THE HAPPY WANDERER: LONG BEACH


Long Beach has plenty to offer

By Ginny Prior
Contra Costa Times 2/29/2008

FIRST IMPRESSIONS can be deceiving. Take Long Beach, for instance. Twenty years ago I came here with my parents and husband. We toured the Queen Mary. We got lost trying to find our hotel. We left the next day thinking, “Is that all there is?”

Well, Long Beach has grown, and so has my enthusiasm for this hip beach spot. Credit the “Grand Lady” with much of the money that has been pumped into Long Beach. Billions of tourism dollars have rebuilt the harbor, the canals and an exciting and vibrant downtown with world class museums, shopping, restaurants and more.

Strolling the waterfront, recently, I felt a sense of de ja vu. I’d seen those sexy palm trees swaying along the shoreline before. Turns out, the most popular show on television, “CSI Miami,” shoots much of its footage here. It’s an added attraction if you like Horatio Caine as much as I do.

But spending the day looking for David Caruso is a waste in this fun town. There are too many other things to do, like take a Segway tour of the waterfront in a pod of other scooter people. If you take yourself seriously, this isn’t the activity for you — as, quite frankly, you’ll look ridiculous on one of these futuristic machines. But boy are they fun, and a great way to see the city.

Or you can bike along the 5.5 miles of waterfront walkways. Long Beach is so progressive with its transportation; it boasts the first U-S Bikestation, with free indoor parking and low cost bike repairs.

Getting around by boat is just as easy. AquaBus water taxis take up to 49 passengers in their bright red vessels with stops at the aquarium, Queen Mary, Shoreline Village, Catalina Landing and three other “ports of call.” The fare is a bargain at one buck. For $3, the larger AquaLink catamaran will ferry up to 75 folks along Long Beach Harbor and points nearby.

But nothing beats a romantic ride in a Venetian Style gondola. A little wine, a little cheese and some sourdough bread and your mate will look better than David Caruso — I guarantee it. The Gondola Getaway takes lovers along the scenic canals of Napals Island in Belmont Shores. A singing gondolier pilots the boat and points out items of interest along the way. The cruises run daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with sunset cruises being the most popular, of course.

The mother of all vessels, the Queen Mary, has a hip new image as well. On any given day, there could be dozens of parties and weddings on the elegant ship. Ghosts streak across the decks and balconies, popping in and out of places like the ship’s massive pool, which is bone dry but still sports mysterious wet footprints from time to time. As unnerving as this may be, it’s not hard to see the attraction. Even a ghost can appreciate the fascinating tours, the night life and the superb cuisine at the Queen Mary’s premier restaurant, Sir Winston’s. There’ no other venue quite like it.

Speaking of ships, The Carnival Cruise line opened a terminal in Long Beach in 2003. It operates next to the Queen Mary, with destinations in Mexico and along the Panama Canal. Another popular cruise destination, Catalina Island, is just an hour by boat from Long Beach. There is so much to do on Catalina, the Happy Wanderer will feature it in a separate article.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other highlights of my trip. The Aquarium of the Pacific is a fascinating look at more than 12,500 creatures that live in the sea. But what really tickled me was their bird aviary outside. With a handful of food, I had more Lorakeets landing on me than Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

The Museum of Latin American Art was a favorite stop, with its fascinating self-guided tour (accessed by cell phone) and an eclectic gift shop, where I purchased a shiny blue purse made of gum wrappers.

And a hidden gem — The Vintage Tea Leaf at 969 E. Broadway — where we donned vintage hats and sipped glorious tea from bone china cups. An elegant plate of petit fours complemented our choice of nectar, an exotic tea which blossomed into a flower as it steeped in a clear glass pot. It was quintessential Long Beach; a city that knows how to celebrate.

If you go: Jet Blue and several other airlines fly into the passenger-friendly Long Beach Airport.

Heads up: The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach runs April 18-20 along 1.97 miles of Shoreline Drive. Make reservations early if you want to attend this popular event.

Web sites to check before you visit:

Visitlongbeach.com

Aquariumofpacific.org

Gondo.net

molaa.org

segwaylb.com

queenmary.com

vintagetealeaf.com

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