LONG BEACH Say, old chap, come aboard and let me tell you about my yacht.
First, though, I need to pop my polo shirt collar, tie a sweater around my neck and speak in an aristocratic lockjaw manner. Oh, and I think I’ll repair to the upper flybridge deck of this 40-foot beauty with mahogany and teak interior – the Kindred Spirit – while gazing smugly out at those touristic hordes scurrying like rats aboard the Queen Mary across the harbor.
If you’re going to stay in Long Beach – and, increasingly, this blue-collar port city is trending toward a blue-blood renaissance – this is the way to do it. By all means, reserve a berth for your yacht at Dock 5 of Rainbow Harbor, centrally located near the Aquarium of the Pacific, scads of restaurants, a short jaunt from the trendy vintage shops on Fourth Street’s “Retro Row” and, of course, within casting distance from that historic anglophilic floating edifice, the Queen Mary.
OK, so it’s not my yacht, technically. It’s one of a small fleet of vessels (well, six) available for rent from Dockside Boat & Bed, but, hey, can’t a guy fantasize?
“Let’s just say it is your yacht ... until Friday,” said Kimberly Harris, who along with husband Kent owns this watery B&B just off Long Beach’s main drag, Shoreline Drive. “Fantasize away. No one will judge you.”
Excellent. Now, if you’ll just teach me how to fire up the engine ...
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s one thing we won’t let you do. Grab the wheel and pretend all you want, but the boat stays docked. It’s tempting. That excitement drives us. It’s a great thing to own a boat. We’re like your buddy who lends it to you for a night or two. You aren’t taking it out, but I think the best memories are just hanging out onboard, drinking a beer and enjoying life.”
Long Beach is all about basking in sun and immersing oneself in its watery world, be it sports such as standup paddling or hydro-biking, taking a gondola ride along the channels or Jet Ski-ing the harbor, whale watching on a charter cruise or heading down Ocean Boulevard a mite to body surf or just lounge on the tawny beaches.
You may not think of Long Beach as a tourist haunt – boasting neither the glitter of Santa Monica, conspicuous wealth of Newport Beach or weirdness of Venice – but it’s got a little bit of all that.
Looking out the back deck on my yacht, all mine, on a gorgeous purple-hued sunset with rays still glistening off the glassy, calm harbor waters, it’s truly hard to find fault. My yacht is immaculate, the wood gleaming and decks scrubbed, and surprisingly roomy inside, considering it’s one of the fleet’s smaller offerings. The accoutrements of my yacht, too, are first-class: two satellite TV sets, iPod docking station, fridge and microwave, central air and heating, two bathrooms and a walk-in shower.
Did I mention it’s my yacht? Sure, Harris tells me the owner is actually a businessman from Marina del Rey who anchors at Dock 5 and lets the B&B lease his boat when he’s not cruising over to Catalina or making a jaunt to Redondo.
“We’re like a management company, like people who rent out their second homes in Tahoe, same thing,” said Harris, whose father started the business after noticing lots of docked, unoccupied yachts in marinas like Long Beach’s.
Carolyn and Tom Duda, off for a weekend getaway from their home in Thousand Oaks, chose their yacht, the Ranita, because Carolyn grew up helping her father with his boat in Redwood City and “loved the feeling of going to sleep on a boat. It’s a great experience.”
True, but when most people think of maritime accommodations in this town, they envision the Queen Mary, which since the late 1960s has been plopped down in the Long Beach harbor like, well, is it too mean to say a beached whale?
Queen welcomes Diana
It’s not that the Queen Mary is a blight on the waterfront. Consider it a something of a dowager down on her luck, showing her age. But even after all these years, it still is the area’s top attraction, made even more so these days with a lavish, souvenir-laden Princess Diana display that takes up most of the Sun Deck. But let’s just say the Old Girl (the ship, not the beloved royal) has seen better days.
The cruise ship-cum-hotel and tourist destination appears to have found its second wind after a series of management changes over the years. Touring the ship as a day traveler is pricey, but if you stay overnight at the hotel, they put together a package that makes it worth your while.
Everyone should spend the night with Mary at least once, if only to say you’ve done it. Sure, the walls are paper thin (they hand out earplugs at check in), the carpeting just as threadbare, the rooms a tad cramped and a little drafty, especially around the portholes, the restaurants overpriced and the ghost tour really cheesy, but it undeniably is part of history, first as a symbol of upright (uptight?) British regal bearing in the 1930s and then as a working-class troop carrier during World War II.
At night, you can almost still hear the voices of the departed. Oh, wait: That’s just the tour group tramping by and stopping just outside my door. Just my luck, I got a stateroom right next to where a ghost sighting purportedly took place in 1992 by a commercial airline pilot who swore he saw “a man dressed in 1930s attire looking over some papers.” I heard all about it because, remember, the walls are thin.
Most of the milling about was at the Princess Diana exhibit, where daytrippers and overnight guests (including a raucous convention of accountants) pored over bric-a-brac from the late princess and the rest of the star-crossed royal family. To its credit, the exhibit doesn’t shy from the scandals that have rocked the royal family, from Wallis Simpson to Fergie to Camilla and Dodi Fayad.
You get the feeling what’s on display is the royals’ castoffs – Irish linen pillow cases belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for example, or Diana’s handwritten hair appointment schedule (17 appointments in one month!) – with the real memorabilia tucked safely back in England.
But many visitors, mostly women, swooned over a collection of Diana’s ball gowns, worth the admission to Gig Harbor, Wash., tourists Madeline Moore and Patty Troup, taking photos of each other trying on replicas of Di’s hats in the gift shop.
“I’m glad,” Troup added, “that they included all the history. I mean, it’s not like people didn’t know about it already.”
A touch of Venice
Southeast of the hulking Queen Mary, across the marina, rests a curiously tony neighborhood dubbed Naples, a series of three small islands bearing million-dollar houses with waterways as well as streets running through it.
Sure, you can drive over bridges to gawk at the swells in their natural habitat, but it’s much less gauche – and a lot more fun and romantic – to hitch a ride on a Venetian gondola with a gondoliere dutifully decked out in the requisite striped shirt and straw hat as he wields the oar. It’s a 50-minute tour for $85 and, rest assured, the gondoliere promises to be quiet and quite discreet if you’d rather canoodle with your sweetheart instead of listening to a history of the islands and its inhabitants.
Owner Mike O’Toole, a Long Beach native, began the business 32 years ago on a whim – actually, as his class project for a business degree at USC – and got so into it that he and his workers travel to Venice each year and compete in gondola races against some of Italy’s finest. But having gondolas on California’s version of Naples is not foreign, O’Toole said.
“They had gondolas here way back in 1904,” he said. “But when we started in 1984, they were long gone. We went over there, learned to build our own boats. At first, we had boats with two oars, because no one in America knew how to do it with one oar. It’s very asymmetrical. But we learned.”
Verisimilitude is important to O’Toole (who adds his mother is of Italian ancestry). He encourages couples to bring wine aboard or even a picnic basket. In the largest gondola, which can seat 14 people, he sets up a table and serves pizza – “the only floating pizzeria around,” he said.
He stresses, however, that these are gondola rides, not tours. The gondolieri have to be ever vigilant to steer clear of all the recreational water enthusiasts on the waterways, the standup paddle board rental places, the “hydro bikes” (sort of like canoes with wheels and pedals). In three decades, none of his gondolieri has had an accident and sent a passenger overboard.
“That doesn’t mean we haven’t had people all of a sudden decide to jump out into the water,” O’Toole said.
He pauses, then hastens to add, “We’ll reach in and fish them out.”
Shaking fins with sharks
“You want to touch the shark?” asked Jenifer Watson.
Her nephew, 8-year-old Mphatso, didn’t hesitate.
So, totally without trepidation, he plunged his arm into the saltwater pool at the shark lagoon at the Aquarium of the Pacific, which since 1998 has been an anchor in Long Beach harbor’s renaissance.
Once Mphatso finished pawing the baby bonnethead shark, from snub-nosed head to sleek tail, he passed judgment.
To which his cousin, Watson’s 10-year-old son, Hunter, said, “I like sharks – with teeth.”
Young or old, the array of (obviously) non-predatory sharks that circles in the “lagoon” in back of the aquarium, just south of the penguin and sea lion areas, is the main draw. But the aquarium, in toto, is a must-stop for tourists and locals alike, what with glassed tunnels and alcoves where everything from crystal jellyfish to sea bass swim around and over visitors’ heads.
Other than sharks, the little ones often gravitate toward the tropical reef habitat tank, where the vibrant oval blue tang fish, really more violet with a yellow mohawk down its spine, glides among other colorful characters.
“They really liked seeing the fish in ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” said parent Anthony Prieto about his daughter and two friends and their reaction to the aforementioned blue tang. “Now they know what their actual names are. In fact, the first thing they saw in the whole museum was Dory (the animated character).”
Back at the lagoon, it was lunchtime for the full-grown sharks (whom you cannot pet and probably wouldn’t want to). One aquarium worker held a long pole with chum attached, while the other was miked-up and giving a play-by-play to the onlookers. She identified the different types of sharks darting to-and-fro and when she got to the sandbar shark, she launched into an anti-shark-finning monologue.
Though she made important environmental points, it served as kind of a buzz-kill to the little ones when she intoned, “If we keep killing sharks at the rate we do now, we’ll decimate them from the oceans. If we don’t have sharks, our oceans won’t survive. If our oceans don’t survive, then neither will we.”
Oh, and enjoy the rest of the day, kiddies.
Eventually, you must set foot on terra firma and venture into the heart of the city. Once, that might have seemed a situation as fraught with peril as Robert Redford battling the big waves in “All Is Lost.”
But this isn’t the Long Beach of yore. At least not where those clued in shop and sup.
Fourth Street, between Cherry and Junipero avenues, has at once been gentrified and artfully “distressed” over the years and now rates as a hipster hangout that somehow still retains its blue-collar, port-city cred.
It is home to the alliteratively-nicknamed Retro Row, a daisy chain of antiques shops, vintage clothing stores and quirky throwback shops (example: Moxie Roller Skate Shop, where you don’t dare ask for those newfangled roller blades).
In this three-block stretch, kitsch is king, but not a despotic ruler. High fashion, borrowing heavily from ’70s and ’50s styles, is allowed to flourish. The grande dame of Retro Row is Kathleen Schaaf, whose vintage store, Meow, was retro before many of the horned-rim-glasses-wearing shoppers were born. She’s been in business for 28 years, hanging out her shingle back when a less-kind person would’ve called the area Ramshackle Row.
“It took 20 years to build up the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s now a great little walking neighborhood. It’s actually a destination now. Seriously, we get people here from all over the world. It’s like a new kind of Main Street; it has a little bit of everything. We have the (Art) theatre and wine bars and coffee shops. People want to come here.”
The resurrection of the Art Theatre, an anchor on Fourth, is emblematic of the mix of old and new. Built in 1924 as a silent movie palace, complete with organ and orchestra pit, it fell on hard times but has bounced back with local ownership, a complete restoration to its original Art Deco and Moderne look, but with new touches like a wine bar and espresso joint. And, in another nod to modernity, it now shows first-run, major studio releases.
Yet the indie spirit lives elsewhere on the street.
The fetchingly quirky vintage shop, inretrospect (all lower case, apparently, just because) features everything from scratchy, orange-upholstered easy chairs that might have fit in well in an Updikean suburban novel to scuffed black motorcycle boots that Brando might have brandished in “The Wild Ones.” Jerry Furtado, a vintage-clothing hound, roams all the Fourth Street haunts, but is partial to the eclectic trove at inretrospect.
“Look at this, man,” he said. “Look. An original paperback of (Eldridge Cleaver’s bio) ‘Soul on Ice.’ And that Emerson turntable in the front window. Man, sweet.”
Thumbing through stacks of LPs, Furtado nearly flung away a Frank Zappa record like a Frisbee when his eye caught something he deemed rare.
“Wow,” he said. “This is Badfinger. First album. Wow.”
Valuable as that might – might – be, there also is plenty of nostalgic junk to plunge boomers into Proustian reveries. Anyone remember “The Un-Candle,” a ’70s fad in which a wick floats in oil in a slanted Pyrex holder? Yours for $29.95. How about a ’60s transistor AM radio made to look like a Chevron gas pump, obviously an advertising gimmick back in the day? It’ll cost you more than a current tank of gas.
Dave Eaton, manning the inretrospect cash register, said, “None of us take ourselves too seriously. We remember when this was a depressed neighborhood. We’re still evolving and changing. We sell whatever floats your boat.”
Yeah, even hugging the shore, why do people here fall back on the nautical metaphors?
Let me contemplate that sipping iced tea on my yacht.