First published on July 3, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.
The harbor area of southwest Los Angeles County is the closest thing we have to a blue-collar coast. It’s where cruise ships call, where ton upon ton of maritime machinery hums and looms, where the Queen Mary passes its awkward retirement. A little farther west, the Pacific pounds the bluffs and pebbles of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and 22 miles off the mainland, the island of Santa Catalina primps and sparkles for weekend admirers.
This territory "to me, is like a secret," says Anthony Geich from behind the desk at Hostelling International's L.A./South Bay hostel in San Pedro. "You're in L.A., but you're away from all the bull."
1. A bottle of vino, a little boat and thou
Just before Los Angeles County runs out and Orange County begins, a southbound traveler comes across the watery Long Beach neighborhood known as Naples. It's a cluster of three upscale residential islands, with waterways between. They're a fine place to float, perhaps in a kayak or maybe in a Venetian gondola. For $85 a couple, Gondola Getaway (5437 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.gondo.net) offers 50-minute floating adventures nearly every day, complete with gondolieri in striped shirts and straw hats. Bring a refreshment (no corkage fee) or a crowd: The 10-vessel gondola fleet offers various options for larger groups (including a "pizza cruise" for eight to 12 people at $40 a person). Some of the guys sing -- a nice effect under the echoing bridges -- and many like to punch up mood music on a portable device. Especially around sunset, it's a memorable float as you drift past well-heeled homes under the darkening sky. Ignacio Villanueva, a veteran gondolier, says he's seen many a marriage proposal and only one turn-down. Excellent odds, gentlemen. And if your proposal doesn't pan out, well, you can jump ship and swim for Tantalum restaurant (6272 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach; www.tantalumrestaurant.com), which overlooks one of the marinas on Alamitos Bay and gets some healthy singles happy-hour traffic.
2. This way to the bat ray
You've gone as far south as Interstate 710 goes, to the damp heart of Long Beach. You've stepped into the Aquarium of the Pacific (100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach; www.aquariumofpacific.org), a big and bright attraction that opened in 1998 near the city's convention center. Now find the Touch Pool. Reach into the shallows. And tickle the gray skin of the first flat, triangular creature that slithers by. That's a bat ray, its spine clipped (painlessly) to prevent venomous stings. Its skin, you'll agree, is surprisingly soft. And Long Beach, for all its heavy-metal maritime machinery and antiseptic waterfront redevelopment, can be downright cuddly here and there. This aquarium includes about 11,000 sea creatures and a see-through tunnel that surrounds you with sea life. Along the Rainbow Harbor waterfront outside, whale-watching boats, harbor cruises and dinner-cruise vessels will compete for your attention, as will Bubba Gump, P.F. Chang and a bevy of the usual national-brand restaurant characters. If it's a weekday, you might grab a drink and a happy-hour snack in Shoreline Village at the three-story, red-roofed Parkers' Lighthouse (435 Shoreline Village Drive, Long Beach; www.parkerslighthouse.com) before the higher dinner prices kick in. But for more serious meat (and less view), you'll head about a mile east to the old-school steakhouse 555 East (555 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.555east.com). Its walls are wood-paneled, and the meatloaf (served at lunch only) will brighten your day. As for the rest of your night, of course, Hilton, Hyatt and Westin are huddled near the convention hall, but why not try some place on a smaller scale? Out on Queensway Drive by the Queen Mary, check out the Hotel Maya, a DoubleTree by Hilton that in 2009 was jazzed up with modern Mexican design. Bold colors, fire pits, waterfront views and bracing ocean breezes.
3. Big ships
In a slightly different universe, the Long Beach waterfront would still be dominated by the Long Beach Pike, a massive amusement park that went up in the early 20th century, a cousin to similar setups in San Diego, Santa Monica and Santa Cruz. But the Pike did not age well, and city leaders were scrambling for a new way to lure tourists. Enter the Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; www.queenmary.com), a British ocean liner built in the 1930s, retired in 1967 and recast here as a floating hotel. The ship cuts a striking figure from land or sea, especially if you're about to board a contemporary cruise ship from the embarkation center next door, where many Carnival Mexican cruises begin. And ghost-hunters love the place. But up close, the Queen Mary is tired. Red ink and management changes have been frequent. Many of its historical features have been removed or remodeled. Think hard before you hand over your admission fee for the tour (or your credit card for a night’s stay). But if you really love old ships and you're going to the Aquarium of the Pacific anyway, buy the combo ticket. That way, instead of paying $24.95 adult admission for the ship alone (as of early 2012), you get the aquarium, too, for $36. By the way, that pass won't get you aboard the strange little Russian submarine that's moored next to the Queen Mary, but the gift shop is free (want to browse vodka flasks?), and you can replicate the self-guided tour by imagining yourself wedged inside a vacuum cleaner with torpedo tubes.
4. Going retro
Just when you think you're beginning to figure out Long Beach, up pops bohemian Retro Row (www.4thstreetlongbeach.com), a medley of funky vintage and design shops on East 4th Street, to show you how little you know. More than two dozen shops are concentrated between Cherry and Junipero avenues. Near St. Louis Avenue, check out the new and vintage furnishings at Trebor Nevets (2116 E. 4th St.; www.trebornevets.com), the hipster hats at Imonni Nanala (2106 E. 4th St.), the wines at 4th Street Vine shop (2142 E. 4th St.; www.4thstreetvine.com), the written words of Open Books (2226 E. 4th St.). When hunger rises up, stroll over to Lola's Mexican restaurant, (2030 E. Fourth St., Long Beach; www.lolasmexicancuisine.com), and don't miss the patio in back or the parklet Lola’s opened in January 2012. Or sink into the calm, white corridor that is noodle house Number Nine (2118 E. 4th St., Long Beach; www.numberninenoodles.com.). If there's time, top off your day's artsy excursion with a visit to the nearby Museum of Latin American Art (628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; www.molaa.org), which is housed in a boldly colored Mexican modern building, or the Long Beach Museum of Art (2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.lbma.org),which has grown from a 1912 brick-and-timber home to include a later expansion.
5. Eat, drink, shop, stroll
The commercial spine of Long Beach's Belmont Shore area is a 15-block stretch of 2nd Street, three blocks from the beach. Sit down to a mound of Lebanese kebabs at one of Open Sesame (5201 and 5215 E. 2nd St., Long Beach; www.opensesamegrill.com), and rest assured that next time you could try crepes, pasta, cupcakes, tacos, Thai, whatever. Require a pint? Choose among Murphy's, Quinn's and Shannon's Bayshore pubs, or Legends, a sports bar with the requisite televisions everywhere. Then, to give your legs and elbow a little more exercise, hike half a mile to Belmont Brewing Co. (25-39th Place, Long Beach; www.belmontbrewing.com), which serves lunch, dinner and craft beer on a beach-view patio next to the Belmont Pier. Look north beyond the bike path, and you'll see a horizon full of maritime machinery. Look south on a windy day, and you'll see the billowing sails of windsurfers catching epic air.
6. When Catalina calls
Between Dana Point and San Pedro, there are four places to catch a ferry for Catalina. For the shortest boat ride and most frequent service, head for Catalina Express (320 Golden Shore St., Long Beach; www.catalinaexpress.com). It's an hourlong voyage (usually about $70 per adult, round-trip) and ends in Catalina’s scenic, sleepy Avalon Bay. The island, you'll soon find, is a strange and charming land where golf carts far outnumber cars, where tourists often outnumber the island's 3,700 or so residents, where buffalo (imported for a movie shoot in the 1920s) roam the back country. You need to know that pretty quickly, you'll run out of town to explore. Also, you'll see jaw-droppingly steep prices on summer weekends, and you don’t want your kids splashing in the shallows around Avalon's green pier. (That area, known as Avalon Harbor Beach, ranked among the state's 10 most polluted beaches in a 2011 study by Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay.) But the island is fetching, from its distinctive tile work to its signature 1929 casino building (which houses a little museum and screens movies nightly), and there's just enough here to fill a family weekend or a romantic one. The history is hard to resist, beginning in 1919, when chewing-gum mogul William Wrigley Jr. bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Co. Western author and sportsman Zane Grey (whose old house is a hotel now) summered here in the '20s and '30s. Actress Natalie Wood drowned near here on a 1981 boat trip with husband Robert Wagner and friend Christopher Walken. And teen bride Norma Jean Dougherty lived here briefly in the 1940s before divorcing and renaming herself Marilyn Monroe.
7. The island, new and improved
To impress the adults in your traveling party, book a room at the renewed Pavilion Hotel, right on bayfront Crescent Avenue (513 Crescent Ave., www.visitcatalinaisland.com). The place, formerly known as the Pavilion Lodge, was redone and reopened in 2010 with lush landscaping in its courtyard, an inviting fire ring and hints of Midcentury Modernism here and there. (And go in spring or fall, preferably on a weekday, when you can often get in for less than $200 a night.) On summer weekends, the rates more than double. A slightly more affordable option, with six rooms, wood floors, bay windows and a more nostalgic feel, is the Snug Harbor Inn (108 Sumner Ave., Avalon; www.snugharbor-inn.com). Either way, for your dinner you’ll likely head to the sleek dining room of the Avalon Grille (423 Crescent Ave., Avalon; www.visitcatalinaisland.com/avalon/dini_avalonGrille.php), which opened in 2010. The next morning, browse or snack in tile-fronted CC Gallagher (523 Crescent Ave., Avalon; www.ccgallagher.com), which sells small plates, coffee, landscape paintings, wine and sushi. That's right: CC sells sushi down by the seashore.
8. Taking flight
If your Catalina trip is a family venture, look into renting a house or condo with kitchen from Catalina Island Vacation Rentals (119 Sumner Ave., Suite B, Avalon; www.catalinavacations.com), whose inventory goes anywhere from less than $200 to more than $500 nightly. Also, between bike rentals, glass-bottom boat rides and miniature golf tournaments at Golf Gardens, you'll want to line up at Big Olaf's ice cream shop (220 Crescent Ave.) along the waterfront, where $4.50 buys a single scoop of Dreyer's ice cream with topping. Then -- if nobody's afraid of heights -- walk north past the casino to the Descanso Beach Club (1 Descanso Ave., Avalon; www.visitcatalinaisland.com), where the Catalina Zipline Eco Tour opened in 2010 (www.visitcatalinaisland.com/avalon/tour_zipline.php). This series of five lines, open year round, takes you slope to slope in Descanso Canyon, skittering along at up to 45 mph, up to 300 feet high, while the scrub and eucalyptus trees flash past below. (To ride alone, participants must be at least age 10 and weigh 80 to 245 pounds. Children 5-9 may ride with an adult.) With instruction beforehand and pauses between zips, it takes about two hours. You wind up back at the Descanso Beach Club (open mid-April through mid-October), where in summer you and your fellow fliers convene at the beachfront bar and restaurant to decide how much to exaggerate the height and speed of your adventure. You can now do this tour in the dark on the Night Zipline Eco Tour, where you step off into darkness.
9. High ground and chain link
San Pedro is a sleeper. Wedged between the docks of Long Beach and the mansions of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it has a throwback look (lots of 50-year-old signage) and a Croatian accent, because many local families came from Croatia to work seafaring or waterfront jobs. Along 6th Street and Pacific Avenue, you'll notice businesses such as Slavko's Harbor Poultry and Ante's Restaurant. You begin by climbing to high ground: Angels Gate Park (3601 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro), where a 17-ton Korean Bell of Friendship and pagoda shelter tower over the grass. Right next door stands the L.A./South Bay Hostel (3601 S. Gaffey St., Building 613, San Pedro; www.hiusa.org). There are wraparound views here of the Pacific, Catalina Island and the occasional passing whale, and in all L.A. County, there can't be a better place to fly a kite. Well, except perhaps the lawn at nearby Point Fermin Park and Lighthouse (807 W. Paseo del Mar, San Pedro; www.sanpedro.com/sp_point/ptfmpk.htm), where the ocean views are augmented by a lighthouse that dates to 1874. At Point Fermin, you may or may not be tempted to try a beer at Walker's Café (700 Paseo del Mar, San Pedro; www.walkerscafe.com), a tiny, rumpled throwback bar and grill across the street that draws a close-knit crew of grizzled locals and bikers. But for a wider selection and a far kid-friendlier scene, head instead to the Corner Store (1118 W. 37th St., San Pedro; (310) 832-2424), which isn't on a corner but welcomes families with breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches -- pb&j for $2.75 -- and sells more kinds of sodas than you've ever imagined. Now, having bought your picnic lunch, take it down to sea level at Cabrillo Beach Park, where you'll find picnic tables, tide pools facing the open ocean and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (3720 Stephen M. White Drive, San Pedro; www.cabrillomarineaquarium.org), a facility that dates to the 1930s (Cabrillo Beach Bathhouse) and now plays David to the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific's Goliath. The aquarium building, wrapped in chain-link fencing and rugged metal accessories, was designed by architect Frank Gehry in the early 1980s, before his name became a global brand. Inside, there's plenty to keep a family absorbed (sea stars, jellyfish, leopard sharks) and a homespun feel to the exhibits. In 2004, the Gehry building was expanded to include an aquatic nursery, exploration center and a marine research library. Best of all, the recommended donation is $5 for adults, $1 for kids -- about a fifth of what the Long Beach aquarium costs. (But stay out of the shallows inside the breakwater. Like Avalon Harbor Beach, this beach has been listed on Heal the Bay's statewide 10-most-polluted list in recent years.)
10. Of golf, God and redwoods
Venture north of San Pedro and boom -- you're out of blue-collar territory and onto the genteel slopes of Rancho Palos Verdes, snaking along the not-at-all-smooth blacktop of Palos Verdes Drive. First, exit at Trump National Golf Club (1 Ocean Trails; Rancho Palos Verdes; www.trumpnationallosangeles.com) and park in the free lot on the left. Alongside this ritzy golf course and restaurant is a network of public trails. You can follow one down to the water's edge, where wave action has smoothed the many-colored pebbles almost halfway to becoming glass. Of course, you could play golf here, too, if you don't mind greens fees of $215-$275 for morning starts. Your second stop, farther north and west on Palos Verdes Drive, is the Wayfarers Chapel (5755 Palos Verdes Drive S., Rancho Palos Verdes; www.wayfarerschapel.org). This is a small but remarkable church, dedicated in 1951 -- almost all glass walls and skylights, with light filtering in through flanking redwoods. Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it for followers of 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, but all are welcome; donations are requested. From just about everywhere on the grounds, the views are stupendous, the tranquility considerable.
11. Does that name ring a diving bell?
A little farther north on Palos Verdes Drive, you'll reach a grand bluff-top chunk of land that longtime Angelenos will remember as the site of the Marineland theme park from 1954 to '87. Since 2009, these 102 acres have been the site of Terranea, a luxury resort that opened just in time to get kicked in the teeth by the recession. It has 582 hotel rooms (each at least 450 square feet) and rates that begin around $360, with a nine-hole golf course, spa, three pools, multiple restaurants and views of the Point Vicente lighthouse (next to which is the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a prime whale-watching spot). Terranea is not a beach hotel. It's all about bluffs, rocks and pebbles. And if you're splurging, it's worth a thought. If you're not splurging, come anyway and grab a free parking spot (first lot on the left as you enter). Make the rounds on the cliff-top public trails, and wind up around sunset at the casual resort restaurant that looks out toward the lighthouse. It's called Nelson's -- in honor of Mike Nelson, the heroic scuba diver portrayed by Lloyd Bridges on TV's "Sea Hunt" from 1958 to '61. The show was shot around Palos Verdes, in glorious black and white, and the restaurant walls are filled with posters (in jarring color) promoting ancient episodes. Give them a look. Then glance again at the sea, take a bite of seared ahi, and be glad. To be any more immersed in SoCal culture, you'd have to strap on air tanks and flip overboard backward.