Love it or hate it, Los Angeles is like something out of the movies

At night, the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood looks like the California version of Times Square. It is home to boutiques, restaurants and assorted nightspots.
At night, the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood looks like the California version of Times Square. It is home to boutiques, restaurants and assorted nightspots. MCT

LOS ANGELES — It often seems that this sunny Southern California megalopolis is the city the rest of America loves to hate.

Easterners blather on about its lack of cultural opportunities (or so they believe.) Northerners who judge a person's mettle by how far below freezing it has to get before he'll put on a coat sneer at L.A.'s endless succession of sunny, balmy days. Midwesterners, the self-proclaimed salt of the earth, think everyone who lives here is certifiable. Southerners — well, I'm not sure what Southerners find to quibble about, but there must be something.

Not this Southerner. As an unabashed admirer of the city, I think it gets a bad rap, but I can't argue with the fact that Los Angeles — as its detractors like to point out — is a jumble of neighborhoods in search of a city.

Where exactly does Hollywood become West Hollywood? Where is the dividing line between Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, and how are they different from Brentwood? Or is that Westwood? Is Santa Monica anywhere near Santa Ana?

Is Los Angeles as much state of mind as actual city?

Determined to find out, I began my odyssey in West Hollywood, which is distinctly different from Hollywood. The latter often surprises first-time visitors with its — to put it kindly — seedy appearance, but West Hollywood is hip and trendy, a glossy magazine spread of a locale.

With my walking tour map in hand, I was off to see the Wizard. It was allegedly at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the famous Sunset Strip that the idea for The Wizard of Oz movie came to fruition.

Seeking the darker side of celebrity, I stopped for a coffee at the legendary Chateau Marmont, a hotel whose famous clientele have tended a garden (Humphrey Bogart), ridden motorcycles through the lobby (members of Led Zeppelin) and met their end (John Belushi).

Earning its cachet in the 1930s and '40s as the trysting place of record for gods and goddesses of the silver screen, it remains the hostelry of choice for misbehaving Hollywood hipsters (just last month, Lindsay Lohan allegedly skipped out on $50,000 worth of charges).

Sadly, some of the Strip's former landmarks are nothing but memories. The glamorous nightclubs of Hollywood's golden era — the Mocambo and Trocadero — are gone, and all that remains of that 1950s TV address 77 Sunset Strip is a commemorative plaque. But there are enough spots left to make the stroll interesting.

The art deco-style Argyle, once an apartment building that counted Clark Gable, Howard Hughes and Marilyn Monroe among its residents, is now a hotel; the carhops at 1950s-style Mel's Diner still bring your burger, fries and shake via roller skates; and the infamous Whisky a Go Go, an anchor on the Strip since its 1964 opening, is a go-go-going.

Next stop: Santa Monica

From the hills of West Hollywood to the beaches of Santa Monica is a mere 25-minute drive, but the two are separated by light-years in terms of lifestyle.

If West Hollywood is the epitome of hip edginess, Santa Monica is the definition of laid-back casualness. Life here really is a beach — miles and miles of it — and everything in this palm-fringed community seems to focus on it.

The main drag, Ocean Avenue, parallels the Pacific, and a lovely seaside park is the backdrop for a canvas of joggers, cyclists, skaters and dog walkers, all reveling in their own version of California Dreamin'. The centerpiece of Ocean Avenue is the much-loved Santa Monica Pier. There, the thrill of a roller coaster ride is enhanced by what seems to be a near-plunge into the ocean, and the usual carny types are joined by surfer dudes and beach bunnies.

On a Sunday afternoon, the pier was bustling. Eating a pretzel dripping with mustard, I made my way along the entire length of the boardwalk, smiling at the mock terror of the coaster riders, laughing at the antics of a disco surfer and breathing in the ocean's salty air.

When I wasn't becoming part of the continuous street scene, I was watching it, comfortably ensconced in a rocking chair on the large front porch of the seaside Georgian Hotel. I was there with my coffee at daybreak and back with a glass of wine in the evening to watch the sun set. The cobalt-blue, art deco Georgian is something of a landmark along Ocean Avenue, and it has been a favorite haunt of celebrities since it opened in 1933.

Beverly Hills and beyond

Speaking of celebrities — and who isn't in Tinseltown? — Beverly Hills and the adjoining enclaves of Bel-Air and Brentwood are saturated with them, even if they are hidden behind fortresslike compounds. You're much more likely to spot them, or at least their personal shoppers, in the high-class establishments along Rodeo Drive.

They also like to hang out in two posh hotels: the oh-so-exclusive Bel-Air, nestled picturesquely in 12 acres of lush gardens, and the "Pink Palace," otherwise known as The Beverly Hills Hotel.

Wolfgang Puck presides over the Bel-Air's signature restaurant, but my spot of choice for a meal there is the sunny terrace overlooking Swan Lake. At the Beverly Hills, there is really only one place to go: the legendary Polo Lounge. In this intimate bistro, you never know who might be having dinner at the table next to you In my case, it was Christopher Plummer.

For those who think that culture refers only to yogurt in Los Angeles, a visit to the Getty Center in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains is obligatory. The J. Paul Getty Museum has four galleries situated around a courtyard and 86 acres of landscaped gardens. From its promontory, the museum commands sweeping views of the mountains, ocean and entire Los Angeles basin.

As with most great cultural centers, you could spend days at the Getty, but the museum staff has prepared an informative brochure for those who have only limited time to explore.

Clutching my copy of "If You Only Have an Hour," I was able to get to three of the four galleries, seeing Correggio's Head of Christ, Bernini's sculpture Neptune and Dolphin, Rembrandt's Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel, Van Gogh's Irises and an extravagantly decorated set of vases made for King Louis XVI of France.

Catalina Island

"Twenty six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is the place to be" go the lyrics of a popular ditty. Santa Catalina is 24 miles from the Port of Long Beach, but on a sunny California day, it is definitely the place to be.

Although nearly 90 percent of the island is a conservancy protected from development, the tiny Mediterranean-like town of Avalon, hugging the bay, offers a variety of recreational activities for day-trippers and overnighters.

You can take a jitney tour of Avalon and the surrounding area, visit the Botanical Gardens or enjoy one of the famous glass-bottom boat rides. If you do nothing else, however, take the guided tour of the art deco Casino.

Built by William Wrigley (of chewing gum fame), the white-columned rotunda overlooking the bay was never used as a casino; it was a movie palace. On the second floor, there's a ballroom where the likes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and their orchestras were Saturday night staples.

Los Angeles is a delightful concoction — from its sun-kissed beaches to its Sunset Strip — and with even a little bit of time, the savvy traveler can enjoy its myriad offerings.