California’s Two Sides: Beach Life Vs High Life

[Image: Visit California]

Aaah, California.

The Golden State is - according to Katy Perry in her song California Gurls - ‘a place where the grass is really greener’.

With some 840 miles of coastline facing the Pacific and world-class waves, it’s a surfer’s paradise.

Yet it’s also the home of Hollywood, and that brings with it a string of fast-paced, glitzy cities, dripping with celebrities.

But are these two sides - surfer chick and city chic - so different that they make California a dis-United State? Or are they really just facets of the same overall mindset?

I board an Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles, to spend five days exploring Huntington Beach and West Hollywood to compare the beach life to the high life.


In a nutshell, Huntington Beach - aka Surf City USA - is a small surf community, 38 miles south of LA, full of laid-back beaches and cool vibes.

Backed by the Pacific Highway and hills beyond, it’s part of Orange County (The OC was filmed just a few miles away at Newport Beach).

Surfing is the main draw - it has one of the most consistent breaks in California and hosts the annual US Open of Surfing.

There’s everything from a Walk of Fame to a museum and even a monument called Surf Henge dedicated to the sport.

The town is like a Californian version of Newquay - sidewalks are lined with palm trees, shops sell surf gear and surfers cycle with boards under one arm.

The ten miles of beaches are dotted with bronzed lifeguards and volleyball nets and are bathed in that heart-lifting California light.

Just 90 minutes away, West Hollywood - or WeHo - couldn’t be more different.

Yes, it has the same palm trees lining roads, but they somehow seem taller and more immaculately laid-out.

Sandwiched between Hollywood to the east and the lofty heights of Beverly Hills to the west, this is where LA schmoozes and parties.

The Oscars ceremonies may take place in Hollywood proper, but the post-show bashes are held here and there are trendy lounges, wild gay bars and exclusive clubs on every block.

By day, it’s all about lunch al fresco, pool time and shopping (Melrose Avenue is the key shopping street). 

By night it’s about fun, neon and nightlife.

And while Sandra Bullock once had a beach house in Huntington Beach, WeHo boasts famous past and present residents including Johnny Depp, Mila Kunis and Marilyn Monroe.


One morning I try my first Hollywood fitness class at Rise Nation, a gym located five minutes from the hotel, The Mondrian.

Raining sweat, I struggle to lift my feet and arms on the ‘versaclimber’, a vertical machine designed to simulate climbing and said to burn up to 800 calories in 30 minutes.

Founded by trainer to the stars Jason Walsh, the class has a big celebrity fan base, with Jennifer Aniston and Justin Timberlake reportedly keen on it.

And as I clamber onto my machine and begin ‘climbing’ to Beyonce’s Love On Top, the actress Hilary Duff, pink-faced but pretty as ever, walks out after her half-hour session.

Working out with the stars comes in a different form at Huntington Beach.  

I spend a morning on a stand-up paddle board with Rocky McKinnon, a local professional surfer and board shaper, at Huntington Harbour.

“In coastal communities like this, everyone wants to look good and be active,” he says, as we float along the tranquil water, lined with gleaming yachts and houses.

“It’s easy to exercise outside - whether it’s surfing or running - because the weather’s so good all year round. That’s why everyone wants to live in California.”

Jordan Batha, a yoga instructor at Toes on the Nose, moved to Huntington Beach from Hawaii for it’s mixture of mountains, beach and tropics.

“It’s got everything,” she says as we roll out our mats on the sand for a morning session of beach yoga, opposite the Hyatt Regency Hotel where I’m staying.

“My grandma was a yogi in California. She used to grow organic kiwis and inspired me to lead a healthy life.”

We spot a dolphin in the sea, then start the class, stretching into downward dog, sinking into a warrior pose lying on our backs for ab-burning crunches.

“Listen to the beautiful waves and feel the sun on your face,” Jordan breathes. “It’s early so we may as well work out, right?”

It’s an ethos that runs deep in Huntington Beach, where people surf, jog, cycle and walk along the beach from dawn until dusk, making the most of their outdoor, natural gym.

In West Hollywood, people are just as keen on working out and being healthy (I spent $12 on a super-good-for-you green juice after Rise Nation, so you pay for it).

You still see people in Lycra, just as you do at Huntington Beach, but in WeHo they are generally walking to an indoor class, rather than sweating it out in the open.


California eats well.

The influence from Mexico means Mexican and Spanish-origin dishes are popular.

At Duke’s, overlooking Huntington Beach, I tuck into delicious, fresh poke tacos, as well as slabs of brightly-coloured sashimi.

The restaurant has a Hawaiian beach feel, with upturned canoes on the ceiling, staff wearing floral print and potent Mai Tais served in a glass goblet shaped like a Tikiman.

So how do you cap off an evening in Surf City USA?

With a bonfire on the beach (one of the only places in the state it’s allowed) and toasted s’mores -  the American campfire classic of roasted marshmallows and melted Hershey’s bar sandwiched between biscuits.

In West Hollywood, I have lunch at Gracias Madre, a Mexican restaurant where Beyonce and Jay-Z eat when they’re in town.

It uses vegan ingredients - but I can’t tell as I polish off corn tacos topped with creamy sauce and cheese, both made from cashew nuts.

And at around $8 for mains, a meal surrounded by celebs doesn’t have to break the bank.

For dinner, I head to EP/LP - an Asian restaurant with a rooftop bar - and bump into Gerard Butler, also walking in.

It turns out Gerard has good taste - the menu is a fine-dining combination of Thai, Chinese, Fijian and Vietnamese influences, and the atmosphere is buzzing.

Standout dishes include the short ribs, scallop and mussel curry and the baby greenly abalone, and the tasting menus range from $60-$100.

After dinner, I head up to the rooftop bar - Gerard has already left, but the twinkling lights and silhouette of the Hollywood hills have a star quality all of their own.

For a more laid-back, but equally as tasty, dinner, Eveleigh on Sunset Boulevard has an outdoor terrace and serves a mean mojito.

A waitress lays down the live whole sea urchin dish in front of me.

It’s not alive anymore and the edible parts (which feel like soufflé but taste like the sea) have been put onto the plate, but she wants to prove how fresh it is.

“Want to see it move?” she asks, before squeezing lemon onto the black spikes, causing them to sway gently. “Now that’s fresh.”

Forget s’mores on the beach - after dinner, West Hollywood parties.

At gay club The Abbey, topless male dancers sway on the bars, lit up by neon blue lights and mesmerising the crowd - both male and female.

And if you find your way through an underground car park to Blind Dragon, you’ll discover a cool, red-lit speakeasy with a photo booth and karaoke room to boot.

So it’s with a sore head - and heavy heart - that I leave California.

Luckily, the award-winning Star Alliance Lounge at LAX Airport, managed by Air New Zealand, is just the place to raise my spirits again.

It has an open-air terrace, water wall and views towards the Hollywood Hills - almost like being back in a West Hollywood rooftop bar.

Yes, California has both surfer and the glamorous sides to it.

And although they are completely different on the surface, deep down they are, in fact, pretty similar; both are filled with people who want to look and feel good, whether it’s for the satisfaction of catching a decent wave or of getting their poolside chic just right.

It makes it even better that you can access both in just under an hour.

Sipping a Kir Royal before boarding, I realise that Katy Perry had a point.

In California, the grass really is greener.


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