The End Of The World Came To Bombay Beach A Long Time Ago


Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.

Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.

In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up on its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to periodically endanger the fish life.

Although boating is still popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.

Turn off the highway, past the sun-parched Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.

It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the mortician to bury her dead chimpanzee.

At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly pulled into the earth, the salt eating away and almost devouring everything.

The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than this, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, get back in their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.

My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.

Words and photos © David Latta

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How To Survive The World’s Great Cities


There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.

On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.

The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.

The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.

I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.

Harry's New York Bar, Paris

I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.

In the 2nd arrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.

In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.

So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.

Le Deux Magots

Words and photos © David Latta

Tim Burton’s Shock Corridors At LACMA


The recently-opened career retrospective accorded film director Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn mixed reviews but the adoration of his fans is just as dangerously entrapping as the goo that snared dinosaurs millions of years ago in the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.

From the opening day, Burton’s legions of admirers have flocked to LACMA clothed in the off-kilter aesthetics of his characters. Burton has always had a thirst for the visually spellbinding, from Beetlejuice (1988) and his revolutionary re-imagining of the Batman mythos to the culturally merciless, almost Andrew Lang-like fairy stories of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003), and the electroconvulsive short-circuiting of traditional Hollywood fodder in Planet Of The Apes (2001) and Alice In Wonderland (2010).

I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of Burton but will religiously line up on opening day for each new film. Burton is all technicolourful style and movement, bright and shiny and just as long lasting as one of Willy Wonka’s confections. What he brings to the screen, a reawakening of expressionism and the gothic sensibility, he neglects in his characters; I haven’t been emotionally connected to a Tim Burton character since Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, crack the chest of Burton’s films and all you find is a mechanical heart.

It’s all blue screen and CGI and motion capture. Burton’s is a closed universe with little room for an aesthetic to wander around unhindered. Compare this with a director such as Tarantino where, the more you watch, the more minor details emerge from the busy canvas and take on a life of their own.

That’s not to say his films are entirely unsatisfying. I’m a rabid supporter of movies that almost just not-quite realise their full potential, the coulda been, shoulda been masterpieces.

The Gotham City of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) was a dystopian wonderland, hemorrhaging from the ravaged heart of its own citizenry; it was a cityscape that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t improve upon. The main problem was Michael Keaton’s Batman, whose pursed lips were his only semaphore for emotional agony.

Alice In Wonderland was gorgeous to look at and packed with great actors but the sum of their talent was wasted by a script that allowed them little more than the opportunity to turn up in flamboyant costumes.

The simian Statue of Liberty in the original Planet Of The Apes made more sense and had significantly more shock value than Burton’s Ape-raham Lincoln twist ending.

Far more interesting are his early films. Ed Wood (1994) was the one instance where Burton didn’t scatter his expressionistic bag of tricks across the screen like a cinematic Jackson Pollock and hope for the best. In this affectionate tribute to the 1950s schlock director, he was understated, even muted. Shot in black and white, it had the effect of reigning in a visual delinquency that would become a regurgitated motif in later years.

The Tim Burton retrospective was originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 and travelled to Melbourne’s Australian Centre For The Moving Image the following year. It runs at LACMA until 31 October 2011.

Words © David Latta

Recollections Of The Riot House


It’s said that you can never go home and, when it comes to Los Angeles history, it may well be the case. I get a certain sense of melancholy whenever I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard and I pass the Andaz West Hollywood for I both knew it in a previous life and know of it because it is one of rock music’s most famed and infamous locations.

The hotel originally opened in 1963 as the Gene Autry Hotel, owned by the Singing Cowboy of film and recording fame. Autry didn’t retain the hotel for long, selling it in 1966 at which time it was renamed the Continental Hyatt House. Over the next 30 years, it changed names to the Hyatt On Sunset and, later, the Hyatt West Hollywood. From the 60s, though, it had already started its sordid journey to musical Valhalla by way of the Twilight Zone.

It became the hotel of choice for touring rock bands, known as the Riot House to those in the know. Many of the truly extraordinary stories that developed are equal parts hard truth and colourful myth; separating one from the other is almost impossible these days as even those who were there were so mentally splayed by drink, drugs and excessive partying that they have only a nodding acquaintance with the reality. Like so much of popular culture, it’s often a matter of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

The Lizard King, the original rock’n’roll God known to mortals as Jim Morrison, slithered into the Hyatt in the 60s at the height of his unearthly powers. After months of excess, he was finally evicted after hanging from a top floor balcony by his fingertips.

In the 70s, it was the turn of such superstar acts as the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Whether it was the Who’s unhinged drummer, Keith Moon, or the Stone’s pharmaceutically-challenged Keith Richards who first became bored enough to start redesigning the décor isn’t recorded but throwing televisions out hotel windows soon became a popular activity for rock musicians.

At the height of their fame in the 70s, Led Zeppelin would block-book up to six floors at a time. In scenes that would make Fellini’s Satyricon look like a Wiggles video, the band would drag race motorcycles in the hallways, trash their rooms and generally do things their mothers would never approve of.

I stayed there quite a few times in the 90s and clearly remember running into Little Richard, by that time a long-term resident. Despite being in his late 60s, I was always amazed to notice he had the complexion of a 30-year-old.

Across the road is the House of Blues, the restaurant and live music venue originally co-owned by actor Dan Ackroyd. It was there I had one of my most memorable brushes with fame. I’d spent the previous few days on hotel inspections throughout West Hollywood and had been invited to dinner at the House of Blues. Afterwards, I was in the top floor private members’ club having a drink when I noticed a man at the bar who seemed familiar. Not being able to place him but thinking he was one of the many hotel executives I’d talked to, I wander over for a chat.

After about half an hour of animated conversation, I said goodnight and went back to my hotel. In the middle of night, I woke up and realised I’d been discussing convention room measurements with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees.

The Hyatt On Sunset had a makeover a couple of years ago. The Andaz, aside from sounding like a Louisiana sausage, now resembles just about every other boutique hotel ever opened. The balconies have been glassed in, the furnishings are plushly luxurious, there are duvets and widescreen TVs and designer toiletries and you could easily wake up and wonder where in the world you are.

Management probably has a policy these days against racing motorcycles in the hallways and you can undoubtedly pitch a tent on the sidewalk and not have a television drop on your head. In all, the neighbourhood has gone to hell. Keith Richards probably wouldn’t recognise the place but, then again, is there anything he does recognise?

Photo courtesy of Hyatt Hotels

Words © David Latta

Lost In Transliteration


The first time it happened to me, it was quite amusing. But it continued, in varying ways, and years down the track it was sadly apparent that many Americans don’t have a clue about the outside world. And as much as we Australians think we’re internationally renowned, the sad truth is we’re often mistaken for other nations.

On the first night of my very first visit to the United States, I was staying at the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport (now the Four Points by Sheraton). In the coffee shop, a waitress remarked on my “cute” accent and asked where I was from. When I replied “Australia”, she immediately became excited. “That’s such a coincidence”, she replied in awe. “My favourite movie is the Sound of Music.”

By the time I’d fashioned a reply about kangaroos being in short supply as they continually fell to their deaths from the Alps, she was long gone.

Years later, in New Orleans, my wife and I were browsing a department store when, in the perfume department, we were served by a well-dressed and presumably well-educated young man who remarked on our accents and asked where we were from. When we said “Australia”, he started telling us how much he enjoyed our country on a recent visit, how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were.

We asked which city he enjoyed the most. He hesitated for a moment, staring into the middle distance to summon his thoughts while adjusting the impeccably-arranged double Windsor knot of his tie. Then he looked me straight in the eye and without, I surmised, any hint of irony, said, “Salzburg”. Not wanting to be rude, I wandered off to an adjoining department before I started choking from laughter.

In a mid-town deli in New York, we were seated next to an elderly local couple who, it seemed, had been avidly listening to our conversation. As our desserts arrived, the woman leaned across to us and asked whether we were enjoying our stay. So ensued a long chat. After several minutes, she remarked to her companion, sotto voce, so that barely half the room could hear, “They speak very good English, don’t they?”

We played it as straight as we could without spilling our beverages. As we were preparing to leave, there was one more question that our friend was obviously burning to ask. “When you’re at home in your own country,” she asked, wide-eyed and completely innocent, “do you wear clothes like we do?”

Later, of course, far too late to make any difference, I came up with the perfect rejoinder. If I had been more quick-witted, I would have replied, “If I’m going somewhere special, I’ll wear an Armani jacket over my lap-lap.”

A regular visitor to the United States will know that, despite their vast news-gathering ambitions, most Americans only know other countries from wars and natural disasters. There’s so much happening within their own borders, even 24-hour news channels like CNN have difficulty keeping up.

Instead, it seems, Americans gather their world-view from the movies. This wasn’t a bad thing when Crocodile Dundee was current. Australians, they might have surmised, were sturdy outdoor types who wrestled crocodiles for entertainment. Later, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert confused things entirely: did Australian men dress crocodiles in women’s clothes before wrestling them or did they themselves don frocks before wading into the nearest billabong in search of reptilian adventure?

As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the Australia-Austria confusion is something of a two-way strasse. In the old town district of Salzburg, I once came across a souvenir stand that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the outline of a kangaroo, much like the old Qantas logo, within a circle with a diagonal slash across it. Austria, the T-shirt warned, We Don’t Have Kangaroos.

I can only wonder whether the occasional American tourist passes up the Sound of Music tour and instead spends his time searching for Steve Irwin.

Words and photos © David Latta

Universal Appeal: The VIP Experience At Universal Studios Hollywood


Amidst the theme park rides, thronging tourists and assorted hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Universal Studios in Los Angeles is a working film studio and has been since the earliest days of movie-making. In 1915, German immigrant Carl Laemmle, who had spun a career as a bookkeeper into a thriving nickelodeon and silent film distribution business, opened a film studio in Los Angeles.

Ever the self-promoter, Laemmle gathered a crowd of 15,000 to celebrate the event on 50 hectares of land he had purchased for $US165,000 in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. So was born Universal Studios, which went on to produce some of the most iconic movies the world has ever seen. From the first days of operation, Universal invited fans onto their sets and it quickly became a must-see attraction.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Universal Studios continues to give the star-struck public an insider’s view of the movie-making process. The modern period of tourism began in 1964, when pink and white tramcars whisked visitors through the backlots. To handle the increasing numbers, some years back Universal extended the general admission policy (which had begun to see long queues at the various rides and attractions), into a three-tier system.

The first is general admission, the second is general admission with front-of-line privileges which takes visitors to the front of any queues at any attraction and reserved seating at any show. The third is the VIP Experience. Current pricing from the Universal Studios website (and keep in mind that discounts on these packages are widely available) is: General Admission – $US74.00. Front Of Line – $US139.00. VIP Experience – $US259.00.

Investors Wait For Their Returns From Waterworld

The VIP Experience is the ultimate and is available to only a limited number of guests each day. During my recent visit, the  majority of customers were Australian, taking advantage of the Pacific Peso’s above-parity exchange rate. In the comfortably-appointed VIP Lounge, guests milled about waiting for their guide while drinks and snacks were served. The first half of the day was taken up with rides, shows and attractions then it was lunch at a private dining room before boarding a small trolley car for the backlot and studios tour.

You have to feel sorry for those with general admission tickets who only get a 45-minute dazzle through the backlot. The VIP Tour lasts two-and-a-half hours with, among other things, a visit to a working sound stage (on this day, it was the chance to wander through the house from the television’s Parenthood) and unhindered access to an outdoor set left over from the 2005 Steven Spielberg-directed remake of War Of The Worlds. It was bizarre to say the least to wander through the smoking remains of a massive 747 that had crashed (at least on film) into a suburban streetscape, crushing everything in its path. But, as they say in Hollywood, that’s showbiz!

The highlight for this committed film buff and widely-pitied celluloid bore, however, was time spent in the prop warehouse. Ranging over several floors, the collection has everything needed to dress any film set. From ordinary glass vases to 1930s food packets, from tiki trinkets to authentic-looking human skeletons, each and every item has a film provenance that most likely goes back decades.

As an active eBayer, I couldn’t help speculating what some of the smaller, more easily-transportable items might be worth with a Universal Studios imprimatur. Only my highly-refined sense of honour, along with the fear of getting busted, prevented me from finding out.

There’s A Bear In There

So, at the end of a long day, is the VIP Experience worth $US259? The rule of thumb, when it comes to travel journalism, is – would I pay to do it again? In this case, I’d have to say yes.

Universal Studios in Hollywood isn’t just a do-it-once-and-never-have-to-do-it-again tourist trap. It changes on each visit and the VIP Experience is the best way to do it. And it sure is fun to by-pass the crowds to the head of the long queues just like you’re a close personal friend of Carl Laemmle himself.

NOTE: In the interests of tranparency, I flew to the US with Air Pacific via Fiji and stayed at the W Hotel Hollywood.

Words and photos © David Latta

It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish


Welcome to my world.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a professional traveller for more than 20 years. By professional, I mean I’ve been paid (poorly, as is the way with the Australian travel media) to travel (widely and often).

They have been the best of times and, occasionally, the worst of times. Lots of adventures and even more surprises. The point of this blog is to showcase some of the things that never make it into my articles. It could be said I have wide-ranging interests: film (new and old); books (mainly old); music (don’t get me started); classic cars, particularly Cadillacs; architecture and design of most periods, although I have a fondness for mid-20th century; and the stylish and beautiful in all things.

Quirky and wonderful things catch my eye and make me linger. We all travel for different reasons. I can be in Paris a dozen times and never see the same thing twice, although I always end up scouring the massive antique markets at the end of the Porte de Clignancourt metro line. I’ve never been inside the Louvre but I love the sewer museum at the Quai d’Orsay. One man’s meat, as it were.

I love big cities, whether they be New York, Los Angeles, Cape Town or Shanghai. Scenery tends to drive me spare. I was once in Yellowstone National Park in a freezing drizzle, attempting to spot bear in the far distance. I think I said at the time, only half jokingly, that all the place needed was a Wal-Mart and I’d be happy although I would have settled for a 7-Eleven. Not long after, I was in Spotted Horse. On a good day, it has a population of two although there was no-one around when I arrived so the roadhouse is a place I must return to someday.

Hope you enjoy my blog.

Oh, and by the way, as so many people seem to Google this, if the term It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish seems familiar, it’s certainly not because of the real reason. It’s a song. A show tune, actually. From a musical not many people paid attention to at the time and certainly, outside of Broadway tragics, nobody remembers anymore. It came from Seesaw, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman and book by Michael Bennett. It opened on Broadway in 1973, after a torturous out-of-town try-out that saw the original book thrown out, along with the director and star, Coleman and Fields reworking the musical numbers and Bennett creating a new book with the help of Neil Simon. It was at this rebirth that It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish was added. Interestingly, it was a song that Coleman and Fields had in their bottom drawer from some years, originally intended for an unproduced musical on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Back in the 1970s, I worked at a fashionable nightclub in Sydney that had the most elaborate drag shows. One of the shows concluded with this song and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Words and photos © David Latta