AT NIGHT, from the rooftop bar of the Erwin Hotel in Venice, Los Angeles, I could see the lights of the Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica pier sparkling in the distance.
Those lights represented a part of the world I had wanted to explore for 20 years. Despite having travelled widely - from Africa to the Middle East, and Europe to the South Pacific - the Californian coast has always held a fascination for me.
Blame it on the Jim Morrison and Doors phase in my early 20s, but Venice Beach, with its eccentric boardwalk and cosmic stalls, with Santa Monica and the walk between the two, has always seemed the epitome of cool. But I had never got close to this personal Shangri-La. Until now.
As I stood on the roof of this quirky little hotel, I knew what I had to do. The party was in full swing. Ian, the wanderer of the group, had emerged with an eclectic group of people in tow and everyone was in party mode. "We're in LA on a Friday night, let's go out," he said. "You can't go to bed."
I was tempted. The thought of going to the Whiskey A Go Go bar on Sunset Boulevard - the launch pad of The Doors - appealed greatly.
But I knew that I would regret it if I did not get a good night's sleep, wake up early and explore. You see, I was flying home the next night, so I had just a day to live my dream.
At 6am I was out of bed. I peered out of the window to see a grey dawn. Where was the sunny Los Angeles skyline? It did not exist at that time of the morning and, after a 500m walk to the Venice beachfront, I realised neither did the romantic image I had in my head.
Stretched out on the white sands of California was a group of rough sleepers, either still asleep or in various stages of the ablution process. One surprisingly hygienic tramp was brushing his teeth. Hardly what I was expecting.
But as I walked, I realised that the human landscape was evolving. The weary tramps and early-rising Venice-boardwalk stallholders were soon replaced by enthusiastic walkers, talkative joggers and Tamaki Drive-like, lycra-clad cyclists.
The golden sands and clean, pure lines of the beach were exactly as I had imagined. There was even the Los Angeles County Lifeguard station, complete with Baywatch tower and yellow 4X4. I half expected Pamela Anderson to saunter past.
At that early hour, Santa Monica pier was still grey and subdued, like an all-night reveller struggling to come to terms with the morning light. I hadn't realised how huge it was; big enough to house the Pacific Park amusement park, numerous stalls and a fairly big carpark, and clearly big enough to host quite a party when the day warmed up.
By the time I got back to Venice Beach, things had changed even more. The lazy, languid air of 6.30am had been replaced by bustling energy as stallholders put the finishing touches to their wares. I walked past them to the beach itself, as I wanted to swim in the Pacific Ocean from the other side. Then I reluctantly forced myself back to the hotel to pack.
When I re-emerged on the boardwalk near noon, the place was alive. Thousands of people sauntered past a vast array of stalls, small shops and weird sideshows.
On the far end was the famous Muscle Beach, with some rather large, muscle-bound men working out, while further along was the basketball court depicted in the Woody Harrelson movie White Men Can't Jump.
But it was the boardwalk where most of the crowds were enjoying this noisy, colourful, bizarre bazaar. Strange men (who looked suspiciously like some of the rough sleepers from earlier) were holding signs offering punters the chance to "Kick my ass for $1" or "Let me rave at you for a $1".
I happened to catch the raver mid-performance and he was very impressive but, unfortunately, ass-kicking had to wait for another day. I wasn't tempted and neither, it seemed, was anyone else. It may have had something to do with the slightly demented look on the ass-kicker's face.
Herbal therapies, bead necklaces and mats were among the vast array of items on sale. Also for sale, for the sick or not so sick, was marijuana - but strictly for medicinal purposes.
Another attraction was the Venice Beach Freakshow: for $5 you could go into a shabby little building and see the famous Wolfboy, two-headed turtles, five-legged dog, Electric Lady and other oddities. Walking past it, I felt a tinge of sadness for the confused turtle and hirsute human werewolf.
By now the greyness had been replaced by the blue sky and sunshine of California Dreamin'. Elton John's Tiny Dancer, probably the most LA of songs, came on the radio and, for that blissful moment, the California I had dreamed of 20 years before was all around me.
Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Los Angeles.
For more information on visiting California click here.
Andrew Austin visited Los Angeles courtesy of Air New Zealand, Grabaseat and the California Travel and Tourism Commission.