PASSING TIME IN PASADENA
Forget LA, Pasadena is the place to be.discovers the intrinsic pleasures of this charming island of quaint suburbia
TEN-PLUS HOURS on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco and I’ve seen all I need to see of scenic California. Give me my hotel room.
The clock is creeping towards 1am, Pacific Daylight Time, and the trusty GPS leads our rental car down the quiet, organised streets of Pasadena to The Langham Huntington. Space in California isn’t the same as space in Hong Kong, but even in pitch dark, even with the prior knowledge that this property stretches across nine hectares of grass and concrete, the hotel is something to behold. At check-in – a pleasantly efficient affair considering the hour we arrive – we’re handed a map, which includes directions to the correct bank of elevators (there are several, you see). Not the GPS to which we’ve become accustomed, but necessary indeed. Following the dotted line, we navigate the labyrinthine corridors, passing the picturesque courtyard and The Royce restaurant to arrive at the lifts that take us up to our room on the executive floor.
The room is outfitted in muted golds accented with pink, the Langham corporate colour and a great antidote to the palette of boring-slash-soothing, inoffensive neutrals that most hotels choose. It’s compact, in the grand scheme of the hotel, but outfitted with the necessities: comfy couch, windows (that open, hallelujah!) overlooking an expanse of garden greenery, TV, minibar and, most importantly, a king-sized bed, fluffy enough in comparison to the front passenger seat of the Avis rental to lull me into pleasant, instant slumber.
By the light of day, we discover the real reason to tack an extra 30 minutes onto the 13-hour drive. For most of the world, LA is where it’s at, the hub of celebrity and associated happenings. I’ll tell you here, it’s all hype. Hollywood is dirty, crowded and so tourist-laden that you’re more likely to see hometown Hongkongers than silver-screen legends. Pasadena, on the other hand, is civilised, charming and altogether much more classy. And, well, also filled with Hongkongers, but most of them have been living here for a while (the Asian invasion is prominent in California, and particularly in this part of the state).
But before traipsing into town to unveil the city’s little surprises, there’s breakfast to be had – free breakfast, down the hall in the executive lounge, which truly makes the cost of a room upgrade worthwhile. Before you even reach the lounge, there’s jars of candies and cookies to greet you, towering glass vessels brimming with Reese’s Pieces, Hershey’s Kisses and homemade oatmeal raisin or white-chocolate-chip cookies of such perfect sweetness and consistency that they demand to be hidden away in paper napkins, smuggled into my handbag for later consumption. The buffet spread is lean but mean: typical breakfast bites such as smoked salmon and toast fall by the wayside in favour of delights like mini breakfast burritos and blintzes exploding with raspberry and cottage cheese. The fact that there’s so much goodness to be had here means that there’s almost no reason to visit the hotel’s other restaurants – almost. The Royce’s New American cuisine is renowned both within and beyond Pasadena, with dishes such as roasted guinea hen with domestic caviar au jus and poached and pan roasted kinki (rockfish) fillet with curry-scented artichoke, baby fennel and fish soup, showcasing chef David Féau’s ability to transform local ingredients with French technique.
More down-to-earth pleasures are available on Sundays at The Terrace, whose jazz brunch buffet is renowned across the state. But it’s the Chocolate Afternoon Tea that’s the most sinful: a classic spread of tea sandwiches, scones, tarts, tortes and other tiny bites, with a centrepiece chocolate fountain and chocolate sculptures to enhance the atmosphere.
Outside the hotel, sweet treats are also on the menu at Pop Champagne & Dessert Bar in Pasadena’s quaint Old Town. The dimly lit venue offers exposed brick alongside crystal chandeliers, as well as happy endings such as chocolate-peanut butter crème brulée, maple-bacon crêpes and soufflés du jour. But quintessential Californians don’t load up on heavy sweets – head to Fluff Ice for the trend that’s leaving calorie-friendly Froyo in the dust: shaved snow. A stone’s throw from Pasadena, in the LA area’s unofficial second Chinatown, Monterey Park, it’s nothing fancy, but the fruit- and boba (pearl tapioca)-topped bowls certainly are popular. More presentable (and take-home-able) is ’lette’s Macarons, also in Old Town, where a Beverly Hills spin has been applied to the French favourite, imbuing it with flavours such as salted caramel and lychee.
Old Pasadena is well worth a day trip. The city’s original commercial district was once home to countless industrial giants, but also a number of historically important radicals, from Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair to Bobby Fischer and L Ron Hubbard. After a rebellious teenage period in the mid-20th century, the area was deemed a historical district and wiped clean of its graffiti and adult bookstores, to be replaced with the bastions of modern American society: Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks. Jokes aside, there’s also plenty of walking and watching to do: grab a to-go coffee at Intelligentsia and see which direction wind and whim take you; or take a seat on the patio at Villa Sorriso Ristorante & Bar and ogle passers-by.
Culture vultures looking for something a little more substantive than affluent Californians in their natural habitat should instead head to the Norton Simon Museum, named for the industrialist-cum-art collector who absorbed the debt-ridden museum’s financial and building obligations in the ’70s (it was then called the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art) in return for a name change and a place to put his 4,000-piece strong collection, purchased with the wealth he acquired from being the driving force behind the likes of Hunt’s Foods, Avis, Canada Dry and Max Factor. Following Simon’s death in 1993, Simon’s wife, the former actress Jennifer Jones (who played Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored Thing), enlisted Frank Gehry to redesign the interior galleries. A shrewd investor as well as a voracious art consumer, Simon had filled the rooms with works of art that ranged from European to Indian, from classical to contemporary. The gardens that surround the rather severe structure are almost as stunning as the works themselves.
Simon wasn’t the only industrialist to put his name to an attraction. Railroad tycoon Henry E Huntington has plenty of landmarks named after him – the cities Huntington Beach and Huntington Park, the unincorporated community Huntington Lake, and also The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, which neighbours Pasadena. In this case, the grounds really do outshine the canvasses. Almost half a square kilometer of gardens are divided by theme: a children’s garden, a Japanese and Zen garden, a rose garden, a lily pond and a desert garden are among the 14 gardens that occupy the grounds. It’s a place to take in rare species of flora, but also (for those less tickled by scrutinising plant life) a chance to recognise scenes from films – the Huntington Botanical Gardens have been used as filming locations for dozens of movies, including Memoirs of a Geisha, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra and National Treasure: Book of Secrets, where it doubled as the White House rose garden.
Speaking of roses, the thorny blossom has become something of a mascot for the city of Pasadena, its image prominently emblazoned on the Rose Bowl stadium that, come every January 1, hosts the Rose Bowl Game, a college gridiron contest between two of the season’s top teams. The tradition began in the early 1900s as a fund-raising activity to raise cash for the ostentatious Rose Parade, a showy New Year’s Day event whose nationwide broadcast has become part of American holiday tradition. There’s no real reason to be present in person for the parade (although three-quarters of a million spectators do choose to show up), and the best view of the floats comes from the small screen anyway, but there are 364 other days on which to check out the route and stadium. Take in a UCLA home game or, on the second Sunday of the month, brave the crowds for one of those all- American experiences: the Rose Bowl Flea Market.
Yes, it’s crowded. That’s the point. It’s a dizzying experience, and not one that you’d classify as luxurious by any stretch of imagination, but if the people of Pasadena can brave it, so can you. Vintage clothing, jewellery and furniture are everywhere (turn left when you enter the venue for the old stuff; don’t bother with the new), items ranging from T-shirts to used aeroplane seats. Go early, bring sunscreen and comfortable shoes, and practice bargaining – nothing’s expensive, but it’s part of the experience.
By the end of it, you’ll feel like you’ve gone to war, and come sweat-slicked out of the trenches with a trove of unique goodies you won’t find anywhere else.
At that point, drive back to The Langham Huntington, where you can either change into your swimsuit for a dip in the clear blue pool, or draw a bath and soak your muscles into happy oblivion, which is what we do. Safely ensconced in terry robes and munching on fruit-infused chocolates left for us on the coffee table the night before, we open the windows wide and gaze outwards towards the sunset. A wedding ceremony is taking place on the expansive lawn below us. As the bride glides down the aisle, Bryan Adams and Barbra Streisand’s seminally trite love anthem, “I Finally Found Someone,” begins to play and, instead of groaning, I feel genuinely, mushily happy for the couple. Just goes to show what a few days in Pasadena will do to a person.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO