Even for those of us born and bred in Southern California, Long Beach is a bit of a mystery; I knew the Aquarium of Pacific and the Queen Mary are located there but that’s pretty much all I knew. So, it was with great anticipation that I headed down the 405 for a weekend getaway to this beach city that is right at my doorstep yet may as well have been a continent away.
After an easy (yes, even on the 405) 1-hour drive, I arrived at the Hyatt The Pike Long Beach. Formally an Avia property, this upscale boutique hotel with a cool vibe and even cooler ocean breezes flowing through the lobby was an unexpected yet very pleasant surprise. I was greeted at the desk and, even though my room was not ready at 10am (and why should it be?), the extremely friendly front desk agent did not even skip a beat as she offered me a room that was available…with an upgrade. The room (Grand King) was spacious, sophisticated and well appointed with a television that swiveled between the sitting and sleeping areas and a sleek modern bathroom with a huge marble shower. And the cherry on top of it all: complimentary Internet.
Once back in the lobby, I inquired about where to grab a quick lunch and the same desk agent walked me all the way out to the sidewalk to point out the many restaurant choices nearby. She suggested crossing the iconic Pike Rollercoaster Bridge to get to the harbor walk where most restaurants have outdoor seating and views of the harbor and the Queen Mary. After a delicious seafood salad on Gladstone’s harbor-side patio, I walked along the water and enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful sunshine. Since it was Sunday, the Aquarium of the Pacific was crowded and, because I had been there many times before with my kids, I opted to skip it this time but it’s definitely a must-see for anyone visiting Long Beach for the first time as is the majestic Queen Mary, just a relatively short 1.5 mile walk (or drive) over the bridge to the other side of the harbor. Currently on display is an exhibit about Princess Diana but the ship itself is a floating museum and, even for those who don’t buy a ticket for an exhibit or tour, dining in one of her restaurants or staying at the hotel on board, can give everyone the chance to experience the history and beauty of this great lady. The opulent Sunday brunch in particular is a treat, taking place in the ship’s first class dining room.
That evening, I drove to nearby Naples Island, an upscale section of the city with fine restaurants, beautiful homes and canals reminiscent of Venice, Italy. There are even gondolas that sail the waters of Naples Island featuring singling gondoliers. At Michael’s on Naples (voted the #1 restaurant in Long Beach by Zagat), I enjoyed a refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio as I washed down the delicious chicken liver and balsamic bruschetta that was delivered to my table, compliments of the chef. Then, I was served a creamy lobster and leek risotto that rivaled anything I’d eaten in Los Angeles (or in Italy for that matter) with the notable exception of the price tag. For families or those looking for a more casual option, there’s Michael’s Pizzeria just a couple of doors down.
I awoke to a cloudy sky and headed out to Belmont to explore. This bustling business district is home to many diverse restaurants and shops and it was not surprising at all to see a funky gift shop nestled between Starbucks and the Gap. Here, locals and vacationers alike can choose from nearly every kind of international cuisine as well as spend time in one of the many cool coffee houses and cafes. I chose Simmzy’s, which has long community tables as well as enclosed “patio” dining and ample seats at the bar. With an open kitchen and a diverse menu that features locally sourced and organic products, Simmzy’s is a neighborhood gem offering sandwiches, salads and pizzas as well a great selection of appetizers and desserts. I ordered a vegetarian hummus burger, which was a creamy patty made from house-made hummus and topped with crunchy pickled cucumbers and radishes, all on a fresh broche bun. The side of shoestring fries and sweet potato fries (I ordered half and half but you can choose one or the other) was hot, crispy and salty…just the way you want fries to be. After lunch, I walked a few blocks to Frosted Cupcakery. While cupcake shops are a dime a dozen these days, this one offered delectable little cakes with flavors like carrot, lemon and banana along with the traditional chocolate and vanilla (and the flavor of the month: S’Mores). The cakes were moist and the frosting creamy…just the way you want cupcakes to be.
After lunch, I drove the short distance to the bluffs overlooking the beach and, as I walked along the esplanade admiring the amazing views of the beach and ocean below, I thought what a shame it was that I had never spent time in Long Beach before. This quaint, funky, stylish, romantic and family-friendly city has something for everyone. And, it’s only a short drive away. I thought about all the times I had wanted to get out of LA and didn’t know where to go but that’s not a problem anymore; from now on, it’s Long Beach for me!