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Long Beach

It has a new take on the Pacific—and on its own waterfront.

visitors watch a scuba diver at the Blue Cavern exhibit, image
Photo caption
Visitors to the Aquarium of the Pacific watch a scuba diver at the Blue Cavern exhibit.

Hi, tourist, new in town? For a long time just about the only people with Long Beach on their radar screens either were in the navy or ran container ships. Things have been changing down in Iowa-by-the-Sea recently.

The biggest addition is the new Aquarium of the Pacific, its undulating form anchoring one end of the equally new waterfront park/promenade, Rainbow Harbor.

The aquarium people say the new facility has an area greater than three football fields. Its wavy form suggests the sea and complements both its purpose and setting. The aquarium is the joint venture of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassenbaum and Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis. Across the street, the parking garage, not by HO&K or EHD and D, hints at architects in a jolly frame of nautically postmodern mind.

Latest of several big aquariums to appear along the West Coast in the last few years, the Aquarium of the Pacific takes as its theme the entire Pacific Ocean. That’s a big ocean; this is a big aquarium. Created by the same people who did the Monterey Bay Aquarium, AOP makes its broad scope manageable by dividing it into three main regions: southern California/Baja, northern Pacific, tropical Pacific.

Large preview exhibits for each of the three main regions, plus a full-size whale replica hanging from the ceiling, make the lobby an introduction for what’s to come in the almost cave-like exhibit areas. That’s where 17 large tanks exploring major habitats and 30 associated tanks focusing attention on specific aspects of the main habitats put you at eye level with a broad selection of exotic animals.

While organization and thoroughness are evident, there’s also a fairly sensual artistic aspect. You can take things on your own terms. The building itself is of nearly organic curves accentuated by color. Individual exhibits, most glowingly lit and colorful, are full of often jewel-like forms that seem not to know or care they’re being ogled.

A few highlights: the three-story predator exhibit with its "top of the food chain" animals (such as sharks); gracefully aimless jellyfish; sea otters; tank of camouflage experts; giant spider crabs; coral reef.

Take it in order; see how these animals interact with each other and their surroundings, how diverse regions meld into one another to form a whole ocean. Then wander through at random; take it as a sumptuous display of color, form, and motion.

There’s color, form, and motion of a different sort outside the aquarium, too, where the newly created Rainbow Harbor’s flower-decked promenade winds along the water to Shoreline Village, a collection of old-timey-looking but modern shops and restaurants arching around a marina. And across the harbor, the Queen Mary’sincongruously stately presence strikes a vaguely surreal note.

Sun, sand, sea—and bankruptcy. Those were the leading characteristics of Long Beach’s first whack at development as a vacation spot, in the 1880s. Later,the city did manage to attract fun-seekers, perhaps most famously at its gatherings for people either from Iowa or who were Iowans at heart. Recently Long Beach embarked on its current recasting of the downtown waterfront.Today, two of the oldest attractions are still with us: getting out on the water and taking a boat to Catalina Island.

Shoreline Village is a good place for a pre (or post-) aquarium lunch (Tequila Jack’s Beach House Cantina, Parker’s Lighthouse Restaurant, 250 kinds of beer on tap at the Yard House). And if your time in the aquarium inspires you to some personal communing with the Pacific, you can rent Jet Skis, kayaks, and sailboats there, or sign up for the harbor tour.

As you noticed at the aquarium, fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly—but you don’t have to drive to see the other sights in Long Beach. It’s a bicycle-friendly place—level and with a Class I bike path along nearly the entire shoreline.

The town is serious about bikes. Its Bikestation, "America’s first full-service bicycle facility" is hard to miss on the transit mall. With valet bike parking, rentals, gear, repairs, and a café on offer, the station is a work of functional art, a bright red-and-yellow creation of corrugated angularity surrounded by bikes and umbrella tables.

The Bikestation is near the actual, if not geographic, heart of town: the intersection of Pine and Ocean. The first few blocks of Pine offer boutiquey shopping and some unusual dining. Jillian, for example. It’s a night spot created in a recycled bank, where you can dance in the vault.

Just up the street, Mum’s (named in honor of the founder’s mother) offers upscale dining and, on weekends, an additional "Four Rooms of Pleasure" in a 1930s-inspired ambience. Among the pleasures: Cigar and Billiards Lounge (retro-puff among well-dressed people, green felt, fragrant atmosphere), Martini Lounge (retro-tipple), Rooftop Garden (retro dine), and a disco room (lots of decibels from the band Polyester). They hold special events through the year, too. For example, after attending a sunrise service you might try their Easter "Gospel Brunch." Mum must have provided quite a role model.

On Ocean Boulevard, above The Breakers, the Sky Room is a more traditionally elegant restaurant. In this black-and-white deco room it’s easy to believe the claim that German spies used to loiter in the hope of encountering loose lips. The spies are gone (so’s the navy, for that matter), but one still can begin the beguine in the Sky Room’s atmosphere of big band music; pricey, traditional menu; rooftop cigar smoking; and good views.

Thirteen floors below, Ocean Boulevard follows the shoreline all the way to the end of town. Along the route you’ll pass the Art Museum, W.C. Fields’ former home, Belmont Shore, and Naples.

Early monied Long Beachites built some nice homes along Ocean. Among them is W.C. Fields’ place, Weathering Heights, at 3065. Another now is the Long Beach Art Museum, a large craftsman bungalow at 20th Place, where there’s an exhibition of Federal-era furniture scheduled for this fall.

Just offshore, those suspicious-looking islands with palms and oddly proportioned buildings actually are disguised oil wells. The monied do not like looking out on oil rigs. The ride along Ocean Boulevard shows there really is a very long beach in town—it’s a classic Southern California stretch of pure, white sand except that, due to a breakwater, hard-core surf has been replaced by a lake-like lapping at the waterline.

Visione Veneziana? Nope. Long Beach built its canals and floats its gondolas in Naples. Gliding among canals in the crepuscular haze has its romantic aspects—and gondoliers have tales they could tell. There is a Venice not far from Long Beach; it lacks both canals and Vesuvius. However, Long Beach does have an actual long beach—several miles worth—with a broad bicycle trail. Annette and Frankie might add to their frustrations here—surf’s never up thanks to a wave-inhibiting breakwater.

Beyond Bluff Park’s long, thin strip of green overlooking the beach you reach Belmont Shore. It seems an entirely different town than the Rainbow Harbor/Pine Street part of Long Beach. This low-rise, if densely built, beach neighborhood has its own low-key shopping strip along Second Street, and, right on the beach, a king-size pool left over from the 1968 Olympics. It does offer freshwater bathing and a three-story diving tower, but has its coals-to-Newcastle quality. You’ll find whale-watching and fishing charters at the adjacent Belmont Pier. And for low-key beach dining, try the patio at Belmont Brewing Company.

In Southern California, Naples, not Venice, is where you find gondolas. You find beach characters in Venice. Canals wind through neighborhoods of very nice homes in the Naples section of Long Beach, adjacent to Belmont Shore. They pass beneath arched bridges. They form lagoons. And they boast authentic Italian gondolas with authentic Southern Californian gondoliers.

Romantics consider evening gondola cruises a golden opportunity to pop the question. Others find that with only a little coaxing, gondoliers will tell amusing tales of such moments gone awry, including instances of vocal critics on shore expressing dissatisfaction with hearing yet another rendition of "O Sole Mio." Not all gondoliers sing; be sure to request a vocalist in advance if such is your cup of Chianti.

The distance from Naples to Southampton isn’t great in Long Beach. There’s a big piece of England—bigger than the Titanicand probably just as luxurious—floating opposite the aquarium. It’s the Queen Mary,the world’s oldest luxury liner (maiden voyage, 1936). From Rainbow Harbor, the decidedly conservative lines of the Queen’swhite upper decks and three black-and-orange stacks have a time-machine aspect as they rise behind the palm trees and grassy hill of Lighthouse Point. The effect is heightened by a huge dome, formerly home to the "Spruce Goose" and now used by movie studios, that forms a Bucky Fulleresque moon looming behind the liner.

Today, the Queen is a luxury hotel, with first-class staterooms looking much as they did when a long list of the swank and soigné traveled on her between New York and Southampton. Her public rooms, their high-deco inlaid wood panels, etched glass, and metalwork intact, are open for tours even for those not guests at the hotel.

They’ve just parked a recently decommissioned Russian submarine beside the Queen.After you’ve sampled how the upper crust traveled in the 1930s, try for a bit of Red Octoberby touring the sub.

Although both of these vessels float, you don’t really get out on the water in them. Long Beach has terminals for the ferry ride to Catalina Island if you have all day. And, if you have 90 minutes, there’s a good harbor tour.

For all its newfound tourist atmosphere near the aquarium, Long Beach actually is the busiest port on the West Coast and the number one container port in the U.S. The tour reveals that much of its huge harbor manages to preserve a film noir aspect. You churn past miles of cranes, containers, freighters, heaps of scrap, and industrial architecture so pervasive it seems unlikely whatever it is that constitutes the postindustrial era ever will penetrate. It’s a contrast.

An even greater contrast is the difference between today’s urban/beach city and the desert/wetland area this was not long ago. Long Bech was part of two huge ranchos in the Mexican era. You can get some idea of what pastoral Southern California was like at Rancho Los Cerritos, where the large adobe, in more-or-less continuous use since the 1840s, once was headquarters of a cattle ranch run by a family with Cartwright aspirations. Now a museum, the unusually posh adobe gives a good picture of local life as it evolved over the 19th century.

Before cattle baron wannabes and the influx of Iowans, the Southland was part of Latin America, a fact not lost on the energetic people at the Museum of Latin American Art.

Devoted to exhibiting contemporary art from all over Latin America, MOLAA has just completed an ambitious expansion; in September it inaugurates its wealth of new space with "Omnia," an exhibition of "spiritual, mysterious, and magical" paintings and other works created in Oaxaca by Laura Hernandez. As much an experience as an art exhibition, "Omnia" explores the ancient Mayan cultural concepts of motion, space, time, and man.

Photography courtesy of Clinton Steeds/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in September 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.