This is pioneer country, so what's new?

From urban glamour in the desert to carnival on the streets of San Francisco, Sarah Barrell rounds up the best in the west
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

1 Sin City centenary

1 Sin City centenary

Nevada's neon-lit metropolis marks its 100th birthday on 15 May, with a re-creation of the 1905 land auction that spawned Las Vegas ("the meadows"). Celebrations run all year, but the grandest festivities kick off on 14 May with a huge street parade through the downtown area, the location of the city's oldest casinos, where Vegas began life as a tiny railroad town. Part of the official birthday celebrations involve several nostalgic exhibitions, including Whistle Stop to Windfall: 100 Years in Las Vegas, at the Clark County Museum (until the end of the year), featuring historic photographs, memorabilia and clothing from Vegas's former starry residents (yes, there's a dedicated Elvis Presley corner). A celluloid chronicle of the city's booming development over the past century is to be found at the Nevada State Museum, in 100 Years of Las Vegas Images (until the end of the year) with photos of the Hoover Dam under construction, spooky shots of Nevada's atomic test sites, rare Frank Sinatra archives, and an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip in the 1970s.

For more information contact Visit Las Vegas (01564 794999; www.visitlasvegas.co.uk).

2 Palm Springs eternal

Spring is in the air - especially at the new Le Parker Meridien, Palm Springs. The Parker has had a head-to-toe redesign by Jonathan Adler, a New York design guru, bringing a rather eccentric, fantasy aesthetic to the resort once owned by chat-show host Merv Griffin. This California chic hotel comes with full suits of armour at the front doors, Art Deco chandeliers and colourful glassware in the lobby, needlepoint pillows on the beds, and Latino-inspired lamps on the tables. Even Norma's, the on-site restaurant, has a certain singular style: one guest recently reported that his fish-and-chips arrived wrapped in pages torn carefully from Interior Design magazine. This five-star hotel is set in 13 acres of landscaped gardens, surrounded by desert and mountains, and has four swimming pools, a croquet lawn and two pétanque terrains. The resort's 144 rooms and 12 private villas are already attracting starry residents - perhaps most notably Robert Downey Jr, who just spent his honeymoon here despite having had, on a 1999 visit to the hotel, a spectacularly rock'n'roll arrest in room 311.

Le Parker Meridien, Palm Springs (001 760 770 5000; www.theparkerpalmsprings.com) offers double rooms from $395 (£208) per night.

3 Carnival Californian style

If you're going to San Francisco, make sure you visit on 28 or 29 May when the city's Hispanic Mission District celebrates Latino culture with its Carnaval. Expect to see 300-strong, Brazilian-style, samba schools pounding the Mission's streets in multi-storey, feathered headdresses and sweeping, Bahian skirts, plus giant floats, drummers, near-naked roller-skaters and a couple of hundred thousand spectators. Music and dance groups from the Caribbean will perform beside Mexican Aztec drummers and folk dancers from Guatemala, Honduras and Bolivia, with salsa, samba, soca and everything in between playing from sound systems en route. Forget past-it Haight-Ashbury, this neighbourhood, south of Downtown, is the most happening district in San Francisco, home to the city's hippest bars, "nuevo latino" restaurants, and galleries selling affordable contemporary art and design. During Carnaval, the area really comes into its own - just don't forget to tie a sequined yellow ribbon in your hair.

For more information contact California Tourism (020-8237 7979; £1.50 per minute; www.visitcalifornia.com) or see www.sfvisitor.org and www.carnavalsf.com

4 Desert design oasis

Urban glamour comes to the Arizona desert with a clutch of cool hotel and restaurant names from the East Coast. Hopeful analysts are saying the boom in and around the Phoenix Valley is a sign of an American economic upturn. This region can't seem to sling up new hotels quickly enough. At the centre of the new cool is Scottsdale's James Hotel, from the Manhattan restaurateur Stephen Hanson. With help from the designer Deborah Berke - the architect of smart American branches of Calvin Klein and Club Monaco - Mr Hanson's new, 200-room James Hotel cuts a contemporary dash through Scottsdale's earthy landscape, with bright red, blue, yellow, and purple walls in a homage to the 20th-century Mexican Modernist architect Luis Barragan. Scottsdale has a burgeoning selection of contemporary art galleries. At Art Walk on Thursday evenings dozens of the best around Main Street open their doors for boozy viewings, while musicians perform outside.

The James Hotel (001 480 994 9203; www.jameshotel.com) offers double rooms from $175 (£92) without breakfast. For more information on Art Walk go to www.scottsdalegalleries.com.

5 Disneyland turns 50

This summer, the 10 Disney theme parks around the world will throw a global party marking the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in Southern California. The first joint celebration of its kind honours the pioneering Disney theme park with a panopoly of parades, parties and new rides launched under the banner The Happiest Celebration on Earth. Cheerleading superlatives aside, if you haven't yet made it to one of these theme parks, then between 5 May and the end of October 2006 might be the time to go. Eighteen months of special celebrations at the original park in Anaheim, California, include a host of new rides, such as Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, where guests get to pilot their own star cruisers and help protect the universe from the evil forces of Emperor Zurg. Retrospective exhibitions include Disneyland - The First 50 Years, which shows how the park developed from a 1950s orange grove, while Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams will feature one of the largest casts of Disney characters ever assembled.

For more information go to www.disney.go.com.

6 Southern storm-chasing

Spring (April to June) is storm-chasing season in the southern states. Ever since the movie Twister, meteorologists across the American south have found their services in demand as tour guides to the growing band of lunatics who consider this to be a reasonable adrenalin sport. Known as storm safaris, these tours don't come with plush camp sites but hours of bumping across the plains in a 4x4 chasing the kind of severe weather the authorities would have you avoid - hail storms, flash floods, lightning, gales and twisters. This is serious stuff. Aficionados are well versed in the subtleties of air-pressure systems and these tours are not something to undertake without properly checking your guide's credentials. Most tornadoes are found in "Tornado Alley," covering parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Farther west, storm-chasing action can be found in Arizona and parts of Nevada. Expect to pay around £1,000 for a week's tour.

There are no regulated bodies for this activity. Contact Arizona Tourism (020-8741 7256; www.arizonaguide.com), or go to www.stormchasing.com and www.silverliningtours.com

7 California from the air

Had a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon? Taken a micro-light flight across the Hollywood Hills? Then the next gimmicky tour to book must be a spin over the California coast in a restored 1920s biplane. This is the chance to use that aviator jacket you've had stashed in the wardrobe since the 1980s. These open-cockpit planes date back to first solo flight across the Atlantic, by Charles Lindbergh, and take two passengers, plus the pilot. Flights last from 30 to 60 minutes each, leaving from San Diego's Palomar Airport and flying over California's beaches, movie-star estates and inland wine country, with some offering passengers the chance to take the controls.

Flights cost from $224 (£118) with helmet and Great Gatsby goggles provided. Contact Biplane, Air Combat & Warbird Adventures (001 760 438 7680; www.barnstorming.com).

8 Boutique Santa Barbara

Los Angeles beach chic has drifted down the coast to Santa Barbara. The newly opened Hotel Andalucia is the new sibling to the trendy Santa Monica favourites Shutters on the Beach, and Casa Del Mar. Like these two LA boutique landmarks, the Andalucia comes with delicate attention to detail. On their pillows, guests will find not chocolates but beach reading - specifically Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons: an Optimist in Spain. Not a bad choice of book for a hotel designed to resemble a comfy Spanish home, with Mediterranean tiles and citrus fruits scattered over every surface. Yet classic Santa Barbara style can still be seen in the regional contemporary artwork in the hotel's gallery.

As this is Sideways country (the film was shot up the road) the bar staff will offer wines and wine-country maps from the movie at 31 West, which is overseen by Michael Reardon, formerly of Napa Valley's Tra Vigne restaurant. The downside? This 97-room hotel isn't beachfront: that's a 15-minute walk away, but the rooftop pool has views of both the Pacific and Santa Ynez Mountains.

Hotel Andalucia (001 877 468 3515; www.andaluciasb.com) offers double rooms from $325 (£171) with breakfast.

9 Reality TV ride

Suffer the pain of reality TV at Universal Studios, Hollywood. The newest attraction, opening this month, has guests performing gruesome stunts from the television programme Fear Factor. The first theme-park experience developed from a reality TV show, Fear Factor Live will pitch park patrons head-to-head in a progression of extreme stunts - the specifics of which have yet to be revealed. Members of the audience will play an interactive role by blasting contestants with water and air, mid-stunt, and controlling obstacles on stage. In addition, audience members can spin the "Wheel of Fear" and confront their own phobias. "The odds are more in your favour for getting into Harvard than being chosen to appear on Fear Factor," said its executive producer, Matt Kunitz. "With Fear Factor Live, people have the chance to participate in some of the same stunts we've done on the show."

For more information go to www.universalstudioshollywood.com.

10 Neighbourhood watch in LA

Rejuvenated Downtown LA has been grabbing headlines recently as the city's hottest 'hood. True, the new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall and crop of artists' lofts that have sprung up in Chinatown make this a happening area, but when it comes to nightlife, Downtown remains pretty down and out. Prefer your cocktails without a shot of Blade Runner adrenalin? Then head for Silver Lake. This fast upcoming area in east LA has the latest clutch of hip, after-dark addresses, such as the Good Luck Bar, an ersatz dive bar, the latest brainchild of the people behind Hollywood's chic Bar Marmont. The Chinese-opium-den decor, with its low, red lighting, borders on spooky - the studiously laid-back crowd anything but.

Another piece of studied kitsch is to be found at Big Foot Lodge, a 1950s-style Californian cabin, complete with fireplace and cocktails such as the flaming Toasted Marshmallow. DJs spin vintage British pop, which perhaps explains what Morrissey was doing when he was seen drinking here recently.

The Good Luck Bar is at 1514 Hillhurst Avenue (001 323 666 3524) The Big Foot Lodge is at 3172 Los Feliz Boulevard (001 323 662 9227)

Comments