California TV news correspondent Phil Lavelle tells you where - and where not - to visit in LA
Phil Lavelle is a British-born, Los Angeles-based TV news correspondent and producer - "an adopted Californian with Scouse tendencies" as he describes himself.
He's worked all over the world for major broadcasters, covering everything from conflict in the Gaza Strip and riots in Eastern Europe to the Oscars and Cannes Film Festival.
For several years he was a UK-based correspondent for BBC Breakfast, followed by a number of years as a London-based international correspondent for Al Jazeera. He's also had a spell as a news and business anchor for Sky News and most recently, he's been working as both a freelance producer and standing in as the US correspondent for Good Morning Britain.
He moved with his family to California in 2016.
How has lockdown been in LA Phil?
"Hard, but I say that with the perspective of somebody very well aware that many people have had it far worse than me. We’d not long arrived back in the US in late February 2020 after an extended trip back to the UK for family reasons at the end of last year. I had lots of work and meetings lined up and was really enthused.
And then COVID hit. Overnight, we went into lockdown: Schools closed, the work disappeared as broadcasters cut back and even the gym (my personal sanctuary) closed. Suddenly, I was at home with two children who were climbing the walls, trying to home-school them both (with very little patience) and family visits to see us were cancelled.
My partner has a full-time job, so the onus was on me to be the parent. The real challenge for me was not having any work: not just from a financial perspective, but from a mental one too. I’ve always worked: since I was a trainee reporter, aged 19. It’s in my DNA to be a newshound, getting people on-air, getting stories on-air, racing to be live on TV with every development and pitching constantly.
So being in an environment where I couldn’t do that because no broadcasters were using freelancers was equally depressing and frustrating. It’s picked up a little since, but I’m still in that bizarre position as a journalist where I am in the midst of a pandemic - literally in one of the hotspots of the world - and yet have no full-time outlet to report to.
Tell me about your neighbourhood in LA. Why did you choose it? Does it live up the stereotypes of laid-back SoCal living?
We’re in a gorgeous neighbourhood called Sherman Oaks, which is on the back edge of Bel Air as you come into the San Fernando Valley through the amazing canyons which surround Los Angeles.
We spent weeks looking at different parts of LA originally. Most Brits and expats tend to gravitate to Santa Monica or West Hollywood but not only is it massively expensive, it just felt a bit obvious to me.
Also, we had the added issue of schools. State schools in Los Angeles are not great (which is why lots of parents send their kids to private ones) so that narrowed our choice down a lot. Sherman Oaks has a few schools that are well regarded and soon as we visited, we fell in love with it.
It’s positioned right at the intersection of two major freeways which is very handy since you spend a lot of time driving here but is also really buzzy with lots of great bars, restaurants and more.
You’re just a 30-minute drive from Malibu and the beach, but also right by the mountains and the canyons which are fantastic for hiking and just spending outdoors. The downside is that being on the edge of the valley, temperatures can get hot at the height of summer (anywhere up to the low 40’s at the extreme end) but the upside is that it doesn’t get as cool as the coastal cities in the winter and there is less cloud.
Plus, we have a pool - an essential in Southern California - and as somebody who grew up under the grey clouds and drizzle of northern England, you’ll never find me complaining it’s too hot!
When you have friends or family come to stay, what are the LA “must do’s” you always take them to? Are there any "tourist-friendly but not touristy” things you’d particularly recommend to anyone who’s not been before?
Absolutely, you’ve got to do the hikes. People who have never been here before are astounded when they see what’s on offer. I think that’s because LA has this stereotype image: people assume it’s all vacuous tits-and-teeth types with no real substance, or just one real-life giant car park because of the notorious traffic.
But that’s totally not the case. It’s a major metropolis and one of the most diverse places you could go. The canyons are incredible - so I always take people for a hike in one of my favourite spots.
We have hundreds of miles of coastline that you have to visit and while most people gravitate to Venice or Santa Monica, there is so much more: Leo Carrillo beach is a lovely, quiet spot where you can just take in the ocean, watch the surfers and dolphins and not have to worry about the crowds.
Or head on south to Orange County and hit Laguna Beach which is absolutely stunning. The other place I love to head to is the small town of Ojai: it’s a very Spanish-inspired town, massively rich in art but with a gorgeous, charming style.
There’s a nice long bike path where you can park up, cycle about three miles all the way in to town, lie in a park and just listen to the musicians practising and have a coffee or a snooze. And then on the way back, hit the gorgeous coast of Santa Barbara for a mooch and a bit of ocean too.
On the other hand, are there any guide book “must dos” that actually you avoid like the plague?
Hollywood! Not the Hollywood Hills - they’re stunning if you have a spare few million - but the ground level of Hollywood leaves me feeling like I need a good shower whenever I’ve been.
It’s clearly a big draw because people want to see the Walk of Fame but it’s been so over-touristified (if that’s a word!) that it feels like it’s lost its charm. It feels like arriving in London and then just heading straight to Leicester Square: it’s packed full of souvenir shops, people pretending to be statues, actors dressed as superheroes for you to have photos taken with them and there are real issues with pickpockets and litter. It’s also massively overcrowded.
The other place I avoid like the plague is Venice. I have a love-hate relationship with Venice Beach. If you’re rich and can afford a house in the back-streets, that’s one thing. But it’s littered with the same issues as most tourist spots when you get down the boardwalk: lots of crime (both petty and more serious: I know of several people who have been attacked in broad daylight there and there is a lot of open drug-taking), litter, too many tourists and all the rest of it.
The water quality in Venice is really not great (especially after it rains and all of the water has rolled through the city’s storm drains out into the ocean) and there are a LOT of posers when you get anywhere near Muscle Beach.
Are there any other favourite LA neighbourhoods you’ve discovered? What makes them special?
I’ve been here for four years and I’m still discovering new places. LA is different to many cities in that there isn’t a centre, which takes a while to get your head around. It’s a collection of cities with their own characteristics all sitting next to each other within a county.
I love Beverly Hills and Bel Air... Just driving around them, seeing these massive mansions and dreaming of what might have been. And knowing you’re close to some of the world’s biggest stars can be kind of intoxicating.
Topanga is another favourite place - it’s an area nestled right in the Santa Monica Mountains and has a real hippy vibe: rumour has it that that’s where a lot of the LSD was taken in the sixties which led to some of the best music of that generation. When you drive through it. It’s like a totally different world with so many charming and rough-and-ready shops and cafes and restaurants tucked away in the mountains.
We really love Pasadena too: it’s a gorgeous city on the eastern side with a real Spanish feel. The houses are beautiful and the pace of life seems much slower. It has a real charm to it.
And Studio City, which is the next neighbourhood along from me. This place has a real appeal to me as somebody who works in TV: being so close to the iconic broadcast centres of CBS and NBC Universal where some of the best-known shows are - or have been - filmed is really exciting.
Can you tell me about some of your favourite eating and drinking spots in LA.
Like any major city, there’ so much to pick from. One of my favourites is sushi. I love sushi but always find in London, it’s so expensive.
But there is SO much of it here and we’re not talking fancy sushi bars that cost an arm and a leg. Small sushi restaurants on LA’s thousand of strip malls are never more than a five-minute drive away and these are real, authentic, Japanese family businesses rather than sanitised commercial and corporate affairs.
In N Out Burger is a hugely popular local chain in SoCal and there are always massive lines of traffic at all hours of the day and night. If you’re looking for something quick and tasty, it’s worth giving them a go.
Midici’s is a local pizza chain: they have a handful of restaurants dotted around LA, including near my place and their pizzas are to die for. It’s usually our Friday night treat to order one in. But even when dining in the restaurant itself, it’s an experience with the entire kitchen being fully open so you can watch them making everything while you wait.
When I want to posh it up, there are two really great restaurants that get my vote every time: one is Firefly in Studio City. The tasting menu alone is great and the atmosphere is fantastic, especially when seated outdoors (which you can do almost year-round in this climate.) It’s a very intimate affair, dimly lit with great indoor decor and you’ll often find someone famous sitting on the table next to you.
The other is AOC in Beverly Hills: it’s not cheap, but for a special occasion, it’s great. Their gin cocktails are fabulous and, again, everything about the food and ambience is spot on.
You have two children – what are some of your favourite things to do in LA with them?
The kids love going to the beach and being in SoCal, that’s something that’s very easy to do. Going to the beach is part of your identity when you live in Southern California. And failing that, just jumping in the pool keeps them happy.
There’s a great walking trail with a lake nearby called Franklin Canyon that the kids love where they can climb trees too.
Obviously, there are fantastic theme parks around: Universal Studios is on our doorstep but that’s a little old for them - so we went on our own while they were at school!
Be prepared to take out a second mortgage to visit, but it’s a great way to spend the day and even queuing for an hour for a ride is pleasant when the sun is shining and the sky is blue.
Further south in Orange County, you’ve got Disney and California Adventure Park. We’ve done the former and would recommend getting one of the priority passes (At the time, it was something like an extra $10 per person) which helps you cram more into the day.
We haven’t tried California Adventure Park yet as that’s for the older kids, but I’m definitely excited about doing that once things hopefully get back to normal.
Have you managed to explore many other places in the state or the rest of the US?
We’ve definitely made the most of being here and especially because of the job I do, I’ve been lucky to go to even more places.
Within California, heading up to go camping in the Redwoods of Sequoia is a must. Viewing El Capitan close up will take your breath away. Same with the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which is really fun to do if you hire an RV (camper van) and drive to it.
Hawaii is a big one for us as a family. It’s only six hours away which is ages away for most people, but relatively speaking, we’re pretty much the closest location on the mainland to those islands. It’s affordable to fly to from Los Angeles and there are regular services.
We’ve managed to visit O’ahu (where the capital Honolulu is) and Kauai.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to visit Big Island for work (also just known as the Island of Hawaii) due to a temperamental volcano which erupted a few years back. We have another holiday booked to the island of Maui later this year, but that may go on hold due to current events.
There are so many islands there to explore and visit and it really is a place like no other: it’s so tropical, so lush, so friendly and it feels so exotic. I also like the fact that I’m visiting a place that, for people back home in the UK, is so far away, I feel like I’m really going somewhere that few people have been to.
On the mainland, I’ve been to a tonne of cities but special mentions definitely go to Oregon (particularly Portland) which has a great feel to it: it’s a very laid back and chilled place, with a real sense of culture and identity and a more temperate, British-like climate which I like to experience once in a while!
Also, Texas: particularly Austin. I’ve been to many parts of Texas and it’s very much what you’d expect from the stereotype, but Austin is a really unique, special place.
Right in the heart of one of the reddest, Republican, God-fearing states sits this little bubble of liberalism which is totally at odds with everything around it. Not only that, but it’s also the State Capital! The arts, food and drink scene is fabulous, as is that much-fabled Southern warmth (not just the temperature, but the attitude.). Everybody addresses you as “y’all”, they all want to chat and people genuinely can’t do enough to help you or make you feel welcome.
And staying with that Southern charm, Charleston in South Carolina is another really special place. Go in the summer, you’ll be feeling the humidity, but this place was voted one of the top tourist destinations in the world and for good reason. The architecture alone is incredible and the history (not all of it great!) is fascinating to hear about and learn from. And that’s before we get onto the beaches!
Every Angelino on Instagram seems to go hiking in Runyon Canyon? Do you? Are there any other hiking trails you like?
At the risk of being controversial, I HATE Runyon Canyon. I can think of nothing worse. It goes back to what I said earlier about going to London and then heading straight to Leicester Square. It’s just become a cliche and there are so many better places.
Runyon Canyon is always packed - so there’s no sense of calm or tranquillity there, especially when you’ve spent half an hour looking for a parking space - and (dare I say it), it’s full of posers. If you’re shirtless and want to post something for the ‘gram, you’ll likely head up there but not for me. You will literally be constantly dodging guys and girls taking a million photos of themselves for social media.
Malibu Creek State Park has the best trail in my mind - it’s my go-to happy place. It’s right by the Paramount Villa and is where various movies/shows like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and M*A*S*H* were shot.
It’s so remote, it’s also often used as a location in movies where they’re trying to visualize landing on an uninhabited planet with no life. Sadly, it was ravaged by the horrendous wildfires of 2018 that destroyed swathes of Malibu and it is only just starting to grow back. When I visited just after, it was heartbreaking.
The other great hike I love is in Topanga where you have Topanga State Park: there are two fantastic hikes (one is about four miles, the other seven) and you can get the most incredible ocean and coastline views from the top as well as looking across to the skyscrapers of Downtown.
There are other, more gentle hikes like Los Liones in the Pacific Palisades and some that lead you to waterfalls. Part of my love of it is exploring new ones and I make it my mission to do at least one big hike every week: a great form of exercise, some vitamin D and some peace and quiet as these are hikes where you may go 45 mins to an hour without seeing another living being (although that’s not great if you encounter a mountain lion or rattlesnake!)
What are some of the things you miss about Britain?
Definitely some of the superficial stuff: Fish and Chips (like...proper fish and chips) are a real sore point and the first thing I gorge on during any visit home. Same with chocolate: Dairy Milk and Fruit and Nut are essentials. Cadbury’s has a different recipe here and it tastes completely different. So whenever any family or friends come to visit, they bring a suitcase full of supplies and there are often seasonal food parcels of Mini Eggs and advent calendars that turn up and are always welcome!
Plus, of course, family and friends. The world feels like a much smaller place due to WhatsApp and social media so I never feel far away, but there’s still no substitute for giving somebody a hug.
What I don’t miss are things like customer service and general attitudes: and I know this is likely to upset some people or sound critical of my fellow Englishman, but I think they just nail customer service here.
Ask somebody in a supermarket where something is, they don’t grunt at you and point, they practically buy it for you. Call the bank, or the mobile phone company or whoever, and they genuinely go out of their way to help. I am aware that I am generalizing massively here, but that’s my anecdotal experience having lived in both the UK and the US.
The other thing is attitude: Californians in particular, definitely have a more ‘can-do’ ethos which fits in with me 100% and they celebrate success. Everything is described as ‘an opportunity’. Even if it’s something negative, that is turned into an ‘opportunity to grow and learn.
I read once - I think it was in Piers Morgan’s ‘The Insider’ - about how, when he moved to LA, if you drove a nice expensive car (sidenote: I don’t!) people would say “hey, nice car, well done!” rather than be envious or call you a jumped-up-twerp or key it. And I think that’s really nice. Obviously, again, I am massively generalising here - and I know that much of that positivity is likely false, not genuine, but on the surface at least, it makes everything feel more positive.
And the sunshine helps!