Story and photos by Dick Dace
Is there anything more perfect for a weekend getaway than a beautiful white sand beach, palm trees, movie-star beautiful people, and fabulous food? In Long Beach, within walking distance of the Westin Hotel, we had all that and more than a hundred restaurants and clubs. With so many restaurants to choose from along Long Beach’s famed Restaurant Row, Pine Avenue, we decided on a progressive dinner after a lovely day on the beach, which allowed us to sample and savor our way to a food coma.
First stop was George’s Greek Café, where owner George Loizides hugged all the women in our group like the long lost friends they were destined to be. George suggested that we start our meal with his son Demitri’s mezethes (appetizers), which included calamari, grilled lamb chops and tableside flambé cheese. Ever the gracious host, George provided us with a shot of Ouzo, “where Greek babies come from,” he added with a laugh. Believe it or not, we were still hungry for more.
We arrived next door at Alegria Cocina Latina just in time to catch their Flamenco show. There, chef Walter Cotta suggested we feast on cured meats, empanadas and coconut shrimp, which we did. To every one’s amusement, some poor fellow who was celebrating his birthday was politely dragged on stage to receive a Flamenco lesson from the vivacious dancers. It was a performance worthy of YouTube.
Stuffed, we walked along Pine Street to the new entertainment development, The Pike at Rainbow Harbor. People have been coming to The Pike since the 30’s, when an amusement park, much like Coney Island, once entertained families. Paying homage to that era, the bridge over Shoreline Drive has railings that mimic the ups and downs, twists and turns of the old roller coaster, complete with lights that blink like cars running the rails. We decided to save the thrill of the Ferris wheel, games of chance and all kinds of distractions for another evening.
The next day we boarded the free Passport Shuttle bus that took us to the RMS (Royal Mail Service) Queen Mary to take in the icon’s opulence as well as its rich history. It is said to contain the largest collection of Art Deco furniture and objects d’art in the world. Purchased for $3.45 million, just $50,000 more than it would have sold for scrap, the City of Long Beach then spent $100 million over the next thirty years to convert it into the first class hotel that it is today. They did not know at the time, they also purchased a touchstone for World War II veterans.
The RMS Queen Mary (which is twice the size of the Titanic) was launched in 1936. The first class fare was about $1,000 a person (about $15,500 in today’s money, based on the Consumer Price Index.) The first class cabins came with pink-tinted mirrors in hope that if you were seasick, your rose-cheeked reflection would make you feel better. When the war broke out in 1939, the “fastest cruise ship on the sea” was called into service as a troop carrier. (See photo 452.)
Between 1940 and 1946, The RMS Queen Mary transported more than 800,000 men, before becoming a hospital and then transporting war brides to their new homes. On one famous crossing, 16,683 men were on board the ship that was designed for just 3,000 passengers. The pools were drained and every space was filled with bunk beds. Not only did the men have to share their bunks in eight-hour shifts, they had to eat in six shifts as well. Today, many of these men, now in their late 80’s, return with their wives and grandchildren, all with wide-eyed wonder, as they share their memories with today’s guides and crew. After a most memorable meal in Sir Winston, we cruised across the harbor aboard a mini Queen Mary, when we caught the Aqua Bus water taxi.
The Aqua Bus took us directly to the Aquarium of the Pacific where we beheld breathtaking aquatic wonders. Our behind-the-scenes tour of the Aquarium included feeding the sharks. Did you know that some sharks lay eggs? (See photo 486.) Neither did we. In one display case, half of the eggshell has been removed, so visitors can watch how the embryo grows while still attached to the yoke. The certified divers among us were even given the opportunity to swim with sharks and 12,500 tropical fish in the main tank. They were accompanied by a master diver who pointed out where certain fish lived so they could be captured on film. It seems everybody, fish and children alike, enjoy having their photo taken.
The true photo hams of the Aquarium are the otters. Three of them ate $50,000 dollars of restaurant quality seafood last year, a restaurant tab that makes them the most expensive residents at the Aquarium. Why so much food? They have to eat 25% of their bodyweight to maintain their body temperature each day. Compared to humans, we only eat 5% and sharks, just 2%. No wonder the otters are always ready for their close-up.
Other perfect backdrops for photos are along Long Beach’s many bike trails, which have earned Long Beach the title of “The Friendliest Bike City in America”. The City of Long Beach, with funding provided by The Los Angeles County Health Department, provides bikes for rent throughout the city. Swipe your credit card, and the bike is free if you keep it for less than thirty-minutes, and it only took us twenty minutes to get to Naples along the beach-side bike trail.
Naples is a beautiful beachside community, built on man-made islands with an array of man-made delights to choose from. We grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and some cupcakes from Frosted Cupcakes, and boarded one of Gondola Getaway’s authentic Venetian Gondola to cruise the canals and waterways of Naples Island. Most of the homes were decorated with a nautical theme, one complete with a pirate (who disappears each December when Santa comes to town.) (See photo 546.) We had two gondoliers, Mark Schooling who serenaded us, and Luke Serrano (See photos 540, 541 and 542.) who dazzled us with his charming repartee and brilliant smile. The wine, sugar rush and saltwater air made us famished.
The perfect place for our last meal was Michael’s on Naples, a two-year-old Tuscan culinary treasure. General manager and sommelier Masino Aronne and executive chef David Coleman served us Fiori di Zucca (ricotta- and herb-stuffed squash blossoms), Taleggive Funghi (forest mushroom, taleggio cheese and pesto sauce), and Lasagna Verde alla Bolognese (spinach pasta layered with meat sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and a cream over tomato guanciale sauce). Thanks to the bikes, we were able to pedal off some of the meal before turning in for the evening. (Well, a few of us went back to The Pike for late night thrills, while others dreamed that this amazing weekend would never end.)
Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, LongBeachCVB.org