First impressions can be deceiving. Take Long Beach, for instance. Twenty-some years ago I came here with my parents and husband. We toured the Queen Mary and went back to 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 vibrant beach town. 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, I felt a sense of de ja vu. I’d seen those sexy palm trees swaying along the shoreline before. Turns out, one of the most popular shows on television, “CSI Miami,” shoots much of its footage here.
But spending the day looking for CSI’s 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. Or 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 dollar. For $5, 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. Gondola Getaway takes passengers along the scenic canals of Naples Island with a singing gondolier as both pilot and guide. 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, continues to be a major attraction in Long Beach, hosting not only tours but weddings and other elegant affairs. And yes — she’s reportedly haunted. Ghosts have been seen streaking across the decks, 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.
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 reminded me that things are not always as they seem. Much like the tea bud that turned into the flower, Long Beach, itself, has blossomed — from a hardscrabble port city to one of Southern California’s best tourist destinations.
If you go: Jet Blue and several other airlines fly into the passenger-friendly Long Beach Airport.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach runs April 15-17 along 1.97 miles of Shoreline Drive. Make reservations early if you want to attend this popular event.
For more information go to Visitlongbeach.com.