VENICE, California, is where the American Dream lived, died, and finally reincarnated itself. Initially a grandiose idea to duplicate its Italian namesake, it was soon swallowed up by rampant urbanisation, but has since blossomed as the United States' greatest open air circus of self expression. At weekends and holidays, Los Angeles evacuates to Venice to see, be seen, and be seen being seen. This is poseur's paradise par excellence. And because this is not just the US of A, but California, and its very hippest suburb at that, nothing is ever run of the mill. Take the strollers - they're in the latest beachware, and if they want any cred, the label has to be Hardbodies. Take the sports freaks - they're not just rollerblading, they're doing stunts or playing hockey on concrete clad only in shorts. Take the entertainers - jugglers and musicians, for sure - but one is juggling a chainsaw and another is playing the guitar upside down. It was different at the turn of the century, when the area was little more than a swamp known as Ballona Creek. Abbot Kinney, a developer with an eye for the romantic, drew up plans for a replica of his beloved Venice, complete with canals. He was sure this would entice the Bohemian element longing to escape the plebeian scrum of Los Angeles, which even then was regarded as a less-than-desirable home address. But the pseudo-European air never really struck a chord, and Kinney had not reckoned on the onslaught of the almighty car. Many of the canals were filled in and some of the building plots were occupied by oil rigs, a landscape Orson Welles was able to use to good effect in A Touch of Evil. From such dilapidation Venice could only haul itself upwards, and time and changing attitudes worked their slow magic until it suddenly became chic with a New Age arty crowd which valued its eclectic ambience. Poets, painters, actors and a strong alternative scene flooded into Venice, where the remains of Kinney's vision are still discernible. But the hordes who visit for the weekly fiesta pay no heed to the few quaint arched bridges over the remaining canals, nor glance overlong at the mural in the Post Office which depicts what Venice might have been had the developer been allowed to pursuehis dream. That's because they're heading for the Boardwalk. Also called Ocean Front Walk, this 1.5-kilometre-long journey through the senses is host to every species of souvenir seller, performer, preacher, entertainer, exhibitionist, charlatan, pan handler and voyeur Los Angeles can rustle up. The Boardwalk runs parallel to the seashore, and right alongside a jogging, cycling and roller blade track that can seem like a cross between a Mr & Ms Universe competition and the Indianapolis 500. Nowhere in the US is more devoted to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At the bottom, or the top, of the heap is Sunny, the King of Venice, a long-term street sleeper whose jet-black face is almost enshrouded in dreadlocks. He ambles, collapses on the grass, burbles his muddled thoughts aloud. He is the foremost of a battalion of down-and-outs who have come west seeking their fortunes, rebounded off the ocean and are still trying to accept that this is the end of the trail. One step along is Crazy Joe. A wild, haggard, demonic prophet, it is difficult to guess whether he is really insane or a talented self satirist. He gibbers at the milling crowds: ''I am here to tell you, LSD is good for you. I have taken acid for many years - and look at me - it has done me no harm whatsoever.'' Further on the devotees of hemp are trying to sell its properties on an ecological platform. ''We can make all sorts of great things from the cannabis plant, rope, paper, all sorts of great things,'' said a scraggy, T-shirted youth clutching a ''Dope is Green'' baseball hat. Asked for his name he said: ''That's not as important as what I'm trying to say. Are you FBI?'' Less aggressive, but no less persuasive, four atheists sat behind their neat table, so shy and humble they looked as if they doubted themselves rather than the existence of a supreme being. Andrew, when asked how many converts he had notched up that day gazed wistfully into space. ''Thousands,'' he said, ''thousands''. But most performers who come to Venice Beach are in pursuit of the great American ethic - making money. The competition is as intense in the easy, laid back atmosphere, as anywhere else in the cut-throat city, so if attention equals dollars then it is best to be as weird and wacky as possible. This is a challenge the Venice Vaudeville rises to with alacrity and fulfills with gusto. Kids are worth exploiting - the four-year-old imitating Michael Jackson or the brother and sister unicycling team. After about the age of 15 you've got to be devoted - the demon non-stop honky tonk piano player or the G-stringed bongo drummer - or desperate like the chainsaw jugglers and fire eaters. The chainsaw is worth watching, but avoid becoming a ''volunteer''. Good acts can pick up several thousand dollars on the right day, others go home with the hat filled only with the loose change they put in it themselves that morning. Given that showing off is half the fun of Venice Beach, many head seawards with the sole purpose of pumping iron in front of admiring spectators. ''Muscle Beach'' is an outdoor gym populated by bulging-biceps-with-brains-attached characters who make Conan the Barbarian look like a 50 kg weakling. Less sedentary types get their kicks by climbing aboard a bike or skates and swishing north or south, eyeing up the opposite sex which may come rippling along, similarly mounted, from the other direction wearing little more than a bathing slip. As night falls and the last knots of sightseers head home, Venice Beach takes on a new atmosphere. Sunny and other derelicts rattle the dustbins, the drug dealers leave the shadows, and the Boardwalk shakes off its carnival veneer. Planned as the New World's aquatic Utopia, cast down by voracious development, reborn as a sensual fun fair, Venice Beach epitomises much of the best and worst of the USA. How to get there United Airlines has daily flights to Los Angeles. Cost: $9,500 plus $140 tax. Visa: required.