Long Beach California: It’s a Secret!

Enjoying a Gondola ride in Naples Island, part of Long Beach, California. Max Hartshorne photos.

With lower rents and easy transit to LA, Long Beach is Secretly Great!

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

We were meeting Bob Maguglin, who has run the press for the Long Beach Tourism bureau for many years.

He showed us the way to the city’s Pine Avenue Pier in Rainbow Harbor and we couldn’t see anything beyond the few boats moored there, the scenic views of Shoreline Village and the Queen Mary would have to wait for the fog to lift in a few hours.

Shoreline Village, with shops, cafes and bars on a pier along Rainbow Harbor.
Shoreline Village, with shops, cafes and bars on a pier along Rainbow Harbor.

But our sumptuous picnic breakfast, provided by Corner Bakery, included big jugs of hot coffee, a rack of freshly baked muffins, and yogurt parfaits and made us happy to wait for the fog as we breakfasted al fresco.

As we ate, Bob filled us in about this city where he was born and raised in that I had no knowledge of.

Snoop Dogg’s Hometown

I did have a vague memory that Long Beach was once the home of famous rapper Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Doggy Dogg, and that at one time Howard Hughes made the city famous by taking off across the harbor in his flying boat, called by some derisively  “The Spruce Goose.”

But I must admit to ignorance about how many fun activities there are here for visitors, and like the fog that finally lifted my mind also lifted and what was revealed about Long Beach was all good.

The Queen Mary has been docked in Long Beach since 1974.
The Queen Mary has been docked in Long Beach since 1967.

“We were always a Navy town,” Bob said, explaining that in 1940, the big naval outpost and the ships were moved to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii before the terrible day in early December when the Japanese bombed the US fleet.

Long Beach was filled with tattoo parlors, hookers, and the seediness you would expect from a town full of sailors,” he said.

For many decades, airplanes were built in Long Beach, at the sprawling Douglas aircraft factory that is now the city’s container shipping center.

From Planes to Rockets

Today Long Beach is no longer a navy town, or an aircraft manufacturing center–but Bob said that the city is excited because Virgin Galactic i.s moving to Long Beach to build satellite launching rockets at a facility near the airport.

Dolphins aboard the First String whale watching boat.
Dolphins as seen from the deck the First String whale watching boat

Boeing has been making the C-17 transport planes in the city but this plant will close later in the year. So it’s out with the old and in with the very new.

Also, Mercedes Benz has moved their corporate headquarters to the city, bringing several hundred jobs.

The Three Ts

As we met people who live in Long Beach, they told us repeatedly that this city is on a roll, and that exciting things are afoot after they figured out how to focus on the important things that begin with ‘T’ –tourism, trade, and tech. Long Beach was once a surfer’s city–before the breakwaters were built in the 1940s, which kept the waves to an un-surfable trickle.

There are six miles of beachfront here, and Bob told us that Long Beach is a city of 115 different neighborhoods. He said that the vibrant downtown with so many restaurants and bars along Pine Street didn’t happen until fairly recently.

Musicians play on a Sunday afternoon in Shoreline Village, Long Beach.
Musicians play on a Sunday afternoon in Shoreline Village, Long Beach.

It took a massive infusion of cash after the navy base closing over eight years in the early 1990s to redevelop the city into its current state.  Building the big shopping area made a huge difference and changed the city, Bob said.

There are many newly refurbished hotels in Long Beach, including the beautiful five-star Hyatt Centris The Pike on Bay Street.

Restaurant Resurgence

“Downtown used to be a place that people avoided,” said gondolier Jeff, who said that the rents in the city are quite affordable, versus what you’d find in Los Angeles or San Francisco. People used to be afraid to go downtown until it was cleaned up and improved, with the conversion of many buildings into condos and apartments, and once a few successful restaurants opened up, more families moved to Long Beach.

They love living in Long Beach.people flock to from all over the region.”More than 3500 apartment units have been built, many in former department stores downtown, which died out when malls began to take shoppers away.

Jeff makes his living rowing couples on romantic gondola tours in the city’s swankiest neighborhood, Naples Island, where there is a network of canals and Long Beaches’ highest priced homes.

Gondolas on Naples Island

Pamela and Josh Beadel, owners of the Breakfast Bar Long Beach: They love living in Long Beach.
Pamela and Josh Beadel, owners of the Breakfast Bar Long Beach: They love living in Long Beach.

The company, Gondola Getaway, offers an old world tradition–authentic Venetian gondolas, rowed by men in striped shirts, who can even sing a little in Italian upon request.It’s a fun way to see the canals and learn about the history as you move gently by single oar.

We met other people who shared Jeff’s view that Long Beach is a secret treasure. Pamela and Jeff Beadel, owners of a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant downtown called The Breakfast Bar.

The said that the current mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia, is openly gay, and the city’s youngest mayor and this has fostered a new era of growth and positivity.

It helps that many downtown businesses, too, share the mayor’s enthusiasm for revitalization. Beadel told me about events like the many farmer’s markets and gatherings of local business leaders foster a sense of community, much improved from years past.

Whale Watching

Catalina ferry with Queen Mary behind in Long Beach Rainbow Harbor.
Catalina ferry with Queen Mary behind in Long Beach Rainbow Harbor.

Today Long Beach is famous for the many whale watching boats that take off from Rainbow Harbor, and you can see the ferry to Catalina Island pass by regularly, in front of the Queen Mary which is permanently docked and is now a hotel. Even though our watch was through totally foggy seas, we were thrilled to watch several pods of dolphins swim in front of the boat.

Our Sunday afternoon after we left the First String vessel from Harbor Breeze Gray Whale Watching (with free passes for another trip in better weather) we set out to discover the Shoreline Village and waterfront. People were picnicking in front of a big hill atop of which is a faux lighthouse, and here, there are Relaxing on a boat in the Rainbow Harbor.photographs depicting the old days in the 1940s when so many navy ships were launched from Long Beach.

It’s quite a tough ass town, lots of interesting people have passed through here, I thought when I sat down at the bar of Parker’s Lighthouse. It’s one of those legendary beach bars that attract celebrities and everyone, just that clubby and warm woody interior and big curved bar overlooking the water that sets such a great scene.

Bo Beau Kitchen + Roof Tap

On our first night, we made our entrance into Bo Beau Kitchen, with high ceilings and bustling waitstaff, and interesting gigantic fans lining the ceiling. I thought they were from a one-time factory that was here, but they said it is just part of their Steampunk design concept.

A gondolier in Naples Island, Long Beach.
A gondolier in Naples Island, Long Beach.

The food was served and it was good, mussels with coconut curry and flatbread with prosciutto and asparagus.  Interesting!  Even more tempting was their upstairs Roof tap, which is as advertised….a place to drink beer without a roof!

It’s another extension of a series of great places that all add up to a fantastic destination, which is reflected in the large number of conferences that are held in the city each year.

Retro Row: Cherry and Junipero Streets

We love poking around in shops tended by people who own the place, with the careful attention to detail of someone’s personal home collection.  Long Beach has an area known as ‘Retro Row’ where record shops, LPs for sale at a record shop in Retro Row, Long Beach.bookstores, funky Mexican joints and cafes all line the street.

Qeen Mary evening, from the Renaissance Hotel.
Queen Mary in the evening, from the Renaissance Hotel.

We were smitten by the tacos at Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, 2030 East 4th St.where they served Baja shrimp burritos, and Tijuana tacos with skirt steak, with people sitting outside and in on a relaxed Friday afternoon.

The city has helped local developers build many condos and apartments right near the downtown, so there are many young couples living there and it has changed the downtown, we were told.

Long Beach is also known for its Museum of Latin American Art, at 628 Alamitos Ave., www.molaa.org). Founded 20 years ago, it is filled with bright vibrant paintings and photographs, a Frieda Kahlo–centered gift shop and it has a groovy sculpture garden complete with fountains and a bench. The art is one-of-a-kind and unlike any other museum’s collection.

All Hail the Queen

The Queen Mary is a big attraction in Long Beach, and it’s been a hotel since the 1970s.

We took a walk around the outer decks and some of the main rooms of the ship. The city bought the vessel from Cunard–one of the caveats was that they had to remove everything that would actually run the Queen as a ship. So there is no propeller nor working engines, just the big black boat.

But she’s quite impressive to tour, and there are people on board in period dress who make it fun to learn about. I especially liked seeing the many scale models of other passenger ships that is on exhibit in one of the rooms on the Queen Mary tour.

One fun event that’s held every year is called CHILL. Inside the giant dome, built to house the Howard Hughes flying boat, the temperature is lowered to 9 degrees and everyone dons parkas and gloves to have cocktails in the deep freeze.

We found many interesting places to eat in the city, both high end and incredibly reasonable. One that stands out is Pier 76 Fish Grill, located at 95 Pine Ave.  This unassuming fish joint has a huge variety of delicious fish tacos,  fish and chips, plus interesting side dishes like grilled zucchini and broccoli coleslaw. Everything was delicious and it was very inexpensive. Pier 76 Fish Grill

Toyota Grand Prix

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Indy cars to the streets on April 14, 2016, a one-mile course will take racers speeding around downtown. This is a big event, blocking off the main city streets to create a temporary race course. It attracts thousands of fans, so it will do nothing but enhance the reputation of the city.

At the bar in Parkers lighthouse, Long Beach.
At the bar in Parkers Lighthouse, Long Beach.

Our last night in Long Beach, we visited what many think is the coziest and nicest places in the city, the Boathouse on the Bay. It’s located at the Marina, (190 North Marina Drive), and is a bit hard to find, but its location right on the Alamitos Bay is dreamy, with freshly shucked oysters, fine seafood chowder, and friendly locals.

We met a man who has lived here all his life, he builds houses in some of the tony neighborhoods.

“Long Beach is a secret,” he said. “People don’t know how good it is here, with the low rents and high quality of life.”   With their light rail connection to Los Angeles, I’m sure many young professionals will be eyeing Long Beach as a place to move to.

It’s just as much fun to visit!

Find out more about Long Beach
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This trip was sponsored by the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, but the opinions are the author’s alone.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.