All along the freeway, to the place where LA walks

Only 10 miles from Los Angeles, there is a town where the pace of life slackens, gardens flourish, and even the cars disappear. William Kay on the slice of seriously chilled California that is Pasadena
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

While most holidays to Los Angeles are centred around Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu or Santa Barbara, Pasadena often goes unnoticed because it is tucked away to the north-east of the city at the end of California's very first freeway - the highly eccentric Arroyo Seco Parkway. Pasadena is the secret LA - more relaxed and liveable.

While most holidays to Los Angeles are centred around Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu or Santa Barbara, Pasadena often goes unnoticed because it is tucked away to the north-east of the city at the end of California's very first freeway - the highly eccentric Arroyo Seco Parkway. Pasadena is the secret LA - more relaxed and liveable.

When you land at LAX airport, hire a car and climb on to Interstate 110, which changes names as you go north, from the Harbor Freeway to the Pasadena Freeway. Just as you think downtown LA's answer to Spaghetti Junction will never end, you pass the sign for the Dodgers baseball stadium, most of the rest of the traffic forms a queue (sorry, line) for the northbound Interstate 5 and suddenly you find yourself on what appears to be a fairground ride for real cars.

The Arroyo Seco, named after the local Arroyo native American tribe, was built in the 1940s and it shows. When the Fords and Chevys of that era were lumbering along it at 40mph, it must have been fine. But for today's motors, capable of doing 80 or 90 comfortably, it is a form of exquisite torture. The three narrow lanes twist and turn under bridges, between groves of trees and around hills.

You might try to ignore the 45mph speed limits without spinning off the road, but then you will encounter the Arroyo's special delight: its on and off ramps. To leave the freeway via one of these, you suddenly have to slow to just 5mph and negotiate a right-angled ramp designed to get you down to street speed within seconds.

Just as alarming are the on-ramps: you round a corner and suddenly see a car waiting to join the right-hand lane of the freeway with no ceremony whatsoever. Luckily, most of the drivers will be locals who know how to time their entry safely. It keeps you honest, but you only have to get unlucky once.

Happily, travellers to Pasadena can keep going right to the end of the Parkway, which seamlessly turns into an urban highway complete with traffic lights and parked cars on the inside lane. This continues north to Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena's main artery.

Pasadena is best known for its Rose Bowl, which hosted the 1994 soccer World Cup Final, and the annual Rose Parade along Colorado Boulevard every New Year's Day. But there is much more to it than that.

Because Pasadena nestles under the San Gabriel mountains, the air is cleaner and the climate warmer than downtown. The pace is slower. People walk - not something to be recommended in other parts of LA - to the shops, restaurants and cinemas of the recently cleaned-up Old Pasadena.

This is one of four designated tourist districts, the others being the Playhouse District, Paseo Colorado and South Lake Avenue. Like Old Pasadena, Paseo Colorado and South Lake are mainly shopping and eating centres anchored on branches of Macy's department store.

The Playhouse District contains the local theatre of that name, which frequently features up-and-coming actors trying to break into Hollywood or more established stars trying to broaden their careers. I saw As Bees in Honey Drown, a play which was mainly a vehicle for Peri Gilpin to show off her diverse talents. Gilpin is better known to British audiences for playing Roz, the put-upon radio producer in Frasier. It is no coincidence that Frasier is in its last series. While that may be less of a problem for the three stars - Kelsey Grammer, Jane Leeves and David Hyde Pierce - the others clearly want to show possible future employers what they can do.

The Playhouse production was the second time I had seen Gilpin. The half-hour show takes nearly four hours to record - less than half the time that Friends takes over at Warner Brothers, a few miles away in Burbank - but you see the big names going through their routines, and as it is shot in the sequence it will appear on screen you can follow the story and laugh at all the jokes - at least twice because there are always retakes.

That is the advantage of Pasadena: you can take in as much or as little of LA as you want, because it is all reachable in less than an hour's drive, even the muscle men on Venice Beach or the farmers' market in Long Beach, where the venerable old Queen Mary is a floating hotel-cum-museum.

Alternatively, as from this summer, you can take the train from Pasadena into LA. It feels strange to be riding a train instead of bowling along the freeway, but the system is brand new, the trains comfortable and well patrolled, and it will be an excellent way of getting around once more lines are installed. As it is, you can take a train to the Universal Studios theme park or Hollywood Boulevard.

But while it is fun to get around a city where there is always something happening, there is an immensely seductive appeal about staying in chilled-out Pasadena, where the temperature rarely falls below 70F and stays at a constant 85-90F in the summer.

One of the best places to relax is the Huntingdon Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens. You can see first editions of Chaucer and Shakespeare, enjoy an impressive range of European art and pick from half a dozen different garden areas, from Japanese to desert. But mind the cactus - the spines are as hard and sharp as nails.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Virgin Atlantic (0870-380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) offers return fares from around £407 in March.

Where to stay

The Hilton (001 626 577 1000), Sheraton Pasadena (001 626 449 4000), Best Western (001 626 796 9100) and Marriott Courtyard (001 626 403 1600) all offer rooms for $125 to $180 (£75 to £110) per night.

Where to get more information

Pasadena Convention and Visitors' Bureau (001 626 795-9311; www.pasadenacal.com).

Comments