Too-short a weekend in Long Beach

img_3980A beach, a city, and a harbor for ships and visitors

Living 17 years in LA, I visited Long Beach about half a dozen times. It served as a halfway meeting point for me and friends who lived in Orange County. We had brunch and dinner there on occasion, and I visited the aquarium with my son and went whale watching once, but I never really considered Long Beach a destination. That was before I had the opportunity to spend an entire weekend there, and I truly got to know what this 55-square-mile city offers unique from its neighbors.

Long Beach has 11.5 miles of beach, which is how the city gets its name, but what sets this  Southern California seaside town apart is its urban environment by the waterside. Think Seattle or Miami, but with constant sunshine, and relaxed attitude of Southern California, along with a desirable geographic position 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

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Whereas across the Southern California coast, denizens can brag that they can snow ski in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon, Long Beach one-ups that boast with the promise that residents can go sailing or deep sea fishing, or even visit the island of Catalina for lunch, then go skiing, and be back by dinner time to dine at a world-class metropolitan restaurant and hit the nightlife in the city, until the wee morning hours if they wish.

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It is a vast city, with a plethora of diverse offerings in the area of culture, cuisine and arts.  The latter category of arts happens to be one of most thriving for the city in the last decade, in which the city has dedicated 1% of its revenue to developing arts programs. Long Beach is the home of the Museum of Latin American art, along with the long beach museum of art, which combines contemporary collections and classical architecture with an oceanfront view. The city is also known for its street art, including the gigantic outdoor murals of the Pow! Wow! international art collective.

The local art scene inspires much of the culture of the town, from the awesome award-winning architecture of the Long Beach airport, named one of the 10 most architecturally beautiful airports in the world, to Retro Row, a 1950s-inspired walk back in time into a mid-century throwback of restaurants and coffee shops, barbershops, and furniture and decor shops that seem like a scene out of  Mad Men, for which in fact the set designers of said show often visited for props, wardrobe and inspiration.

One cannot talk about Long Beach without mentioning the RMS Queen Mary. The behemoth transatlantic ocean liner, built in 1936, that is three times larger than the Titanic, is permanently docked on the Long Beach shoreline, where at now serves as a tourist attraction and hotel where visitors can stay in one of the refurbished first class state rooms.

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In speaking to locals of Long Beach, it seems everyone has a connection to the Queen Mary. Many have worked there, or their friends or family members have, and many have their own personal stories about the lore of the old ship, purported to be haunted by ghosts.
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The boat has been floating at its current resting place since 1967, and it rises twice a day, up and down with the tide, hosting hundreds and even thousands of tourists daily for tours and special events. Visitors and ghost chasers revel in the stories told by the Captain and Commodore and the many knowledgeable docents who share a passion for the ship as strong as any Brit’s fealty to their royal figurehead.

Aside from the Queen Mary, there is much more to the shoreline and the bounty of the sea that is an essential draw to the city. The Long Beach aquarium is also world renowned, housing more than 11,000 animals and nearly 500 different species and featuring exhibits that allow visitors to get an up-close perspective and even touch the animals displayed there, in addition to sponsoring many learning programs for visitors of all ages.

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In addition to these two major attractions there is also a wharf area with seafood restaurants, like the renowned Parker’s Lighthouse, offering tourists and locals spectacular views along with the region’s best and freshest seafood. The culinary scene, like the city itself, has great variety, such as renowned authentic Mexican food at Lolos Mexican Cuisine; The Attic on Broadway, a southern comfort food eatery; the trendy Sip Bar & Lounge at the Marriott Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, featuring the “ocean to fork” culinary creations of award-winning Top Chef contestant Executive Chef Janine Falvo; and L’Opera, a sophisticated fine dining restaurant featuring Northern Italian fare.

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Lest we forget to mention the shopping, Long Beach is home to one of the area’s newest outlet malls, called the Pike Outlets, which not only has a number of premium discount stores, such as Restoration Hardware and Columbia sportswear, but it also features a Ferris wheel that has become an attraction in itself.

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While a day trip is an easy excursion from Los Angeles, for out-of-towners and those who want to stay overnight, the city offers a growing number of hotels, from the downtown Hyatt Regency, which offers spectacular vistas of the city to the quaint feeling Hotel Maya, a Hilton Doubletree hotel, which though is a sizable property of 200 rooms, has the charm of a boutique hotel, with views overlooking the bay and it’s own marina, which maritime guests can slip into and then stay overnight on their boats or in hotel rooms.

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The hotel also features Fuego restaurant, famous for its handcrafted margaritas made from its expansive selection of premium tequilas. Its best-kept secret its small private beach, Playa Maya, for which the hotel developers brought in thousands of pounds of sand to create an inviting alcove with lounge seating around fire pit which are the scene of s’more making and merry making in the evenings.

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The hotel offers bike rentals which I took advantage to take a quick, three-minute ride to the Queen Mary, then I doubled back and headed into the city, which was easily accessible by bike designated bike paths. I rode to the Pike and took a break by the Rainbow Lagoon Park and a spin by the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, which was dark on the weekend I visited.

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the city was quiet, almost deserted, which is part of the diverse character of the city that is a lure to visitors. It is a bustling city during the weekdays, and a laid-back beach city on the weekends – a city that embodies work and play. While tourists may find its appeal as a central outpost for visiting Los Angeles and many of Southern California’s other major attractions, such as Disneyland, California Adventure, and Universal Studios Hollywood Long Beach in itself has the draw of a tourist destination, with its features as a metropolitan city, with the added appeal of a sunny beach comprising its boundaries.

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As a port city, where cargo ships dock from around the world, and to which trucks haul goods back and forth, Long Beach can experience a fair amount of traffic, and the tangled maze of roads to the harbor, with the abundance of signage directing visitors to the various attractions, can make it a navigation feat to find one’s way around at first. Once I got the hang of the roadways, with the help of Waze, I was able to steer myself around like a native, and in fact I found a few short cuts. While I got a good sense of Long Beach by staying there for a weekend, I learned there was a great deal I have yet to explore in this sprawling beach, I mean, city.

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