Correspondents’ Picks: Los Angeles

People tell me all the time how much they hate L.A. When I ask why, they cite our unsightly urban sprawl and a lack of culture. I can't deny we spend too many hours on clogged freeways. But a lack of culture? To these people, I say, come see the Los Angeles I know, where culture comes in unexpected ways. Oh yeah, and while the Midwest and East Coast are still braving ice storms, we here in Southern California are dining al fresco and sailing along the coast under cloudless skies.

Stay: Live like a rock star at the Hotel Bel-Air (, where a typical day on the sun-mottled patio restaurant brings sightings of real rock stars, legends like Nancy Reagan and international glitterati. Bungalows with private patios and French country furnishings are tucked among the über-verdant foliage and old-growth trees in this exclusive residential Bel-Air neighborhood. Rates from $395.

The Huntley Hotel ( in Santa Monica towers over the Pacific with views of the landmark Santa Monica Pier and its rainbow-colored Ferris wheel. Rooms were recently renovated in midcentury swank but with modern touches like flat-screen TVs and marble baths. One of the city's hottest hotel bars, the Penthouse, sparks a party each night 18 floors above the coastline with views that do it justice. Rates from $350.

Eats: The vaunted Michelin guide recently bestowed a star on Ortolan (, an opulent and exquisite restaurant serving modern French fare by superchef Christophe Eme. The cream-colored dining room, with its deeply tufted banquettes, wide-plank oak floors and array of crystal chandeliers is intimate and romantic, and oh-so-beyond the typical L.A. scene--even though it's in the heart of West Hollywood. Try my favorite, the roasted monkfish with chorizo, lemon confit, artichoke and baby arugula for $39.

Don't be put off by the beauty crowd that gathers daily for a seat at Il Pastaio (, Beverly Hills's most popular outdoor trattoria. Angelinos don't flock here for the people-watching (though it's formidable) but the food: tender pastas, flavorful risottos and the best panna cotta on Earth. Get here before noon or be prepared to wait at least an hour.

Float: Learn to sail, kayak, row or windsurf at the UCLA Marina Aquatic Center (e-mail: in Marina del Rey. Or, if you already know how, just rent a boat for the afternoon. There are group, private and kids' lessons. And at the end of the day, bring something to barbeque on the beach as you watch the sun set.

Gaze: Recently reopened after a five-year renovation, the Griffith Park Observatory ( is one of the city's most enchanting public buildings. Opened in 1935, it is a pristine example of the art deco architecture that flourished in Hollywood's halcyon years. On clear nights, the observatory's original 12-inch Zeiss telescope is open for visitors to take a peek into the heavens. Check the Web site for stargazing schedules and astronomy lectures.

The nation's largest collection of camellia bushes--34,000 of them--are in bloom now through May at Descanso Gardens ( Once an old-growth oak forest, the 150-acre park still has scores of the shady California Live Oaks, as well as meandering paths that wind through incredibly colorful flowering bushes. It's an ideal spot to enjoy the springtime California sun.

Pony Up: Go horseback riding in the hills near the historic Hollywood sign and take in views that stretch from Dodger Stadium to the Pacific Ocean at Sunset Ranch ( Rides start at $25 for an hour but the Sunset Dinner Ride, a four-hour trip to a nearby Mexican restaurant, is a steal at $75 per person (not including food.)

Cruise: Visit Segway of Los Angeles ( and see the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice the way locals do. Hop on an easy-to-maneuver Segway and ride the bike strand that takes you past palm tree-studded "Muscle Beach," the Santa Monica pier and thousands of toned and tanned bods: $75 for a two-hour tour. Sunblock not included.

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