Why go now?
The stars are coming out at night in the run-up to the Oscars, the weather has a certain sanity to it, and prices - both in terms of getting there and being there - are very much "off peak".
London-Los Angeles is the second-busiest route across the Atlantic, after London-New York. Five airlines fly non-stop: Air New Zealand, American, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic; another airline, Continental, has an allocation of seats on Virgin's flights.
Seats are being sold at absurdly low fares. Expect to pay pounds 250-pounds 280 through discount agents for travel between April and June. If you are prepared to change planes en route, you could get there and back for even less. Business class seats are available for pounds 3,000 or less.
From LAX airport, at the centre of LA's west coast, Venice Beach makes a good first stop - given the vast distances devoured by the city. Many of the hotels near the beach have special deals with mini-van services from the airport, which keeps the cost of the trip down to around $5 per person. The Cadillac Hotel (310-399 8876) has everything from four-person dorms to a private suite - from $30 double. Spilling straight out on to the beach, this classic 1930s Art Deco building is a good taste of things to come.
If you're looking to stay up in Hollywood, head for the boulevard of the same name. The Magic Hotel, just off the boulevard at Manns Chinese Theater, 7025 Franklin Avenue (213-851 0800) has enormous rooms with kitchens from $50 for a double.
Get your bearings
Greater Los Angeles covers some 8,000 square miles, so you must divide to conquer. Infamously described as "72 suburbs in search of a city", it has been stretched over its desert foundations by a network of freeways - and stretched with it is the car-obsessed Angelinos' perception of distances. Strictly speaking, the "city" of Los Angeles is small; but it is the surrounding districts - Santa Monica, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Malibu, Beverly Hills - that carry much of the city's fame.
Take a hike (or a bike)
Like much of LA, Venice Beach has a strange cinematic familiarity - a living set teeming with everything from the odd Hollywood legend on a pushbike to a colourful cast of extras walking their parrots, selling drunken stories by the dollar or performing hard-sell pizza soliloquies. Amongst the Bohemian stalls and street art, watch out for the building- sized dumbbell that signifies Muscle Beach, where weighty issues are grunted over by the Baywatch crowd. Depending on which mode of transport you have settled for, you can work your way right up the coast through Santa Monica and up to the millionaire pads on Malibu Beach. If you flag along the way, pick up a bike (for around $10 a day) from one of the rental shops along the way.
It's a straight journey along the coast, but make sure you detour behind the beachfront to take in Venice, where a few silted canals remain of the Italianate pastiche dreamed up by Abbot Kinne in 1905.
Lunch on the move
At the end of the walk, capture a full LA view from the big wheel at Santa Monica Pier before heading inland up Santa Monica Boulevard to 3rd Street Promenade, where you can sample everything that's de rigueur in California's fad factory - from family meals for one to fat-free mountains. Go to Wolfgang Puck Express (don't speak with your mouth full), at No 1315 for famous cheap American grub, especially the Caesar salad
"Hollyweird" has long disguised its seediness with the glamour of the film industry, and those who are really "on the money" live in the nearby hills with the famous big white letters. Catch a bus up Santa Monica Boulevard for Hollywood (40 minutes) to absorb the downbeat vibrancy. Manns Chinese Theater is a perfect place to get into the movie business. This enormous cinema, a combination of fake Buddhist temple and Art Deco, opened in 1927 as a glamorous location for opening nights. Outside, the hands and feet (not to mention cigars) of Hollywood greats are imprinted in the surrounding concrete. If you want to get into the underwear of the stars, peel off farther west to the Lingerie Museum in Fredericks of Hollywood (6608 Hollywood Boulevard) - a proud purple-and-pink monument to kitsch.
The famous Universal Studios tour is a day in itself, but Universal City Walk (1000 Universal Centre Drive) provides a shorter blast of the same plastic-fantastic feel. Consume the the preposterous shop facades - a 27-ft gorilla, a Chevy crashed in mid air, the neon guitar of a missing giant - rather than the trendy clutter inside.
The sunset burger
Behind the deceptively quiet exterior of West Hollywood lie some of LA's most lively and infamous clubs. The Viper Rooms (hang-out for Johnny Depp and the late River Phoenix), 8852 Sunset Boulevard, Whisky a Go Go (which opened doors for the Doors) and Trader Vics (9876 Wilshire Boulevard) have been mixing a range of 200 cocktails since 1955. For a more compact mile of entertainment, and some of LA's famous comedy circuit, try Sunset Strip (Sunset Boulevard, either side of La Cienega Boulevard) and eyeball the best of a very American art form, the billboard.
Sunday morning: pay your respects
"They've great respect for the dead in Hollywood," Errol Flynn once said, "but none for the living." Even in death, in LA you just have to be seen in the right place with the right people. Tour the tombstone credits of Chico Marx, Clark Gable and Flynn himself, among the manicured groves of Forest Lawn Cemetry at 1712 South Glendale Avenue, as satirised in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. A brief sojourn will give you a flavour of the ostentatious clamouring for remembrance. Having gazed at the turf for a while, take in a more cosmic view from nearby Griffith park, home to the Griffiths observatory (where James Dean was a rebel without a cause).
Canter's Deli, 419 N Fairfax Avenue (213-651 2030) is a 24-hour kosher deli and diner, with beautiful sandwiches the size of burst mattresses.
Cultural afternoon downtown
But what do LA's artists make of the place? Duck underground into the Museum of Contemporary Art, California Plaza, 250 S Grand Avenue, and its partner, the Geffen Contemporary, a few blocks away at 152 N Central Avenue (known as the Temporary Contemporary, because of its flexible and slightly makeshift warehouse building). Challenging the monotony of the surrounding financial district, the building - by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki - displays art from the Forties to the present day, including permanent works by Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian and Alberto Giacometti. The Temporary is currently housing Elusive Paradise, a fascinating and comprehensive survey of post-war art in Los Angeles.
Swing out of town
In Mildred Pierce, when Joan Crawford said "People have to drink somewhere; why not here?" she was standing at the huge, oval bar of the Derby, the engine room of LA's swing-dancing scene. On Sunday night at 4500 Los Feliz Boulevard you can take on Jumpin Jimes's swing-dance lesson (8pm-9pm) and show off your moves to bands such as Lee and the Press-on Nails and Ingrid and the Flying Neutrinos. Once incompetently flat on your back, admire the wooden dome ceiling, which used to have water running down it as an early form of air-conditioning.
LA: how Hollywood sees it
Billy Urke: "To survive there, you need the ambition of a Latin American revolutionary, the ego of a grand opera tenor and the physical stamina of a cow pony."
Walter Winchell: "A town that has to been to be disbelieved."
Joe Frisco: "The only town in the world where you can wake up in the morning and listen to the birds coughing in the trees."
Stephen Vincent Benet: "Of all the Christbitten places in the two hemispheres, this is the last curly kink in the pig's tail."
No coupon-clipping, promises Virgin Atlantic (01293 747230), for its latest deal. The airline is undercutting the fares offered by British Airways in a promotion with two newspapers. For pounds 183.40 return, Virgin will fly you from Gatwick to Boston or Heathrow to Washington DC. You must book by next Tuesday, 17 March, and complete travel by the end of May.
The first voyage of P&O Stena Line between Dover and Calais set sail on Tuesday. The two largest ferry operators on the Channel have teamed up because of competition from the Tunnel, with Le Shuttle now taking more than half the traffic.
The new company plans to have a ferry available for immediate boarding at all times between 8am and midnight. David Mott, passenger shipping correspondent for Lloyd's List, predicts that fares could rise by 10 per cent in the coming year as a result of the merger.
Upgrade to first class on Saturday or Sunday with Midland Mainline on the line linking Leeds, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and London. Using the "4-sight" return fare (pounds 34 for four), and each paying an extra pounds 6 each way, a group of four could travel first class from Sheffield to London and back for pounds 20.50 each. Call 0345 125678.
One Devonshire Gardens is both the address and the name of Glasgow's most exclusive hotel. Recents guests include David Bowie and Sting. The weekend special rate is pounds 125 per night (double), not including breakfast. Reservations: 0141-339 2001.
The best place to start the day at Heathrow Airport is the bus-station cafe, with a complete breakfast for pounds 3.99.
A three-hour driving ban and a fine of BF5,000 (pounds 100) is the penalty facing drivers in Belgium whose alcohol/blood level is in the 0.05-0.08 per cent range. The Belgian Tourist Office warns "two glasses of Belgian lager will get you to that limit". Above 0.08 per cent the penalties are disqualification and a heavy fine (up to pounds 8,000).
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