For two years in the late 1990s I lived – or more accurately, existed – in status-obsessed Newport Beach, the heart of ‘Real Housewives of Orange County’ territory in Southern California.
Twice, when friends came to visit me for a few days from overseas, I drove them 20 miles or so north up the Pacific Coast Highway to tour the famous, grand old ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, since 1967 a much-loved and much-toured fixture in Long Beach Harbor. But on neither occasion did I and my friends stop to explore the five-and-a-half-mile shoreline or the downtown area of the City of Long Beach itself.
After visiting Long Beach for a few days in December 2012, a period long enough to feel this tourism-friendly city’s vibe – encapsulated in its official tourism slogan ‘The Urban Waterfront Playground’ – and to sample some of its many attractions, I realize I wasted a great opportunity back in my Newport Beach years. I could have learned much more about Long Beach, explored its fascinating cultures and history and enjoyed some of its restaurants.
While Long Beach has many attractions to tempt the visitor – among them its architecture, walking and biking, beaches, shopping, parades, sporting events and entertainment options (I detail other Long Beach attractions in another article about the city, here) – its two biggest year-round draws are, rightly, the Aquarium of the Pacific and the RMS Queen Mary.
Boasting some 11,000 sea animals and birds and more than 500 species in all, the Aquarium of the Pacific is the fourth-largest aquarium in the United States. It has various exhibits accurately portraying specific marine habitats as well as a huge tank of sharks and other large marine animals, a shallow pool where visitors can touch small sharks and manta rays and another pool where visitors can actually swim with zebra sharks.
Located at one end of a road bridge across the inner harbor, the aquarium also features a colony of Magellanic penguins and – as one might expect, being in California – a colony of California sea lions. Parker, the largest male sea lion, is the biggest animal in the aquarium at about 700lb. If you’re really lucky, the staff will escort you into the area at the back of the tanks where you can watch volunteers feeding the big fish, which swim up and climb on to a semi-submerged platform to get their dinners.
My personal favorite habitat, however, was the Aquarium’s Lorikeet Forest, a large enclosure with hundreds of these small, vividly colored Australian parrots. Visitors can (carefully) hand feed the lorikeets from small cups of nectar which you purchase at the entrance to the enclosure.
One lorikeet perched on my shoulder and seemed to become so attached to me that it was unwilling to leave me as over a period of about 20 minutes I gradually made my way to the enclosure’s exit. So I had to go back to the middle of the enclosure to enlist the help of one of the aquarium volunteers stationed there to help persuade the little bird to hop off my shoulder. I was charmed and the aquarium staff was surprised and amused.
Only half a mile or so away across the bridge from the aquarium and along the aptly named Queens Way is the mighty RMS Queen Mary, which has graced Long Beach Harbor since 1967 and is moored next to where the Long Beach Cruise Terminal is now.
The big ship is well worth more than one half- or full-day visit, offering as it does various tours (including a ghost tour), a recently installed exhibit about Princess Diana featuring many of her clothes and effects, three dining options (from a café to a fine-dining restaurant) and even a four-star hotel.
If you’re intending to visit these two attractions (and others), you should make use of the city’s ‘Passport’ shuttle service. Three different Passport bus routes link the downtown area with most of the city’s most worthwhile neighborhoods and the shuttles stop at various hotels and all the major attractions.
You can hop on and off the frequent shuttles at no charge; or, for a very modest fare, you can take one Passport line right out to the eastern end of the city to Belmont Shore (a beachfront neighborhood) and Naples Island, which is located in Alamitos Bay right behind Belmont Shore.