Life's a beautiful Californian beach in LA's South Bay, where Eli Orzessek discovers his hidden athletic side.
Approaching my first beach volleyball lesson, I feel a sense of trepidation as visions of beach jocks kicking sand in my face fill my mind.
My feet are sinking in the deep, soft sand of LA's Hermosa Beach — walking to the net is a challenge in itself and the warm-up hasn't even begun.
Our coach Mark, an actual Olympian, looks exactly as you'd expect — tall, tanned and muscular, with a sandy blonde ponytail framed by an undercut. He's the archetypical Californian beach jock — despite being from New York state originally.
As for me, I'm short and stocky and I've just eaten a large serving of French toast, battered and encrusted in sugary frosted cornflakes. As we begin our warm-up, scuttling back and forth across the sand, I feel my breakfast threatening to return.
I'm starting to become uncertain that a beach volleyball session was the best return to exercise for me, following a sedentary two months recovering from abdominal surgery, but hey — why not jump in the deep end?
After a somewhat shaky start, I'm delighted to report that I am in fact a natural at beach volleyball.
Mark praises my "perfect passes", while others in the group ask if I've played before. I choose to ignore my stinging arms, which have turned a fetching shade of pink from being smashed by the ball over and over.
Despite my obvious talents, I'm completely pooped by the end of the one hour coaching session — and as it happens, there's little time to rest before we move on to our next activity: a two-hour bike tour around LA's South Bay.
Luckily for me, it's fairly relaxed as far as bike tours go — an entirely flat coastal cruise. The Marvin Braude Bike Trail, also known as The Strand, is a concrete bike path that runs for 35km along the Los Angeles coastline from Will Rogers State Beach in the north, to Torrance County Beach in the south.
For our tour with Bikes and Hikes LA, we're sticking to the beaches of the South Bay. From Hermosa, we pedal along the Strand towards Redondo Beach, passing beautifully weathered beach houses that induce romantic visions of California in the 60s. The pink stucco Sea Sprite motel, with its cutesy vintage signage just adds to the nostalgic vibe — and it turns out it was even used as a filming location on the OC. Naturally.
As we leave Hermosa Beach and turn on to the road, a guy looks at us and says, with a Southern California drawl, "You guys are doing great. Everybody loves you". I'm not sure if he's entirely serious, as this isn't the most touristy area, but I choose to take it at face value.
The people of LA tend to be uber-friendly and say "dude" a lot — but sometimes, you're just not entirely sure how genuine it really is.
At breakfast, when I make a break for the bathroom, a young waitress intercepts and engages me in friendly conversation.
Then she asks if I'm a food blogger or influencer and asks if I can mentor her. I tell her I'm just a humble travel writer from New Zealand and offer my Instagram handle. I never receive a follow though — perhaps she's disappointed to see I have fewer than 500 followers. In Los Angeles, you've got to have a hustle.
The bike path diverts through a less-than-scenic carpark before we arrive at the Redondo Beach Pier — where a much-welcomed table of organic cold-pressed juices await us. It's all very Californian.
The pier also has a nostalgic appeal, akin to a west coast Coney Island — and serves all the beachfront delicacies, from corndogs to funnel cakes and plenty of fresh seafood. One souvenir shop specialises entirely in toe rings, with a shop front font that's right out of the 60s.
We round the horseshoe-shaped pier and observe locals fishing, while opportunistic seagulls circle around in search of fish guts. Then it's back through Hermosa Beach and on to the more upmarket Manhattan Beach.
Along the way, we come across a farmers' market with a stall offering samples of a wide range of beautiful summer fruits — and they all taste amazing, like sweet sunshine. Nearby a dude in mirrored sunglasses walks five dogs, ranging in size from Bernese mountain dog to chihuahua.
Like nearby Hermosa, volleyball nets line Manhattan Beach — but the houses start to get a bit more modern and affluent, although not quite as charming. The stretch of shops behind the beach attracts a posh clientele, thanks to its boutique shops and blossoming dining scene.
A number of professional athletes call the area home, lured in by the fresh air and ocean scenery — including Maria Sharapova, Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal and Lamar Odom.
Our tour concludes back at Hermosa, but we return to the Manhattan Beach centre in the evening to dine at Iron Chef David LeFevre's restaurant M.B. Post.
The menu is focused on sharing plates — and as we're cutting it tight for a later engagement, the staff give us the express version, with plates of incredible food and cocktails to match arriving at breakneck speed. N
Starting with the most exquisite bacon and cheddar biscuits (more like scones) perfectly complimented by maple butter on the side, we munch our way through it all — and I pocket a couple of biscuits to enjoy later.
Then we rush down the road back to Hermosa to catch the evening show at the famous Comedy and Magic Club — where Jay Leno is known to perform on Sundays. I'm most excited to see the famous "puffy shirt" from Seinfeld on display. The headliner for the night is Orny Adams — you might know him as the coach from Teen Wolf, but I didn't. He's very loud and occasionally funny, but my highlight is Cristela Alonzo, who wins me over with her observations on 90s dial-up internet — which probably goes over the heads of the rest of my group, who are all in their mid-20s. Sue me, I'm old.
At our morning volleyball session, Coach Mark tells us as a Hermosa Beach local, he rarely feels the need to leave the area and go downtown. And after a perfect day in the South Bay, I can see what he means.
Return Air New Zealand Economy Class flights from Auckland to LA are from $1299pp.