Any mention of Los Angeles evokes the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but there’s a laid-back, bohemian vibe that permeates its sleepy beach neighbourhoods. It is a surf-n-skate haven in Venice Beach. By Sumeet Keswani
“I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” The beat generation knew what it was talking about. To me, though, Los Angeles was neither lonely nor brutal. Definitely, not sad. Perhaps that was because the LA I saw and the one Jack Kerouac described in his seminal novel, On The Road, were 60 years apart. Or, perhaps, it was because I stayed quite far from the ostentatious neon lights of Hollywood—in the eclectic beach neighbourhood of Venice.
Right before I left from the Indian capital for my first US trip, I happened to watch a 2017 film called Once Upon A Time In Venice. At one point, the film shows Bruce Willis using a skateboard to escape two men who catch him bang to rights with their sister. I thought the skateboard was a bit of a stretch, until I actually set foot in Venice.
Teenagers grab their surfboards and line-up for the waves in Venice during their high-school recess.
There is a nip in the early morning air in the dying days of September. Winter is just stretching its legs in LA. Even so, as early as 7 am, I can see the nabe is hard at play. Surfers bob about on the Pacific Ocean, trying to catch the morning waves, with shops beneath my balcony renting out all the gear—from wet-suits to surfboards; a basketball court suffers the competitive wrath of warm-up shoes; graffiti covers every conceivable surface within reach—a ‘Stop’ signboard has been prefixed, poetically, with a spray-painted ‘Can’t,’ summarising the rallying cry of the county. Teens skate past on the road below, music plugged in their ears. I wonder where they are heading at this hour. To class? Where do they park their skateboards in school? Is there a board locker? An eager black-and-white border collie follows his skateboard-borne human for his morning walk (read sprint). I follow the duo until they disappear in the labyrinthine streets. The ugly high-rises that give you a crick in the neck in downtown LA are missing in these parts; the coastal areas are flat, as if God made all of LA and then dropped the mic on Venice Beach.
In these kitschy streets, revolution is sprayed on every wall and opulence is ironically mainstream. The roads are amply wide and dotted with Range Rovers, Ferraris, Porsches, and most of all, the Mustang horse that flaunts its American muscle with its distinctive roar. Hotel Erwin—the address for the entirety of my LA stay—seems a tad confused about which culture to imbibe from the streets. The hotel boasts the only rooftop bar in Venice, a luxurious spot to soak in the laid-back vibe of the town. But, inside my suite, the wardrobe is a literal hole in the wall. Metal centrepieces are paired with comfortable yellow sofas and wooden wall hangers. Austere chairs sit in the small balcony, which look out to a car park and a ‘Partial Ocean View’ beyond a row of palm trees. The room features two bars with an extensive selection of liquor, but the coffee cups are made of paper. The one feature that symbolises LA for me is a pair of mirrors in the living-room that purposely distort my figure, presenting a caricature—a funnier and debatably ‘cooler’ version of myself. I decide to play along, putting on my hip ‘LA’ cap and heading out into the crowd on wheels.
The locals’ fetish for bikes and skateboards is helped along by the availability of beautiful bike trails, most famously The Strand. A 35-kilometre paved path from Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades to Torrance Beach in South Bay, The Strand runs along the idyllic Pacific Ocean coastline. It first takes me to Hermosa Beach, the mecca for beach volleyball. Professional player and head coach at Volleycamp Hermosa, Mark Burik says Hermosa is full of men who refuse to grow up—it’s a ‘town of Peter Pans’. In their late 20s and early 30s, they don football jerseys in the day and party into dawn. The six feet, three inches tall, Swedish-origin player who moved here from NYC four years ago is a super athlete, with biceps bursting at the seams and an undercut ponytail, and predictably advocates an active lifestyle. During a group lesson, I learn the right posture and techniques for passing, serving, attacking, and assisting on the court. The rest of our time is spent ‘shagging’—a sport jargon for collecting scattered balls. The word is received with adolescent snickers, proving we aren’t too different from the Peter Pans of Hermosa.
On a private bike tour, I next visit Redondo, further south on The Strand. The Redondo Beach Pier was once called the ‘Endless Pier’, with hot tubs lined up along the shore, my guide Daniel Backer (“call me Danny!”) informs me. The only endless thing here is the amount of time people seem to have. On a Wednesday afternoon, locals—young and old—choose to hang out, their fishing lines dangling from the pier. The median going rate for a beach house in Redondo is around $1.8 million, I’m told. Still more affordable than the sleek, glass-walled houses along Manhattan Beach that average at $2.6 million. It must pay to not grow up.
While Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach boast of iconic shoot locations (Hannah Montana, Weeds), nothing beats the history of Venice. One of the oldest sections of LA, Venice Beach was developed out of marshland and sand dunes in 1905 by Abbot Kinney, a millionaire and tobacco entrepreneur. He stumbled upon Southern California purely by accident—on a detour effected by bad weather. Back in the late 1890s, tuberculosis ran rampant and people came to SoCal for its clean air. Kinney himself suffered from lung disease (emphysema); he got his best night’s snooze in California and decided to settle down here. Since he had fallen in love with the Italian city of Venice on his travels, he decided to recreate a Disneyland-style Venice in America, replete with canals, gondolas, piazzas, and colonnades. He wanted European art and culture to permeate this dusty, western US outpost, but people just wanted to have fun. And so, ‘pleasure piers’ rose along the coastline. In the Prohibition Era, these piers helped booze boats dock, and ultimately unload at the Del Monte Speakeasy, which still serves customers.
Aerial skateboarding was invented here in the mis 1970s by a surfer gang called Z-Boys.
While Venice Beach has undergone serious changes since those times, some parts of Kinney’s ‘Venice of America’ live on. Nestled in a leafy neighbourhood, behind the frenzy of Boardwalk, over three kilometres of networked canals line three blocks of quaint houses. This is the Venice Canal Historic District. Little private boats hark back to the time the canals flourished as a transport system. In the 1920s, when Venice was absorbed into the city of LA due to financial crises, 11 kilometres of canals were converted to roads. Today, the canal-facing houses fetch $6-7 million, and a European quietude serenades you on arched pedestrian bridges.
The walking tour reveals a microcosm of Californian art and culture thriving along the Boardwalk—Venice Art Walls act as a living, breathing art installation that changes garb every week; Venice Skate Park is a free recreation zone where amateur skateboarders are humiliated by skilled ones; the open-air Muscle Beach Gym flaunts corroded equipment wielded by exhibitionist bodybuilders, no doubt inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger who once worked out here; every ailment receives the same prescription at marijuana ‘dispensaries’; and random buildings surprise you with commissioned graffiti, including murals of Jim Morrison, who famously founded The Doors here.
While any jaunt through Venice is filled with exotic pleasures, I know what I must do to truly blend in. And so, on a chilly SoCal morning, somewhere between Venice and Santa Monica, I slip into a wetsuit and lie belly-down on a cobalt-blue surfboard to paddle into the Pacific. My instructor, Joaquin with the long hair and the athletic body, takes turns helping me and a New Zealander catch our first waves. Waiting for my turn, I float in the deep end, far from the ‘line-up’ where waves start to break, and watch seagulls and pelicans swoop in on their seafood platter. When it’s time to ride, I paddle hard on Joaquin’s cue and stand up on the board, albeit shakily, to the realisation that if I were living in Venice, I would, too, make this a morning ritual.
While the razzmatazz of Hollywood Hills is nearly 30 kilometres away, LA’s beach neighbourhoods aren’t completely untouched by showbiz. People here do wacky things just to go viral on social media. Danny tells us, a bit red-faced, of the time he got paid $40 (INR 2,848) for volunteering to get whacked in the face with a pie—for a video compilation of fake pranks. And the time someone scattered fries laced with laxatives on Venice Beach to attract seagulls. You can imagine the “shitfest” that followed on the Boardwalk. Then there are venues like The Comedy & Magic Club, on Hermosa Avenue, which hosts top comics like Jay Leno. On the day of my visit, Afghani-Pakistani Feraz Ozel opens with some hard-hitting jokes on the subtle racism he faces as a first-generation American. But the big-ticket performer is Teen Wolf actor Orny Adams, who revels in his single life and admonishes old couples in the audience for staying married too long. All in good humour, of course. At the end of the show, a bunch of girls accosts Adams outside the club, to put it delicately. Turned down, they head to a Hollywood bar for better prospects of companionship (and better booze). And with that, a glimpse of Kerouac’s alcohol-laced, drug-addled, and perpetually-horny road trip flashes in front of me. Perhaps, in some neon-lit corners of LA, loneliness does linger on. But, come morning, the Peter Pans will be back on their surfboards and skateboards, and the sun will shine ever so brightly on the City of Angels.
THE VENICE WAVE
The cool, laid-back vibe of Venice, Manhattan, and other nabes should be enjoyed slowly, and preferably on a skateboard.
Multiple airlines (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates) offer one-stop flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Los Angeles. Venice is 20 minutes away.
Hotel Erwin on Pacific Avenue in Venice Beach offers four types of suites and five room categories. Also on offer are 10 packages soaked in the Venice vibe, including Dogtown Double-Down (from INR 36,236 mid-March), which comes with Impala’s Holographic Rollerskates and the GLOBE ‘Big Blazer’ Cruiserboard, and Ink+Stay (from INR 32,676), which includes couple credits for getting inked. Partial Ocean View King Suite from INR 27,337; hotelerwin.com
Walking Tours LA (walkingtoursla.com) offers guided strolls in various neighbourhoods, including the colourful Venice.
Aqua Surf School (aquasurf.com) provides surf lessons across Southern California.
Volleycamp Hermosa (volleycamphermosa.com) offers accommodation and elite training in the sport.
Bikes and Hikes LA (bikesandhikesla.com) conducts five daily public tours and private VIP excursions on order.