travel: It's still cool to go California dreamin; John von Radowitz discovers Southern California is still cool.
RECENT wildfires may have caused widespread devastation across Southern California, but judging by my visit earlier in the year, they won't have destroyed the laid-back charm and superb hospitality this region has to offer.
As residents return to their homes and the cost of rebuilding adds up, tourism chiefs in both LA and San Diego are keen to point out that the area is once again open for business.
Downtown and hotel districts were unaffected and are keen to welcome back visitors, while all the major tourist attractions (of which there are plenty) remain intact and as exciting and appealing as ever.
To tempt you further, one of the usual deterrents for British visitors, the long slog of a flight, could be a thing of the past. Flights from London to Los Angeles take over 11 hours, and that much time squeezed into a densely-packed steel tube 35,000 feet above ground is not a pleasant experience.
Of course, captains of industry, pop stars, some celebrities and anyone who can afford it can escape economy class.
But most of us would think twice before parting with more than pounds 2,300 for a round trip to LA, especially for a short visit. That's the cost of a premier economy seat on British Airways.
Flying Club costs much more. Now, however, there's an alternative.
Maxjet, one of three all-business-class airlines operating from the UK, has launched a pioneering new route to bring Southern California within range of a luxury weekend break.
The first airline to fly to LA from Stansted, Maxjet calls itself a 'low-cost' business-class airline. It means avoiding the economy crush on a Maxjet plane is cheaper than on one of the major airlines.
However, the concept of value is all important here.
Is a Maxjet flight to LA a sufficiently pleasant experience to justify paying more than you would for a cut-price economy seat? In short, is it good value? The answer is, emphatically, yes.
A round trip to California by Maxjet costs as little as pounds 700, and that's not a special promotional offer for a limited period only. I guarantee you will be surprised by the luxury and standard of service.
Stepping aboard the Boeing 767 wide-bodied jet, you can't help but smile at the sight of so much space around chunky fat seats upholstered in dark blue leather. I'm 6ft tall and of lanky build, but at full stretch, even my long legs were several inches away from the seat in front.
The cabin crew were polite, attentive, and good humoured, and food was high quality. Generally, the atmosphere was reassuringly relaxed, and after watching a couple of films (from a selection of around 20 on the portable viewer), sleep came easily.
When I awoke, most of the 5,400 miles between London and LA had mysteriously melted away, and soon we were on the ground. Time to don the shades and head out into the sunny Californian weather - a curse of late to the locals, but a blessing to holidaymakers.
On the drive to our hotel, a tune popped into my head, the old Burt Bacharach classic Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Then I realised why. The song contains the line LA is a great big freeway, and there was never a truer statement.
You do need wheels in LA. A rudimentary subway and light-rail system radiates from the Downtown area, but few people use it. Here the automobile rules, preferably with a snarling engine and drop-down top.
Los Angeles is actually a collection of districts and communities covering 470 square miles, and bearing names made famous in film and song, such as Hollywood, Beverley Hills, Bel-Air, San Fernando Valley (The Valley), Sunset Strip and blaze-hit Malibu.
Things aren't always what they seem here. The Hotel Angeleno, where we stayed, is a 17-storey circular tower on a roaring road junction close to nowhere, apart from the J Paul Getty Centre perched on an adjacent hill. In England, it would be a sad bolthole for travelling salesmen, but the Angeleno is a top-rate, popular hotel, which every evening attracts people from miles around who meet there to sip drinks in its impressive viewing platform bar.
Once central LA 'clicks' you won't be surprised to come across Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held. The famous steps on which they lay the red carpet are smack in the middle of a busy shopping mall, but you'd never guess watching the Academy Awards presentation on TV. On the big day, the shops are closed and curtained off.
Nearby on the Walk of Fame, more than 2,000 fivepointed stars are embedded in the pavement along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, bearing the names of showbiz celebrities past and present. Outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the Boulevard you can literally stand in the footsteps of the stars. This is where you find the foot and hand prints of famous actors and actresses, preserved for posterity in cement.
Even a couple of days in Los Angeles can be exhausting, but 125 miles further south, close to the Mexican border, a different experience awaits. San Diego has a lazier pace of life than LA. Originally a naval dockyard with a somewhat sleazy reputation, the city has undergone a renaissance since the 1980s and now exudes sophistication and style.
Luxury condos have sprung up in the once largely abandoned downtown area, between chic boutique hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants. We stayed at the small but exquisite Hotel Solamar, with a wonderful open air pool and cocktail bar on the fourth floor. A luxurious double room with a Jacuzzi deep enough to drown in costs pounds 100 a night. You can drive to San Diego in about two hours, but it's more fun to go by Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner - a monster, double-decker train that hugs the coast, blasting its horn every so often like locomotives in Western films.
The many delights include the Gaslamp quarter, the historic heart of the city in which Wyatt Earp once ran three gambling halls, the world-famous city zoo at Balboa Park and the Hotel del Coronado, where Marilyn Monroe raised temperatures in the 1958 movie Some Like it Hot.
But San Diego is most famous for majestic, sweeping beaches. A world away from the UK and one certainly worth travelling in style for.
John von Radowitz flew Maxjet Airways which flies Stansted-LA direct from pounds 349 one way. Reservations: 0800 023 4300 or www.maxjet.com
Rooms at Hotel Angeleno cost from pounds 85 per night.
More information on LA is available from Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau on 020 7318 9555 or www.SeeMyLA.com
King Deluxe rooms at Hotel Solamar start at pounds 103 per night.
More information on San Diego is available from California Tourism 020 7257 6180 or www.sandiego.org
Return train trip from LA to San Diego costs pounds 25 economy; pounds 39 business. For details visit www.amtrak.com
For a package to the US West Coast, Gold Medal Travel offers five nights' room-only at the four-star Catamaran Hotel in San Diego for pounds 899, incl Maxjet flights, five nights economy car hire, with upgrade to convertible costing pounds 60 extra. Price includes all taxes.
Gold Medal Travel reservations: 0871 700 8630 or www.airlinenetwork.co.uk
IMAGES: Clockwise from the left, the Gaslamp Quanter, Hotel Solamar, California Twoer, and Balboa Park San Dlego