See the world -- in California's Long Beach
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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - A recently published survey showed that, even in these precarious economic times, a vacation is a luxury that many people are unwilling to give up. Hard-earned and well-deserved, those sacred two weeks serve as a wellspring of rejuvenation for the next grueling 50 ahead.
Still, the dilemma remains _ with so little time and ever-shrinking disposable income, where will your dream vacation take you: Spain, Italy, England, Latin America or the Pacific Rim? With so much of the world offering appealing alternatives, how does one choose?
Here's an idea: Go to Long Beach. You can experience all of the above destinations much more economically, and you won't need a passport.
Long considered Los Angeles' less glamorous younger sister, Long Beach has spent much of the past two decades refurbishing, refashioning and revitalizing itself. The result is one of Southern California's most surprising vacation destinations. Part of that surprise stems from the realization of just how cosmopolitan the city is.
In Long Beach, you can take a trip around the world in 80 blocks.
Day 1: Spain
The history of Rancho Los Alamitos is, in essence, the history of Southern California: the mix of the Native American and Spanish cultures and of the mission and rancho systems. Situated atop Bixby Hill behind the gates of an exclusive residential community, the 1800s adobe ranch house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a living history museum. The ranch house and the beautiful gardens surrounding it are all that remain of what was once a 300,000-acre Spanish land grant given by the crown in 1790 to a Spanish foot soldier named Manuel Nieto as a reward for a job well done.
Standing here today, it is difficult to imagine that when Nieto took ownership, the land grant encompassed much of present-day Long Beach and neighboring Orange County, stretching all the way to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. After his death, his heirs petitioned the crown to split the vast holdings into five ranchos, with the eldest son getting the 28,500-acre Rancho Los Alamitos ("little cottonwoods"), which, though considerably diminished, was still the largest cattle ranch in the United States after California joined the Union in 1850.
Visitors can tour the house and gardens, one of which, the Secret Garden, was designed by the firm of the famous Olmsted brothers, who designed, among other notable projects, Woodland Park and the Ashland Park neighborhood in Lexington.
After your visit to Rancho Los Alamitos, continue the Spanish motif with dinner at Cafe Sevilla Restaurant and Tapas Bar on multicultural Pine Avenue. The restaurant features original Spanish fare such as grilled chorizo, paella, green mussels and jamon (ham) Iberico, along with a flamenco show every Saturday night.
Day 2: Latin America
Long Beach is home to the only museum west of the Mississippi River dedicated exclusively to Latin American art. The Museum of Latin American Art is a gem that focuses intensely on artists who have lived and worked in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean since World War II.
Located in the developing East Village Arts District, the building is spare and lean, with vaulted ceilings, polished wooden floors and a sculpture garden. Like many Southern California structures, MOLAA occupies what was once a film studio _ Balboa Producing Co., which was a major distributor of silent films from 1913 to 1918. After the studio closed, the building was reincarnated as the Hippodrome, a popular roller rink for four decades.
Thanks to its extensive collection, its future as a museum seems secure. I was drawn to the work of one artist in particular, Belkis Ayon of Cuba, who was interested in the myths of the Abakua, the island's all-male secret society that adheres to the arcane rituals of an Afro-Caribbean religion. Ayon's black-and-white collage-type prints feature a recurring theme: a woman, Sikan, who penetrates the society and is then sacrificed by the men to safeguard their secrets. The pieces are mesmerizing and eerily reflective of the artist's all too brief life. The official cause of her 1999 death at age 32 is suicide, although rumors circulate that this was indeed a case of life imitating art _ that she, like her definitive character, got too close to a forbidden society and paid the ultimate price.
Day 3: The Pacific Rim
The Aquarium of the Pacific offers a comprehensive journey across the world's largest ocean, from the California coast itself to the icy waters of the North Pacific to the colorful reefs of Mexico's Baja Peninsula and the tropical South Pacific. The aquarium has 19 major habitats with 32 focus exhibits.
Among them are the tropical Pacific gallery, which evokes the islands of Polynesia and Micronesia, with their coral reefs and shockingly hued fish, and the North Pacific gallery, home to translucent sea jellies, diving birds, a reclusive giant octopus and crowd-pleasing sea otters.
My favorite exhibit was the Southern California/Baja gallery, the entrance to which is the three-story, 142,000- gallon Blue Cavern. The cavern is a colorful montage of shimmering kelp forests, giant-spined sea stars and colorful garibaldi, the official marine fish of California. A companion gallery is home to the 211,000-gallon seal and sea lion exhibit.
You can plan to spend a full day here, especially if you have kids, or if you want to pair an aquarium visit with a whale-watching cruise or a harbor tour.
Day 4: Italy
It's called Naples Island, but the area is more evocative of Venice, ringed as it is by a system of canals that flow into Alamitos Bay.
There are few better ways to experience a Southern California sunset than to rent a gondola and gondolier, who might come equipped with wine and cheese but who definitely comes with a voice worthy of the Italian arias. The hour-long gondola ride will take you around the island, with its colorful cottages in a variety of architectural styles and often dripping with bougainvillea and jasmine. There's even a "Bridge of Sighs" where your gondolier will stop for the requisite serenade.
Afterward, continue the experience with dinner in one of the city's excellent Italian restaurants. L'Opera on Pine Avenue has a decor of vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers and marble columns, and a menu of such dishes as carpaccio classico, ravioli stuffed with black truffles and scallopine with forest mushrooms and mascarpone cheese. La Traviata is a stunning restaurant, designed to mimic a 19th-century opera house. The cuisine is described as nouveau Italian with a California twist, and opera singers and pianists perform every weekend.
Day 5: England
There's nothing more quintessentially English than afternoon tea, and Forbes Traveler Magazine has called Long Beach's Vintage Tea Leaf one of the best tearooms in the country. Visitors can select a vintage hat (bowlers for gents and flowery creations for the ladies) and an antique china cup for enjoying one of the 120 custom-blended teas from the personal recipe file of Beverly, the tea mistress.
Then it's on to one of Long Beach's premier tourist attractions: the Queen Mary. Permanently docked here since 1967, the luxury ocean liner sailed between Southhampton, England, and New York for the Cunard Line from 1936 to 1967, although it was pressed into service during World War II to transport troops. Its list of famous passengers includes Winston Churchill and William Randolph Hearst. Greta Garbo always ate early in the Verandah Grill so she could sneak back to her stateroom, while more sociable types like Marlene Dietrich and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor danced the night away in the Starlight Lounge.
Today, both venues are remnants of the Queen's fabled past, but guests can enjoy a cocktail in the Art Deco Observation Bar and dinner in Sir Winston's. They can even choose to spend the night in one of the 314 original staterooms.
If you do nothing else, take one of the daily tours, which give you a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's great ocean liners.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY: The Westin Long Beach, 333 Ocean Blvd., is near the beach and most of the major attractions. For rates for the 469 rooms and suites and for hotel packages, call (562) 436-3000 or go to www.westin.com.
WHERE TO EAT: Cafe Sevilla (140 Pine Ave., (562) 495-1111, www.cafesevilla.com) for tapas and authentic Spanish cuisine. L'Opera (101 Pine Ave., (562) 491-0066, www.lopera.com) and La Traviata (301 Cedar Ave., (562) 432-8022, www.latraviata301.com) for excellent Italian fare. Vintage Tea Leaf (969 E. Broadway, (562) 435-5589, www.vintagetealeaf.com) for a complete afternoon tea menu.
_Rancho Los Alamitos, 6400 Bixby Hill Rd. Open 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Free guided tours of the ranch house every 30 minutes from 1-4 p.m.; self-guided garden tours. (562) 431-3541, www.rancholosalamitos.com.
_Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. $9 adults, $6 seniors, free for ages 12 and younger. (562) 437-1689, www.molaa.com.
_Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. $23.95 adults, $20.95 seniors, $11.95 children. Combination tickets including an aquarium visit and a whale-watching or harbor tour are available. (562) 590-3100, www.aquariumofpacific.org.
_Queen Mary, 1126 Queen's Highway. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; prices vary depending on tour selected. Overnight accommodations in one of the staterooms range from $119 (inside stateroom) to $660 (royalty suite.) 1-800-437-2934, www.queenmary.com.
LEARN MORE: www.visitlongbeach.com.
© 2009, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
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