Full of Beans in Colombia

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A piece I wrote about a recent trip to Colombia that was published in the Sunday Travel section of the Irish Daily Mail on Oct 29, 2017

When I told friends that I was going to Colombia, the reaction was predictable: watch out for the guerrillas. Stay away from Colombian ‘marching powder.’ Come back alive.

When I told them that I was flying from Amsterdam, one of my friends suggested that I didn’t even need a plane to reach the required altitude.

A cafe in La Candelaria. So good they named it twice. 

A cafe in La Candelaria. So good they named it twice. 

There’s no doubt that Colombia has a troubled reputation to shake. This is a country that for most of the last 50 years has been synonymous with violence and bloodshed. Arriving into Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport after eleven hours of comfort aboard KLM’s newest 787 Dreamliner, I was expecting armed soldiers and a general vibe of suspicion and menace. Instead, I found an impressively modern airport and an air of efficient calm that wouldn’t seem out of place in Switzerland.

“Bienvenido a Colombia,” smiled the officer at passport control. “Is it your first time visiting us?”

It was indeed. I’d been put off in the past by the civil war that turned the cities into militarised zones and huge parts of the countryside into no-go areas. But the government and FARC signed a peace deal earlier this year that put a putative end to the fighting; amid the general post-conflict excitement I even heard of plans to launch guided tours of former FARC jungle camps – led by demobilised guerrilla fighters.

The view from Monserrate of Bogota's urban sprawl. 

The view from Monserrate of Bogota's urban sprawl. 

Cities are always that bit more attractive if the threat of bombing or kidnapping is negligible, and so it is with post-treaty Bogotá, the huge sprawling capital set on a high plain cradled by the Andes. It’s a city so big that getting from one side to another feels more like migrating than commuting. To get a sense of just how big 1700 square km is, I took the cable car to the top of Monserrate mountain – home to a white-topped monastery that is a popular pilgrimage and incredible views of the whole Bogotá valley, spread out in all its glory; on clear days, you can see volcanic peaks of Los Nevados, 135km to the west in the Cordillera Central, the highest part of the Colombian Andes.

Monserrate aside, most of the tourist action is concentrated in La Candelaria, the cobbled historic centre full of rows of colonial-era houses and most of the most important official buildings, including the heavily guarded presidential palace.

I could see it from the windows of my hotel room, a gorgeous colonial house once lived in by Simón Bolívar, national hero of Colombia and much of Latin America besides. All the way down the street I could see clusters of armed soldiers, smoking and chatting, and everyone else just going about their business, occasionally stopping to join in the conversation.

Soldiers everywhere in central Bogota...

Soldiers everywhere in central Bogota...

Peace may have broken out, but Bogotá isn’t about to stop being vigilant just yet: elsewhere in the centre, most public buildings are guarded by private security guards and their fierce looking bull mastiffs. And, because this is a Latin American megalopolis, I was told to keep a close on my belongings and to avoid the area at night. So, I kept my wanderings to daylight hours, visiting the excellent Gold Museum – home to more than 50,000 pieces representing all of Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures – and taking a fascinating tour of the city’s political murals.

I suspect that Bogotá is one of those cities that gets more interesting the longer you stay. I was there for only a couple of days so I never got past the ‘on edge and intimidated’ phase – even the knowledge that the greatest threat was robbery rather than kidnapping or murder was only scant consolation.

If Bogotá is big and overwhelming, the contrast with Cartagena couldn’t be starker. Smaller, safer and far more chilled out, this colonial city of less than a million people is the country’s most popular tourist destination and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.

The bulk of the attention is on the Unesco-protected old town, a gorgeous maze of narrow streets lined with colourful houses fronted by trellised balconies draped in bougainvillea.

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It’s Havana meets New Orleans, wrapped in a 13km bow of colonial stone walls.

 

The houses of Cartagena's old town.

The houses of Cartagena's old town.

Across the harbour on the Bocagrande peninsula is the modern city, a mini-Miami of gleaming skyscrapers where moneyed locals live in fancy apartments and dine in the city’s hippest restaurants.

View of Bocagrande from the old town, Cartagena

View of Bocagrande from the old town, Cartagena

 

Before the peace treaty, getting here by road from Bogotá was a 12-hour trip few dared make for fear of being kidnapped by FARC. Instead, it’s an easy 45-minute flight from the capital: as well as almost hourly flights with national carrier Avianca, KLM’s service continues onward to Cartagena from Bogotá before making the transatlantic crossing back to Amsterdam.

 

Cartagena is a cinch to explore on foot. Best thing to do is wander aimlessly about the old town and the working-class neighbourhood of Getsemaní, getting lost in the streets that spill out onto handsome squares where locals take shade from the tropical sun and play chess or listen to salsa.

 

And drink coffee. Cocaine might be the country’s most infamous and talked about export, but by far its most profitable powder comes from the Arabica coffee bean, of which Colombia is the world’s biggest grower. Colombians drink coffee by the bucketload, generally opting for a basic shot they call a ‘tinto,’ but their overall appreciation of how to make a decent brew would leave even the most pretentious barista in the ha’penny place.

A palenquera, from San Basilio de Palenque, just southeast of Cartagena, a town founded by runaway slaves.

A palenquera, from San Basilio de Palenque, just southeast of Cartagena, a town founded by runaway slaves.

 

At Café San Alberto, in the old town, I took a quick half-hour course in the history and secrets of Colombian coffee – and walked out with eight bags of beans that should keep me in caffeine heaven for the next few months at least.

 

The clock tower in Cartagena that enchanted Gabriel Garcia Marques

The clock tower in Cartagena that enchanted Gabriel Garcia Marques

Much like Dublin is intimately connected with James Joyce, so Cartagena is closely linked with Nobel-Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, who harnessed the complicated reality he observed in the city and transformed it into the magical realism of novels like 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

 

100 Years of Solitude was a rite of passage for most of us when I was in university, but it remains the only one of his books I’ve ever bothered reading. Still, the highlight of my time in Cartagena was a three-hour Márquez-themed food tour, where we’d stop at food stalls that Márquez had written about and sample local dishes like cheese arepas (flatbreads), patacones (twice-fried green plantains with garlic) and bollos (boiled taro wrapped in banana leaf).

 

For a proper feel of the Caribbean, I headed offshore about 10km to the Islas del Rosario, a necklace of coral islands where I tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time (I only spent the first half of the session falling off and getting back on again) and ate grilled red snapper caught minutes earlier by a smiling fisherman who insisted that it was “muy bueno.” It was.

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On my last night in Colombia I got an email notification telling me that series 3 of Narcos was now available on Netflix. For a moment, I felt a little strange: I loved the first two series, which told the bloody story of Colombian narco-boss Pablo Escobar, but I never imagined that I would be watching it in the very country where it all took place, albeit 30-odd years ago. I’d been told that Escobar had owned a house on one of the islands off the coast, but nobody could tell me which one. Instead, I was left to imagine it, and as I sat down to watch the first episode of series 3 later that night, I thought that Gabriel García Márquez would have appreciated the strangeness of it all.

 

Getting There

KLM (klm.com) flies three times weekly to Bogotá and Cartagena from Amsterdam from €859 return in economy, €2202 in business class.

Where to Stay

Bogotá Hotel de la Ópera (Clle 10 No 5-72; hotelopera.com.co; rooms from €113)

Cartagena Hotel Armeria Real (Clle del Pedregal No 25-28, Getsemaní; armeriarealhotel.com; rooms from €140)

Things to Do

Bogotá Graffiti Tour (bogotagraffiti.com; free but tips are encouraged, usually around €10)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Food Tour (foodies.com; €66)

Islas del Rosario (day tours from €20, not including lunch)

 

HorrOrlando: Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios

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I went back to Universal Studios in Orlando to challenge my fear of fear and its famous Halloween Horror Nights. This piece was recently published in the Irish Daily Mail.

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When was the last time a six-foot-seven-inch scarecrow stepped out of the foggy darkness to scare the bejesus out of you…and you respond by jumping back in mock terror and laughing like a maniac?

That’s just part of the fun of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studios’ all-scaring, all-screaming extravaganza that is America’s most elaborate Halloween event. The six-week menagerie of maniacs, monsters and murderers comes alive with the setting sun, when thousands of fans descend on the Orlando theme park to get their fear on.

Nine huge warehouses are transformed into haunted mazes and the streets of the theme park are divided into five ‘scare zones’ with their own distinctive horror theme. I turn a corner and find myself in the middle of The Purge, where I’m attacked by a lunatic with a loud chainsaw and then threatened by a huge, ghostly-looking guy with a bloodied axe.

Of course, I’m not really attacked. The chainsaw looks and – more importantly – sounds real enough, but it’s just a prop. And the ghostly guy is just one of thousands of ‘scare-actors’ who are under strict instructions not to come within an arm’s length of anyone, for as much as the event goes to enormous lengths to be as terrifyingly real as possible, it’s still a family-friendly experience open to all over the age of 13. Still, an arm’s length is close enough to keep me on constant edge.

Scarecrow: The Reaping

Scarecrow: The Reaping

Most frightening of all – even more than being caught in the middle of a loud ‘battle’ between aliens and soldiers in the Invasion! zone – is when a young girl with heavy kohl eyes and the pallour of death stops no more than two feet from me. She just looks at me and then hisses. I almost wet myself.

The Invasion! Scare Zone

The Invasion! Scare Zone

“It’s good training for the zombie apocalypse,” I hear someone say behind me. I look around and see a heavyset guy in his twenties wearing a Chucky t-shirt. I smile wanly but I don’t think he was joking.

Meanwhile, my heart is racing and I have that metallic taste in my mouth from an overload of adrenaline – and I haven’t even gone into my first horror house.

The horror houses - huge walk-through mazes that take up to five minutes’ each to walk through - are an elaborately conceived nightmare that take almost a full year to devise and build. Each one is a mini universe based on either a famous horror franchise – Saw, The Purge, American Horror Story, The Shining, Ash vs The Living Dead – or an original concept conceived by Universal’s art and design team, which has been honing its trick-or-treat arsenal for 27 consecutive years.

Although fright geeks are going gaga for The Shining, which makes its debut this year, there was huge online buzz for a couple of home-grown ideas - Scarecrow: The Reaping, set on a Depression-era Midwestern farmstead; and Dead Waters, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou. I’ve watched enough episodes of True Blood to know that those swamps are full of vampires and voodoo.

Last year, Universal scored a big hit with Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and it’s back again with a house based on three seasons of the popular TV show - Asylum, Coven and Roanoke. The little surprises along the way include a tortured witch howling in a cage and an attack by a family of cannibals. Most frightening of all – even more than being lunged at by a man wearing a severed pig’s head – was when I was confronted by Cordelia, played in the TV show by Sarah Paulson. Her calling card is waving a pair of scissors she has just used to gouge out her eyes. What’s not to like?

The Grady Twins from The Shining. No, nothing creepy about them at all. 

The Grady Twins from The Shining. No, nothing creepy about them at all. 

Universal is hoping that fans will respond as positively to The Shining house, set in the Overlook Hotel as well as the infamous maze. Unlike other houses, this one is brightly lit which makes the walkthrough that bit more unnerving. The film’s iconic features all make an appearance, including Jack bursting through a door to announce that he’s home to the blood-soaked elevator and haunted room 237. I even have a stare-down with the creepy hand-holding Grady twins. Taking on Kubrick’s horror masterpiece was always going to be a risky affair, as hardcore fans would treat any misstep as sacrilege, but the creative team has clearly done its research and turned out a winner.

The Dead Waters House, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou

The Dead Waters House, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou

If The Shining struggled with the weight of expectation, the contrast with Dead Waters couldn’t be starker. Nobody knew anything about this house, which is set aboard a full-sized riverboat half-buried in the Bayou swamp. I walk along the path by the alligator-infested waters and onto the ship, where the sloping floors add to the overall feeling of disorientation. Lightning flashes across the sky and inside the candles flicker in the half-light – it is in this eerie setting that I come across the Voodoo Queen and her village fiends, who execute a series of fabulous scares.

Most of the mayhem in the houses is generated by scareactors hidden behind nooks, drop windows and doorways, who pop out at strategic moments (what the designers call ‘boo-and-skidoo’) for maximum effect. But the sense of fear is heightened by a brilliantly effective bit of low-tech special effects called ‘SIF’ by the creative team.

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SIF – or ‘stuff in face’ (the team call it something a bit ruder) is any bit of material that brushes your face as you walk by. So, when I walk through lengths of twine in Scarecrow: The Reaping, the result is terrifying, especially when added to other special effects, like the sound of crows squawking and rats scurrying by in the dark. And then there’s the smell, dank and rotting, like you’d expect from a place where scarecrow guardians have risen from the blood-soaked soil to wreak revenge on the humans who let the farm go to rack and ruin.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any scarier, I hear a thud, and then the sound of a chain being dragged slowly across the floor. Another thud, and then the chain again. Thud. Something is coming, but when and from where? At this stage, I’m walking so slowly that the people behind me have caught up. I put my hands out and try to feel my way forward. Then he appears. All six-foot-seven-inches of him. The appropriately named Biggun has a giant skull with roots growing of it, and his roar is amplified by a speaker hidden somewhere in the room.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and when I was out, I couldn’t wait to get back in.

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Fact Box

Halloween Horror Nights runs on selected nights until November 4.

Flight Only

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has direct flights to Orlando from €560 each way.

Package Deal

Seven nights at Universal Orlando with Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk). Includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Orlando, a Lagoon View room at the on-site Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, car hire and a Universal Orlando three park Explorer ticket with Halloween Horror Nights combo from £1780 (€1991) for two adults sharing. Price based on October 26th departure. 

 

 

At Home with the Gaskells

If you've any interest in the past, then you'll know what I mean when I talk about that feeling of excitement that comes from finding yourself in history's long shadow. For me, it was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Or taking my old-school Marxist dad to Chetham's Library and sitting in the very alcove where Marx and Engels studied the books that would eventually give shape to the Communist Manifesto. 

I get that buzz from more mundane moments too. In Paris, I've eaten in the grossly over-priced and underwhelming tourist trap that is Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysées, just because it was James Joyce's favourite, eating and drinking into the long night....and paying for it with hangovers and other people's money. 

History's footsteps are a big selling point of a visit to the Elizabeth Gaskell House, in the Longsight suburb of south Manchester. Before I've even stepped inside, an enthusiastic guide urges me to ring the still-working original doorbell, and do what Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin all did before me.

My guide is a fellow history wonk, a traveller of ancient shadows. 

Although closely associated with the Cheshire town of Knutsford (immortalised as Cranford), Elizabeth moved into the house at 84 Plymouth Grove in 1850, two years after the publication of her debut novel, Mary Barton. She fretted about the exorbitant rent of £150 a year (roughly £18,000 in today's money, which would be a steal in this housing market). In a letter to a friend she expressed her concerns about the morality of spending so much money "while so many are wanting," but was determined to mollify her guilt by "[trying] to make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can."

It's a commitment the Elizabeth Gaskell Society are keen to maintain. Every visitor is greeted like an old friend and encouraged to make themselves at home. I'm told to sit at the desk Elizabeth's husband William used, and to rifle through the period books that line the shelves in the study (not Gaskell originals, but copies of books they would have had in their collection). 

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

In the parlour on the far side of the entrance hall there are copies of letters written by Elizabeth as well as her wedding dress, carefully displayed in a glass case. At the far end of the dining room, laid out as the Gaskells would have known, is her writing desk, flooded with light from the alcove windows. On it are facsimiles of letters, including one from her friend Charlotte Brontë (Elizabeth wrote her biography in 1857), who also hid behind the curtains in the large drawing room. 

There are no ropes or labels, and as much as the house and its contents offer an intimate portrait of how the Gaskells lived, they really come to life through the anecdotes related with great relish and affection by the friendly room-stewards. 

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

How, during the bread riots of 1863, when the well-to-do citizens of Manchester were instructed to board up their windows to deter looters, William - a Unitarian minister at nearby Cross Street - and Elizabeth ordered that the windows be opened so that they could distribute what food they had to workers clamouring for sustenance.

The stories paint a picture of two social justice warriors, committed to ideals of fairness and decency for all, especially the teeming poor that kept industrial Manchester in gear. Their own relationship was one of equals, a far cry from the patriarchal mores of the time.  

I also liked the stories about Elizabeth's relationship with Dickens. He called her Scheherazade, because her powers of narrative were good "for at least a thousand nights and one," but he had less tolerance for her habit of submitting work at the very last minute and way over-length (like most writers, including this one): as editor of her 1855 novel North and South, Dickens had gone to great lengths to suggest cuts, which Gaskell completely ignored, commenting with a dismissive "I've not a notion what he means."

Elizabeth was, by the standards of the time, ferociously independent - in 1865 she bought a house in Hampshire without telling William. It would be their retirement home, away from the soot and dirt of Manchester's dark, satanic mills. When the house was bought and decorated, she cajoled William into making the trip south to visit the house, but no sooner did she reveal the big surprise she suffered a heart attack and died, aged 55. William returned to 84 Plymouth Grove and lived there with his two daughters until his death in 1884; it was eventually sold in 1913, when the Gaskells' daughter Meta died. 

The house was acquired by the Manchester Buildings Historic Trust in 2004, who then set about a laborious restoration (aided by £2.5m of Heritage Lottery funds). It was meant to finish in 2011, but the roof was damaged by vandals delaying the reopening until 2014.  

And while they've done a wonderful job of restoring this gorgeous Regency style villa, the real accomplishment is in recreating - as best as they can under the circumstances - the joyful ambience of the house. Elizabeth was courageous, charming, generous and, by all accounts, very funny: time in her house would have been a lot of fun. The house is now a museum, but it's a fun place to visit - the very kind of historical footstep I most enjoy walking in. 84 Plymouth Grove, M13 9LW; elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Splash Out at Manchester's Victoria Baths

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

In a city full of gorgeous buildings, the Victoria Baths in south Manchester takes some beating. It's a Grade II listed Edwardian classic, built to impress: when it opened in 1906 the Lord Mayor John Harrop declared it a 'water palace of which the people of Manchester will be proud'; the Manchester Guardian called it 'the most splendid bathing institution in the country.'

The Angel of Purity

The Angel of Purity

It cost twice as much as most public baths to build, and you can still see where most of the £59,000 was spent - on the elaborate terracotta brickwork of the facade; on the floor-to-ceiling glazed green-and-cream tiles with which most of the public spaces are clad; in the stunning art nouveau stained glass in the windows, the best example of which is the Angel of Purity in the Turkish sauna (yes, the baths had three separate pools and a Turkish sauna). 

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths were open to all Mancunians, but the pools were strictly segregated. 1930s Commonwealth and European champion John Besford, for instance, trained in the men's first-class gala pool (so-called because in winter time it would be boarded over and used for dances and talks) because he studied medicine at the University of Manchester and so could enjoy the cleanest water and superior facilities. 

Industrial workers and other non-professional types who couldn't afford the 6d to have a splashabout had to make do with the second-class pool, which didn't even have doors or curtains on the changing rooms. 

Women of all means were restricted to the women-only pool, which had its own entrance so that the lads couldn't gawp at the girls showing off even an inch of flesh. It also meant that they couldn't watch local swimmer Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry doing laps in preparation for her 1933 English Channel swim, the first English woman to complete the feat. (Her training regimen included eating 45 eggs a week!)

Typical Manc that she was, Lowry stubbornly opted against using the restrictive and heavy woollen one-piece suit deemed suitable for women in favour of a lighter two-piece that (gasp! horror!) exposed her knees: her brazen contempt for the mores of the day earned her the epithet 'harlot' when she returned triumphant from France.  

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

Upgrades over the years included the addition in 1952 of Britain's first Aerotone, the precursor to the Jacuzzi; it was used up to the 1980s, including by members of both Manchester football teams. 

But not even whirlpool baths that look like instruments of torture can halt the progress of time, and in 1993 the baths closed as they had become too expensive to run. 

Essential maintenance was entrusted to the Friends and Trust of Victoria Baths, which was supported by Sunny Lowry and Olympian James Hickman, a five-time short course Butterfly champion who regularly swam galas at the baths in the 1980s.

The Trust's efforts to raise funds for its complete restoration were given a boost when the baths won the first series of the BBC's Restoration programme in 2003, which came with a prize of £3.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money helped, as did the awareness the victory brought, but the baths still need around £30m for a full restoration and it won't come courtesy of the cash-strapped council, which has had to prioritise essential services over heritage projects. 

So if the baths are to be restored to anything like their stunning best it'll come down to the efforts of the trust. In 2011 they were granted a venue license for arts events, so they host gigs and cinema nights - it's hard to imagine a more atmospheric venue to watch a film or see a band play live. They also host weddings and other functions, and every Wednesday they run guided tours of the building, delivered by enthusiastic volunteers hell-bent on making sure you see just how amazing the place is.

The council mightn't get just how important this building is to Manchester's cultural landscape is, but even a quick peek inside should convince you of its significance. I strongly recommend a tour, and take comfort in knowing that not only are you visiting an architectural stunner, but that your being there is helping to save it.  

Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, M13 0FE. 

Looking for Oscar

This piece appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on Saturday, February 25, 2017.

Looking for Oscar, or scouring West Hollywood for the most elusive ticket in town.

Sunday is Oscars night, and Los Angeles is getting ready to show its stars the love for the 89th time. I know I’ve virtually no chance of snaring an invite, so the next best thing is to show up a few days early and soak up some of the atmosphere.

My LA home is the Grafton, a boutique hotel on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It has tidy rooms with plantation shutters and a rock ‘n’ roll motif. On the first morning, fighting jet lag with an early morning cup of coffee, I see rapper Ja Rule drinking champagne in the bar telling his companions about a possibly teaming up with Kris Jenner. You heard it here first, folks.* 

My bedroom at the Grafton

My bedroom at the Grafton

Welcome to West Hollywood, home to dark-edged tequila bars, raw food kitchens and a thick slice of Hollywood lore.

Across the street is the Comedy Store, which spawned generations of comic talent from Billy Crystal to Amy Schumer. Just down the street is the Chateau Marmont, where decadence and discretion made for some of Hollywood’s most lurid tales.

This is where Howard Hughes perved over sunbathing beauties with a pair of binoculars and, in Bungalow 2, John Belushi shot his last speedball in 1982. James Dean jumped through one of the windows because he thought it would impress director Nicholas Ray. He was right, because Ray cast the as-yet unknown actor in his upcoming teen melodrama, Rebel Without a Cause.

The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

Howard Hughes didn’t have far to go to spy on girls in bikinis, as for a time he lived in the nearby Sunset Tower, an Art Deco classic from 1929 that at different times was also home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. It’s now a classy hotel with a restaurant dressed in panelled wood (for that perfect 1930s club vibe) and lined with autographed photos of a century’s worth of Hollywood stars.

The food is classic American (Cobb salads, New York striploin) served with efficient speed to a darkly lit room of chatty industry types: at the table next to me, three scriptwriters exchanged work tips and war stories. I’m sure I spot Mark Ruffalo in the shadows on the far side of the room.

The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

I need to get ‘Oscars ready.’ In a town where botox is as commonplace as green juice, I pick a less extreme option and treat myself to the Red Carpet Facial ($180) at Kinara, whose cult-following clientele include Halle Berry and Jessica Biel. My therapist Mirjana tells me I have amazing skin and feigns huge surprise when I tell her how old I am. I’m thrilled at the compliment and leave a big tip: I know how things work in Tinseltown.

I’m just disappointed that neither Halle or Jessica aren’t sitting in the high-ceilinged, boho-chic waiting room.

I venture down onto Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, once ground zero for the global entertainment business. Time hasn’t been overly kind and today, despite an intense cleanup effort, the birthplace of modern entertainment is a commercial monstrosity of bad tour hawkers, bored wannabe actors in superhero costumes and, oddly, the occasional snake handler.

These days the only stars are embedded in the pavement, but Hollywood Boulevard still has the hand- and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theatre, a movie house that debuted in 1927 with Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings, and, next door, the Dolby Theatre – the home of the Oscars.

I watch a crew redirect the crowds of snap-happy tourists away from the temporary stands being erected outside. On Sunday night they’ll be full of VIPs, although they’re not VIP enough to get a seat inside, close to the action. I ask someone when the red carpet will be laid down, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. ‘Sunday afternoon, of course. When else?’

I’m standing in front of the theatre, but I’m a million miles away from getting anywhere near the ceremony.

Instead, I opt for a 90-minute history lesson, courtesy of the Felix in Hollywood Tour. My guide Philip weaves historical magic over an unassuming half-mile section of Sunset Boulevard, transporting me back and forth across time, to when it was the birthplace of the film industry and, later, a key player in the history of recorded music. Philip has a flair for the dramatic and is a terrific storyteller: I’ll never look at Hollywood the same way again.

Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

The Oscars are still days away, so I head south about 50 miles to beautiful Laguna Beach. This is one of Southern California’s loveliest spots, a town packed with independent shops, art galleries, surfable waves, great hiking and an easy-going atmosphere. My retreat is the exquisite Ranch at Laguna Beach, a laid-back luxury resort tucked up against a couple of canyons just south of town. The rooms are elegant, the pool heated to a constant 26 degrees and the nine-hole golf course as scenic a track as I’ve seen. I may not have an Oscars ticket but I’m living like an A-lister.

Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

I head back to LA because I’m still hopeful and Hollywood is built on dreams. I’ll hang around West Hollywood and see what happens. Hey, Ja Rule was a guest in the same hotel as me and Mark Ruffalo and I ate in the same restaurant! Well, it was a guy that looked a lot like Mark Ruffalo. Actually, the room was pretty dark and maybe all I saw was an unshaven man with unruly curly hair.

I think I’ll just watch the Oscars on TV.

*I only found out later that the conversation I overheard Ja Rule having was about the ill-fated Fyre Festival, which ended in cancellation and the arrest of co-organiser Billy McFarland, who was then charged with wire fraud. 

Stay

Grafton On Sunset (8462 W Sunset Blvd; graftononsunset.com; rooms from $209/€198)

Ranch at Laguna Beach (S, 31106 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach; theranchlb.com; rooms from $349/€330)

Eat

Tower Bar @ Sunset Tower Hotel (8358 W Sunset Blvd; sunsettowerhotel.com; mains $32-52)

Do

Kinara Skin Care Clinic and Spa (656 N Robertson Blvd; olgalorencinskincare.com; treatment $180)

Felix in Hollywood Tour (felixinhollywoodtours.com; $40)

Getting There

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct to Los Angeles from Dublin daily from €237 each way

For More Info

Check out visitcalifornia.co.uk and visitwesthollywood.com

 

Miami Nice

Miami Skyline - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Miami Skyline - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

This piece appeared in the Feb/Mar issue of Cara Magazine

If Louis XIV were alive today, he’d holiday in Miami. The Magic City’s spell-binding mix of beauty and bacchanal is so intoxicating that it proved a ‘perilous attraction’ to Joan Didion and had Will Smith partying on the beach until the break of dawn. Miami’s multiple moods – supermodel glitz on Lincoln Road, defiant nostalgia in Little Havana, transgressive creativity in Wynwood – express themselves against one of America’s sexiest backdrops, a movie set of teal waters, white-sand beaches and blood-orange sunsets.

Most Miami Cubans may have outgrown Little Havana, but the sounds and scents of the barrio haven’t changed: the hum of salsa pouring out of the bodegas along Calle Ocho (8th St) and the sweet waft of cigar smoke around the old men playing dominos and cursing Castro’s memory in Máximo Gómez Park.

To the north, the Design District drips in art galleries and high end boutiques where even a memento of local chic can cost you thousands. But for real Miami opulence head down toward Coconut Grove and take a wander around the ornate Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (vizcaya.org), an Italianate villa built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering as a fitting residence for him and his extraordinary collection of art from the Renaissance onwards.

Super stylish, wonderfully offbeat and even sordid in parts, South Beach (SoBe) is the Miami stereotype come to life. Five-star hotels and designer boutiques sit side-by-side with grungy tattoo parlours and dingy dive bars. Along Ocean Drive bronzed beauties slip out of soft-top Ferraris to strut their stuff, barely noticing the beach bum rearranging his worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley. This is the Miami of the movies: of perfect skies and pastel-hued art deco palaces, of rollerblading families gliding through South Pointe Park, of pensioners in velvet leisurewear soaking up the sunshine of their retirements.

The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

Start your night with a cocktail in one of America’s best bars, the Broken Shaker (freehandhotels.com/miami/broken-shaker/) in the backyard of the Freehand Hotel (see ‘Sleep At’) and end it the following morning with a French loaf stuffed with goodies from the walk-up counter of La Sandwicherie (lasandwicherie.com) brings me back to life. For something more substantial – and a finger-lickin’ reminder that Miami is still in the south – try the soul food in Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (runchickenrun.com), across the peninsula in a converted grocery store.

Should you need respite from the city’s multiple charms, the southern end of Biscayne Bay is where you’ll find Stiltsville (stiltsville.org), a cluster of wooden shacks on pilings that over the years has served as a gamblers’ den, a smugglers’ haven and a bikini club with low morals and a high-class clientele. The Sun King would surely have approved.

Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Sleep At

Hipster A minimalist makeover to an Art Deco classic has resulted in the Freehand Hotel, a favourite with budget travellers who have a choice between a bungalow, suite or quad dorm. And, for everyone, the city’s coolest backyard bar for killer cocktails. Beds from $120. (2727 Indian Creek Dr, +1 305 531 2727, freehandhotels.com)

Rat Pack The Redbury embraces the shiny chic of the 1950s and the psychedelic wow of the 1960s: through the Georgia-peach doors are the paisley wallpapered rooms, all of which have working record players – so you can play the collection of LPs by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Rooms from $200. (1776 Collins Ave, +1 305 604 1776, theredbury.com)

Fabulous Gold columns, huge allegorical murals and artwork by Koons and Hirst on permanent display, the minimalism-be-damned opulence of the Faena Hotel is the vision of Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin. Together, they’ve given us the hotel version of Oz, complete with a swanky rooftop pool. Rooms from $420. (3201 Collins Ave, +1 305 534 8800, faena.com)

Smart Tips

Miami Moca Not coffee, but modern art: the Museum of Contemporary Art has avant garde exhibitions by big names, artist-led lectures and, on the last Friday of the month, jazz concerts for everyone. mocanomi.org