What can you do in a day in Los Angeles? Well, you can spend too much on taxis. I know. Last time I was here, I got through dollars 150 (pounds 100) a day travelling around this 40-mile urban creature.

This time is different. Now I know the only way to go is by car. Straight off the plane, past the coach shuttles, to the nearest car rental. Feeling psychologically at one with the environment in LA is paramount to your wellbeing. So I feel much better in a fine example of the environmental enemy, a black Buick convertible at dollars 90 (pounds 60) a day. Hood down, sunglasses on, a photographer friend and I speed (as far as the 55mph speed limit will allow) down the Santa Monica freeway. Only four months ago, the earth buckled two of its bridges and rendered a whole section unusable. Miraculously, it is now back to normal. 'The contractor was paid a dollars 200,000-a- day bonus for every day he had it completed before the deadline,' a cab driver had told us the night before. 'He made a lot of money.'

As we cruise down Hollywood Boulevard the only sign of the earthquake is a shop with an Earthquake Sale 20-per-cent-off notice (although Dave swears the giant M from McDonald's has slipped). Later we spot many condemned building placards, as well as another blatant bit of self-promotion from a camping shop: 'Earthquake Survival' has been scrawled in large letters on the window.

Up at Universal Studios (we eschew valet parking and cope ourselves) they've created a shopping area called City Walk which resembles a film set. Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart comes to life, but without the dancing. There's a 17-screen multiplex cinema, too - and Cinemania.

Cinemania also offers a varied programme: a terrifying filmic roller-coaster ride down mineshafts full of bats, on which the seats move and people leave clutching their stomachs; a giant music screen looks down the mall; at Gladstones, a fish restaurant, the doggy bag turns out to be a tinfoil sculpture, of anything from a palm tree to a crustacean; there's a King Kong gorilla hanging across the street and even a sausage world at the end. Imagine a whole world of sausages] Who needs reality when there's this much make-believe?

We try to join the Grave Line tour, which leaves from the famous gothic Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard every day at noon. But, tragically, the converted hearse is fully booked for this trip. An alternative view of Beverly Hills (Grayline Tours runs the familiar stars' homes trip), the Grave Line offers the gory details of John Belushi's drug-induced death at Chateau Marmont as well as a photocopy of Marilyn Monroe's death certificate. Buzz, an extremely large 22-year-old from Maryland, saw the tour on his local TV station: 'I thought: 'This looks weird, it must be for me'.' He has booked ahead.

Instead we look around Hollywood Memorial Park. Cecil B De Mille is housed grandly in a white marble tomb and Jayne Mansfield has an art nouveau headstone with an engraved portrait that has been defaced, but we are unable to visit Rudolf Valentino's ashes because the mausoleum is shut. Famished, we head for a Fatburger, as recommended by a Los Angeleno. We approve: the food is suitably greasy and dripping in mayonnaise and mustard.

Melrose Avenue is supposed to be the hippest street to hang out on so we decide to check it out. 'It's just like the King's Road,' a friend had said disparagingly. And it is: antiques, trendy restaurants, clothes, and more clothes.

It's afternoon and the beach beckons. LA is smoggy in the morning, the sun appearing after a late lunch. The only way to do Venice Beach is on rollerblades, so we call in at a hire shop to get kitted out. Ankle pads, knee pads, boots - everything you need, except one: skill. 'Try one of these,' says the blonde assistant, pointing to a yellow vehicle with a hood. 'I learnt with one,' she says. Already overbalancing, I grab it frantically and move off down the boardwalk. It is a hilarious sight: me and an empty pram, surrounded by hordes of cool, professional-looking skaters.

In London I would have been sneered off the pavement. Here, everyone loves it. Winos yell: 'Where's your baby?' and a beach hunk even tries to get in and become my baby. Suddenly, I am one of them, an eccentric roller-blader who fits in perfectly with the Rasta strumming his guitar, the guys pulled along by their dogs and the flocks of wannabes on wheels.

We take a sunset drive past the multi-million-dollar homes beside Venice's canals, and on to Santa Monica Pier. The Pier hosts lines of chicano boys with fishing rods, one of whom has just caught a baby hammerhead shark. Is he going to throw it back?' 'No,' replies the teenager, looking at us scornfully.

At that moment the discordant but seductive notes of a Mariachi band lure us into a restaurant where we have to have margueritas. Songs about dying love hover in the air; a middle-aged, plump chicano dances, tragi-comically, alone with his white handkerchief. It turns out that this is the beginning of the Cinco do Mayo festivities, celebrating Mexico's independence from France. Almost ignored in Mexico itself, the anniversary is a good excuse for a party.

After dinner in Beverly Hills we discover that all the clubs such as the Roxy and the Whisky A Go Go close at 2am. We are too late. So we keep on going, until we see flashing neon lights and the sign of a cockroach. This salsa club in East LA stays open until 4am. The only Europeans around, we show them what eager watchers of Come Dancing can do . . . and we even manage to get back to the hotel without a map.

We have done 185 miles in one day. How much would that cost by taxi?