Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Long Beach is long on fun

A short snip of the Long Beach bay front.
Long Beach, California, may not have a sexy-sounding name or the cache of its oceanfront and inland neighbors (think Hollywood, Newport Beach, Palos Verdes), but it has enough knockout views, international cuisine, museums, sights/sites and outdoor activities to totally engage and charm visitors.

It did me.

Best of all, for Levelers, much of it is flat and if you are staying on the bay front, you can "escalate" your way up to the heights.

I was invited out by the Convention & Visitors Bureau to see what Long Beach had to offer. It took 5 years before I said yes and to be honest, my expectations were low.

It is, said PR director Bob Maguglin, a common problem. "The hardest part is getting people here. After we do that, the rest is easy."

Start with location: 22 miles south of Los Angeles and 10 miles southwest of Anaheim and Disneyland with more than 5 miles of sandy oceanfront.

The weather, 46 to 83 degrees F. is the annual range. Pretty close to perfect. I hit midway through what they call the "June Gloom," mornings that began overcast and gray but by noon were brilliant with sunshine and balmy breezes.

Getting there is a snap: Long Beach's newly redesigned  airport is 10 minutes away, LAX 25 minutes north and Orange County/John Wayne 30 minutes south.

Much of what you'll want to see is on the easily walkable downtown bay front, although more people choose to do it, as well as downtown and almost everywhere else, on bicycles.

Downtown at night.
At night the downtown is a riot of color and you'll hate to go inside to sleep.

I stayed at the Hyatt Regency and had a great view of it all.

Amble down the colorful promenade for a stair- and hill-free way to and from downtown.
Tip: Best of all, no-hill, no-stairs access to the Convention Center, downtown and restaurant row. Go to the lobby, take the escalator to the mezzanine, exit to the deck, walk across into the convention center - if it's hot or rainy - or amble along its colorful promenade, cross the street and you're there. The Renaissance and Westin Hotels are on the downtown side of the Convention Center so if staying there you reverse the process.

Superior seaside attractions
Aquarium of the Pacific.
The Aquarium of the Pacific is atop almost everyone's to-see list with good reason. It's fun.

The penguins are crowd pleasers.
The Magellanic Penguin habitat is the latest new attraction but hands-ons with jellies and rays, sea otters, seahorses and an ocean's worth of other staples keep visitors coming back for more.
Curiosity reigns on both sides of the glass.

Unique here are the opportunities to SCUBA or snorkel in the big tank and daily whale watch (July, August and September are when Blue whales are offshore) and dolphin and sea life boat trips, spring and fall.

Tip: Ramps rather than stairs lead to the different levels, a boon to Levelers.

Queen Mary. Not many port cities can ever boast a seagoing Cunard queen in their harbors and until meeting Her Highness, I wondered why any would want one no longer sailing.

Now I know. For all of the 21st century's luxurious excesses, nothing holds a candle to the elegance and attention to the minutest detail of Art Deco QM. She was, and probably still is, the grandest dame afloat.

Queen Mary from the Hyatt Regency.
QM2 may be twice her size but she was twice the size of the Titanic and her first class dining room was the largest room ever built on a ship. All 850 first class passengers could dine at once. The Sunday buffet held there now is considered one of the best in the country.

Cabin Suite where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed.
Which is another charm of this grande dame: you can stay on her. All of M deck has been turned into a hotel and her public rooms are available for meetings and private events.

Observation Bar
For a treat, dress to the nines, begin with a cocktail in the Observation Bar and cap the evening with a superb dinner at Winston's, ending with the wonderful Grand Marnier souffle.

You will be sharing your evening with an honored war veteran. During World War II, QM was converted into a troop ship, making 72 wartime crossings. She was the fastest liner in the world and in July 1943, she carried 16,683 soldiers, the largest number of humans transported on one ship. It wasn't comfortable but it was of great importance. Hitler offered $250,000 to any submarine commander who sank her and Winston Churchill credited her with saving Great Britain.

By all means sign up for a tour; it's the only way you'll really get to know her and the people who worked and sailed aboard her.

Tip: there's no way around it, Levelers, there are lots of stairs. There is a central elevator that will eliminate many, but you'll wind up doing more than you probably want. For example, 24 steps up to the special exhibit. I found it worth it, especially with a tour. Best solution, stop for tea at the special exhibit or a beverage in the Observation bar.

George VI's coronation robe.
As if the ship herself weren't enough, now there's a special exhibit, "Diana A Legacy of a Princess, A Royal Exhibition," that brings together poignant artifacts and attire from the late princess as well as those from other royals, including Prince William and Katherine.

Scorpion-class Russian sub shares space with the Queen.
Then there's Queen Mary's neighbor, the Russian Scorpion submarine you can tour if claustrophobia doesn't bother you.

Join in the music.
Shoreline Village along one strand of the marina is a picturesque jumble of quaintly made buildings, cafes, restaurants, shops and music venues that hips on weekends. It's great for strolling, day or night.
Shoreline Village at night.


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