THERE can be few more ridiculous experiences than standing naked under a door lintel, as all earthquake safety manuals tell you to do, while the floor of your apartment jumps up and down. For about a minute the building seemed to be caught in a powerful circular current, then it shook itself briskly and settled down to swaying lazily from side to side.

My wife, Mandy, and I stood there shivering, fully expecting the ceiling to collapse on our heads but hoping to be saved by our living room doorframe.

Three hours later it happened again. Somewhere out there in the high southern Californian desert the earth was shifting in her seat, making herself more comfortable for the next few thousand years. Clouds of dust were rising into the skies as one half of the state set off in one direction leaving the other half behind, separated by a 40- mile long fissure. It was as awe-inspiring as it was frightening, a reminder that there is a life-force beneath the concrete.

You could be forgiven for concluding that this is a place to avoid. Even if major earthquakes do not bother you, there is the litany of other recent disasters: the Oakland fire, the flash floods in Los Angeles - not to mention the riots. It is as if the elements have determined to reclaim the Golden State, that humans have no proper place in this desert land. You would, of course, be wrong.

It has been a rough year for California. A beautiful state has seen its popularity wilt under the pressure of calamitous events. The world appears to have lost sight, temporarily, of the fact that California remains one of the better places on earth.

Normality returns at Mel's Diner. It is 10am. I have just passed a multiple-choice examination in toast. Young people, vitamin-fortified hair billowing behind them, slide past the window in black cycling shorts and bright T-shirts. The sun is shining, so Narcissus is on the move in LA - on rollerblades.

The toast (rye) and eggs (over- easy) arrive, delivered by a waitress dressed up like a volleyball player whose ferocious cheerfulness tells you that she knows nothing of the subtle social dynamics of breakfast, the need for hushed whispers and tea.

Any minute now she is going to ask if I'm English, launch into a laudatory speech about Mrs Thatcher, and then inform me that she is not a waitress, but a scriptwriter who is temporarily short of cash, or a sculptor, or an art director, or all three. She sloshes another half- pint of coffee into my mug.

The phone rings. She answers. There is a brief conversation, followed by a shriek. 'I've done it]' She dances along the breakfast bar, embraces the chef and announces to her clients' upturned, munching faces: 'I am going to be an actress.' She has a part in a play. She is undoing her apron.

There is a murmur of interest, but only a murmur, as the breakfasting strangers have heard this one before. Almost everyone in California is nursing a personal vision of success and stardom. Whatever else you may feel about this place, there is no denying that it is intriguing, an international rallying point for people who still know how to dream.

The best way to enjoy California is simply to meander around. But you have to be brave to gamble that much with your holiday. So it is comforting to know there is a 24-hour, non-stop-entertainment tourist circuit to fall back on. This means Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, Hollywood's Walk of Fame and Rodeo Drive, LA's answer to Knightsbridge. And that is just for starters.

California is theme park country. They know how to take this kind of fun seriously. What's more, they feel none of the British sense of embarrassment at being caught paying for artificial amusement. Children, in particular, think they are in heaven.

But despite the glitz, parts of Hollywood are dismally scruffy. The Walk of Fame is a grubby pavement with a lot of famous names written on it. It can also be pricey. Several weeks ago we arrived at Magic Mountain, a massive amusement park where Angelenos go to terrify themselves on gigantic roller-coaster rides. They pay dollars 25 each for the privilege. We left and had lunch in a Thai restaurant instead.

If you opt for the set menu, you will probably end up on a tour of film stars' homes - an enjoyable experience if you like spending hours in an air-conditioned minibus peering out at other people's dream homes come true.

The success of this depends on your guide; ours had a reporter's eye for detail and spotted at once that Peter Falk (Columbo) was - joy of joys - at home. One of his big cars was parked in the drive. We ogled enthusiastically, feeling vaguely wicked with our noses pressed to the glass, before moving on to find out if we could see anything over Rod Stewart's hedge. (We could not.)

But all this packaged stuff provides a cosmetic version of a city with other, greater virtues. How many people know, for example, that Los Angeles has one of the greatest collections of murals in the world and several of the finest museums? The city has a reputation for ugliness, largely because much of the time it is under a blanket of haze and smog.

But clear days are not uncommon, and they reveal an impressive cityscape surrounded by mountain ranges. In any weather it is worth taking a trip along Sunset Boulevard, starting in Hollywood and winding on past the pastel-coloured villas, with their palms and bougainvillaeas, until you reach the Pacific.

The real LA nightmare is crime. The place earned itself a bad name long before the riots. The statistics are certainly horrifying: last year there were 2,000 murders in the Los Angeles area. (This year, however, the rate is likely to be down, as the two largest black gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, have declared a truce.) You need to remind yourself regularly that 14 million people live here and that, in this unreal capital of the silver screen, the heroes do still overwhelmingly outnumber the villains.

The heroes definitely include southern California's restaurateurs. On Sundays hundreds of mostly working-class Angelenos set off for the Port of Los Angeles, south of the city. There is a harbour-side development called Ports O'Call, a phoney, overly quaint place built in the style of a 19th-century port. Here you can buy fresh fish, ranging from red snapper to giant shrimps, which will be cooked on a grill in front of you, mixed with vegetables and served in a huge pile on a tray, with tortillas.

You eat at a trestle table surrounded by Latinos who arrive with their own lemons and Tabasco sauce, confident of ordering a Sunday lunch for the whole family which will set them back only dollars 20 all in. California's position on the Pacific Rim and its large number of ethnic groups guarantee that almost every type of food is available. What is more, it is often good and usually cheap.

One crucial decision for any traveller to the West Coast is what car to hire. Practicality and price are almost irrelevant. Here, more than anywhere, you are what you drive.

This is a car-infatuated society, and pretty well any type of vehicle can be rented, from a wreck to a convertible or, if you really must, a limousine with a hot tub and double bed. The freeways can be frightening - some Californians suffer from a medically recognised phobia about them - but they are not as bad as they look.

It is unwise to pick a fight on the road, no matter how rude others appear to be (Californian road manners are frightful). In Los Angeles some drivers are armed. But these wide, gridlocked and smoggy arteries, along which millions move every day, have generated their own society. Several years ago, freeway dating agencies sprang up with members who carried bumper stickers saying 'Tail Dating' and 'Drive Me Wild'.

Erratic driving is also unwise, unless you do not mind paying a fine: the speed limit is 55mph and the traffic police are vigilant. Violators risk being be sent to a weekend traffic school. These are often rather bizarre institutions which have resorted to unusual means to attract customers. There are schools called 'Wheel Make U Laff', 'World Famous Improvisation Traffic School', 'Lettuce Amuse U', 'EZ Duz It' and - another particularly Californian phenomenon - 'Finally a Gay Traffic School'. As well as laying on instructors who purport to be comics, some offer free pizza and ice-cream in what must be one of the stranger examples of the free market in action.

Once you are equipped with a car, the whole state becomes accessible. People say the French need not go on holiday because they have everything. Well, in California they have the mountains, the rich countryside, the coast - and the desert, too.

Ninety miles north-west of LA is Santa Barbara, a handsome coastal town with a fine modern courthouse that towers over the houses like a medieval palace. Three hundred miles beyond lies San Francisco, one of the world's most enchanting cities, where small-scale charm meets stunning scenery. Beyond are the lakes, the spectacular redwoods and the wineries of the north. The mountains of Yosemite National Park, in the far north-east, are wonderful for back-packers, cyclists or horse-riders, as well as for those who take their sightseeing through a windscreen.

Or you can head for the Mojave desert, a stark and awesome landscape of sand dunes, gigantic rocks and Joshua trees which stand like lunatic scarecrows against a relentlessly blue sky. This is the world of burrowing owls, cacti and hawks - and, of course, earthquakes.

But for me, none of these is a match for the whales. Between December and mid-March, thousands of greys migrate from the Bering Sea to the warm waters off Mexico where they give birth. You sail out past the scavenging pelicans, past the dozens of Mexican fishermen gathered around the pier, and scan the horizon for a water spout. In the peak season several hundred pass down the coast every day, lumbering through the waves. There are few sights as majestic as a 45ft whale diving, lazily taking its leave of the daylight with a wave of its fat tail.

That is the morning dealt with; in the afternoon, you can go snow skiing or mountain walking, depending on the season. It takes only two to three hours to drive to the resorts of the San Bernardino mountains, along the east side of the Los Angles basin. You set off along Highway 10, which stretches straight out into the desert, and after about an hour you fork up into the hills. Before long you are winding through pine trees, a universe away from the heat and the smog, the interminable parking lots, fast-food joints, psychic workshops and fitness centres of America's second largest city.

You can leave Los Angeles at 7am, be in the mountains at 10, and back in town for a late afternoon swim on the beach. If you just want to soak in the alpine air - and this is truly sweet after days of breathing in the exhaust smoke of eight million vehicles - you can sit outside a mountain cafe and drink bottled beer with the pigtailed forty-somethings who gather there to bask in the sun.

Here you can forget the traffic, the crime and the nightmares down below and indulge some of the dreams which brought you here. And I suppose you can even forget for a moment that the centre of the earthquake was right under your feet.

(Photograph omitted)