best fests Among a lively mix of cities and their festivals offered by Prospect Tours, probably the most dramatic is the Bregenz Festival, where Fidelio is performed on the giant floating stage on Lake Constance. The cost for three nights, including tickets and flight via Zurich, is £695.
Munich, Bavaria's largest city, is often underrated; the summer festival in July enables visitors to enjoy the city, its shopping, great art collections and fine operatic performances. Three nights from 7-10 July, with performances of Parsifal and Don Giovanni, cost £795 including b&b accommodation in the first-class Hotel Trobrau, flights and opera tickets.
Other European city festivals in the programme: Garmisch, Verona, Vienna, Budapest, Copenhagen and Helsinki.
Prospect: 0181-995 2151Reuse content