How much to visit a billion-dollar gallery? Nothing; MY ROUGH GUIDE

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The Independent Travel
Best discovery

The Lava Beds National Monument is one, of the few places, where the National Park wardens relax their guard and let you explore. Beneath stunning semi-desert lies a labyrinth of over 50 tubular caves formed as still molten lava drained out from below the cooling crusted surface. Some are the size of the Channel tunnel, others too narrow to squeeze through, and all are pitch black and highly disorientating.

Biggest let-down

My rental car, delivered with only a poxy radio, consigning my bag of 80 cassettes to a futile 8,000 miles and my ears to tub-thumping evangelists.

Biggest mistake

Trying to drive far enough into the High Sierra so that I couldn't pick up radio God-botherer, only to come across a 20-yard patch of snow. Once bogged down, a demon in my brain suggested that I could escape by selecting "drive" and then getting out to push this two-tonne behemoth. I put it in gear then got out and closed the door. Unfortunately, modern American cars automatically lock their doors when "drive" is engaged and so I found myself on a pitch-black night, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, ankle deep in snow, miles from anywhere locked out of a car still in "drive". There was nothing for it but to smash a window, spend a freezing night hunched in the back seat and dig myself out the next morning.

Best bargains

How much does it cost to visit a spanking new billion-dollar art gallery commanding one of the best views over LA? Nothing. Billioniaire John Paul Getty bequeathed a hat-full of cash to the J Paul Getty Museum, now so embarrassed with riches that it is unable to spend the annual millions allocated for new works. The existing site in a fake Roman Villa in Malibu is magnificent enough, the new palace opening in December should be even more so. Oh, and Taco Bell do an excellent bean burrito with guacamole and sour cream for under $1.

Favourite hotels

The budget winner is the Pigeon Point Youth Hostel, with spartan accommodation in former lighthouse keepers' cottages, and a hot tub cantilevered out from the cliff-tops high above crashing surf. Here, you can soak away the sunset hour watching pelicans brushing their wings. If you can bear the conspicuous wealth of Palm Springs and are prepared to visit in summer when hotel prices plummet, make for Villa Royale, a cluster of exquisitely decorated suites clustered poolside where a sumptuous breakfast is served with aplomb.

Favourite meal

Breakfast. When you're bored of the traditional staples of stacked pancakes or eggs any-style with hash-browns there are always more exotic offerings such as eggs benedict or huevos rancheros. These are raised to an art form all over the state at places like the 24th Street Cafe in Bakersfield and the Redwood Cafe in Cambria,

Mountaineering

The snowy peak of Mount Shasta is the goal of hundreds who limber up in the eponymous town at its foot. They return for a massage, the firmly rooted side of a Mount Shasta's alternative culture, a scene which completely blows its cool in the quarterly newspaper Directions. Armed with a double espresso and a plateful of scepticism I learnt that "it is precisely because of Mount Shasta's place in the Divine Plan that individuals are able to experience healing and transformation". Bemused, I pressed on to an interview with Princess Sharula Dux, from the Lemurian city of Telos, deep within the mountain who had come up to the surface to share her culture, using a portal hidden by a holographic screening device. Astral travellers can enrol for courses on "Becoming your Goddess-Self" (don't ask me) and "Ear Candlin"' (I don't even want to think about it), and, if they cut out the coupon, are still entitled to $2 off at Honest Pizza.

Top nightlife

LA's Viper Room may be the spot for celebrity shoulder-rubbing, but for that all-American night out nothing beats Trouts, a dim bar among the oil-derricks of Bakersfield that's become a line-dancing institution It's a bizarre world in there; Stetsons and tooled leather boots are de rigueur for the boys, tight jeans and tasselled shirts for the girls, and it's all done without a hint of irony There's no posing; everyone from fresh- faced youths with fake IDs to their grandparents (without any exaggeration), is there to dance.

Paul Whitfield wrote 'The Rough Guide to California'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Hotels and Restaurants

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, Pescadero (415-879 O633).

Villa Royale, 1620 S Indian Trail, Palm Springs (619-327 2314 & 1800- 245 2314)

24th Street Cafe, 1415 24th St, Bakersfield.

Redwood Cafe, 2094 Main St, Cambria.

Viper Room, 8852 Sunset Blvd, LA (310-358 1881)

Trouts, 805 N Chester Ave, Bakersfield (805-399 6700).

What to see

Lava Beds National Monument. Ranger station (916-667 2283),

J Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu (310-458 2003)

Contacts

The California Office of Tourism can be contacted at 801 K St, Suite 1600, Sacramento CA 95814 (916-322 2881).

Getting there

There are some pretty good deals available through Unijet at the moment, eg Gatwick to Los Angeles on 7 July for pounds 299 return, or Manchester to LA for pounds 369 (1 July). Call 0990 336336.

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