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Escape from LA

Part One: Drinking in the drifting spirits of Riverside

Los Angeles is one massive, sprawling behemoth of concrete and cars, and though one might fly in to see the Hollywood stars, catch rays and muscles on the Venice boardwalk and be dazzled by the studio sharks, it is often the case that one experiences a serious case of what Jim Morrison felt about life, particularly life in the City of Lost Angels: no one gets out of here alive. So whether passing through or looking to escape the smoggy, Bladerunner cartopia, here is an eclectic round-up of some the real gems of Cali North and South, which as usual are found on the fringes. Part One begins with a stop-over in Riverside, a mini-oasis of character and charm on the way to Palm Springs.

Let's get to the point: stop in Riverside and book a room at the Mission Inn, which if it's strange enough for a slew of classic Hollywood silent films—including 1915's The Vampire—and luxurious enough for six presidents (yes, even Nixon's long nose haunts these halls), is good enough for you. Besides the usual Hollywood celebrities (which are a dime a dozen in these parts), the Mission Inn has also hosted the likes of Booker T. Washington, Amelia Earhart, and Albert Einstein, so the place is flying with the physics of class. As for Riverside, it is halfway between Palm Springs and LA, home to a fantastic research university (that is also home to my favourite Jamaican-born Canadian speculative fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson), and contains a unique and sleepy little downtown with some solid soulfood eats (check out Gram's Mission Barbecue for the real deal, a short walk from the Inn at 3527 Main St.).

As for the Mission Inn, this place is Hogwarts come alive—a proper maze of architecture that began as a quaint adobe boarding house in 1876 now combines multiple wings of cloister and Spanish Casita styles, thanks to the cosmopolitan vision of collector Frank Miller, whose kaleidoscope aesthetics saw nothing wrong with copy-pasting Middle Eastern arches into Christian belltowers, for example. The Mission Inn is postmodern well before Fredric Jameson's revelation of pastiche capitalism in LA's equally labyrinthine Bonaventure Hotel and shopping centre, the latter built downtown in 1976 (yes, that hotel from Die Hard). Moreover, the ornate yet geometric aesthetics of Art Deco does it better than towering glass and cement, and the Mission Inn delivers on a most surreal experience of architectural time travel that spans cultures as well as centuries.

It houses real treasures including the Boxer Rebellion-era Nanjing Bell, as well as the oldest bell in Christendom—dating from 1247. While wandering the halls, glance through Tiffany stained glass windows from 1906, and if you can find it, the 2.5-metre tall Amitabha Buddha from Japan's Tokugawa period is a meditative masterpiece. There's more, and part of the fun is finding everything, so leave an evening open to get into a psychogeographic dérive proper to the spirit of Guy Debord (that is, drift with the mind drunk ... on life).

Strange and at times eerie, the most secluded and awesome part of the full-city-block Inn is the fourth floor, which is mostly open-aired, possibly haunted, and populated by catwalks, flying buttresses, domes, towers and (somewhat) hidden spiral staircases, all connected by secretive wings to secluded garden oases, and anchored by a Vertigo inspiring Rotunda (Hitchcock lovers, beware). While the newer and revivalist aspects of the hotel surround the requisite pool of bubbling children, the best rooms combining elegance, modern renovations, and privacy are the third floor suites above the quiet dining room courtyard. Now an AAA Four Diamond property, the Mission Inn makes for one very wicked evening of wandering the halls after several bottles of wine.

Also on the Riverside hit list are two spots of amazing eats: Tio's Tacos (3498 Mission Inn Ave.), which is hands-down the best Mexican food I've (yet) had, with outdoor seating strewn about a wasteland of towering metal crafted into Day of the Dead festival sculptures and junkyard desert aesthetics—seriously, too weird to even describe, just drink it in with a giant margarita or two. Follow that with some mighty fine craft beer selection at The Salted Pig (3700 12th St.), a gastropub that stuffs peppers nicely and bellies even better. All within staggering distance of the Mission Inn, in a town that tends to let the sun play long and low as it sinks into the mythos of the Wild West.

Tune in next week for Part Two as we survive the surf, seals and clams of Pismo Beach.