Over the years, Long Beach has been the butt of jokes,
bypassed by freeways and troubled by gangs. What residents enjoy, and savvy
travelers still may discover, are graceful, waterfront districts where the city
forefathers erected Craftsman mansions from Spanish ranch land, filled marshes
and dug canals; in the process creating a vacation mecca for those want to
escape the inland heat.
To the north sits the largest port on the West Coast where
you can still book passage to Catalina Island. In town, a playground, the Pike
amusement park, was built in 1902 along the pier at the base of Pine Street
until the city razed it in 1979. Before the Pike, enterprising sportsmen
created a duck hunting lodge and befriended city fathers who later sold them
the rights to carve canals from marshland and raise a ring of lots above the
high tide mark. That neighborhood became Naples Island, a quiet residential
area where today multi-million dollar mansions rub shoulders with beach shacks
along the waterfront. There are few visitors as the uninitiated speed past on
their way to Belmont Shore, the 2nd Street business and shopping district a few
Naples Holiday Boat Parade
Each year Naples Island throws off its quiet façade for the
annual Holiday boat parade. Waterfront homes compete with elaborate light and
animatronic displays. Crowds line the walkways and bridges to catch a glimpse
of small decorated craft and at the finale, the floating Santas, singing as
they bob in the water, their beards wet and red caps soggy. It’s all in good
fun and the next day, calm returns. During the rest of the year a Gondola company
will slowly sail you through the waterways in Venetian style, stopping under
bridges for old-world serenades while you relax and sip wine.
If you cross the bridge to the other side of Alamitos Bay
you’ll find sheltered, sandy beaches and rental kiosks with kayaks to explore
the canals, roller blades or bicycles to scoot along the paved boardwalk towards
The Queen Mary
A regal quiet has a permanent berth across from the urban
center of Long Beach. The Queen Mary sits in splendor on the other side of the
bay from downtown. It’s more than a floating hotel. Between private events and
shipboard conventions, the vessel hosts a sumptuous buffet in the ballroom
every Sunday, often accompanied by a harpist. There are a handful of
specialized tours, including séances and ghost walks. The walls still shine
with burnished burl wood and chrome, etched and stained glass sconces, all
remnants of a gilded age when Art Deco embellishments adorned cravats, sequined
gowns and stemware.
Art on the bluff
The vintage appeal of Long Beach has given way to more modern
tastes over the past thirty years. Two vastly different museums are worth a
visit. The Long Beach Museum of Art is perched on a bluff overlooking the harbor
and the Pacific Ocean. The open floor plan and galleries contrast with the
historic Elizabeth Milbank Anderson home and carriage house, built in 1912 and
sitting adjacent to the museum. A garden café and special musical events make
the Museum a vital and popular institution.
Less than a mile inland sits the modern and bright, MOLAA,
the only museum in the United States that exclusively features contemporary
Latin American fine art. Built on the site of a retired roller skating rink and
10 thousand feet of a silent movie studio, the galleries are dedicated to
educating the North American public about contemporary artists drawn from over
20 countries south of the border.
Long Beach is a city full of contrasts, but for those with
an appetite for history and fond of contemporary creativity, it makes for a
satisfying sojourn off the beaten path.
Have you been to Long Beach? What did you think?