An Unexpected Holiday Destination: Long Beach
If you considered a list of places to visit during the holiday season, Long Beach might not come to mind. As one of the world’s largest shipping ports, you might envision leaving from there on a festive cruise, but to stay? Probably not. Yet, its year-round mild temperatures and sunny days are the perfect environment to thoroughly enjoy some novel holiday activities. Better yet, the area is small enough to usually get around by foot. When not, a bicycle, free city passport circulator shuttle, or low cost water taxis* are readily available.
Since I mentioned cruising, let’s talk first about the Queen Mary. Retired from Cunard Line after many years of service, Long Beach has been this vessel’s permanent home since 1967. With its maiden voyage in 1916, this year marks the 80th anniversary for this ship, which was considered the height of luxury and forward-thinking technology in its time.
While the ship is open year-round as a hotel and historic marvel to tour, from now until Jan. 8 it transforms into an over-the-top holiday experience entitled “Chill.” With a backdrop of smokestacks awash in twinkling lights, visitors can skate under the stars on a 6,000 sq. ft. ice rink, sit atop a sparkling oversized rocking horse, ride the swings (originals from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch), decorate gingerbread cookies, play Prancer’s Paintball, or tube down 24-ft. high ice slides.
The last four years also featured magnificent ice sculptures created by artists from Harbin, China, which is home to the world’s largest ice and snow festival. Designed by a local company, it would take the Chinese team four to five weeks to carve thousands of both clear and colored ice blocks to bring them to life.
The near-arctic cold of Harbin keeps their larger-than-life-sized sculptures frozen well past February. In balmy Long Beach, a 13,000 sq. ft. igloo kept at a frigid nine degrees did the trick. One year’s display boasted a 25 ft. tall replica of the Queen Mary with ice stairs for guests to climb before sliding down one of four ice chutes. Adults and children alike (me included!) went back down the shoots time and time again. Despite my long johns, layers of clothing, gloves, and a hat, an additional parka provided at the igloo entrance allowed the bone-chilling temperatures to be only painfully cold.
Those carved scenes and characters were well worth every drippy nose-icicle and warmed everyone’s hearts, if not their feet! This year, the event staff chose a different route for their centerpiece achievement. The display will showcase lighted silk lanterns, created once again by Chinese artists well-versed in this once ancient practice, to bring to life a “winterized” version of the classic Lewis Carroll story, Alice in Winterland.
With RIFD chip technology embedded throughout the 14,000 sq. ft. dome, the experience is a completely interactive and digitally immersive tale. Giant book pages tell the story, surrounded with oversized silk lantern characters and sets. Visitors can choose their own adventure by entering the Hedge Maze, Hall of Doors, White Rabbit’s Kitchen, Mad Hatter’s workshop, or a tea party in any order and at their own pace. Throw in the Caterpillar and Queen appearing throughout the tale, and it promises a wondrous experience no matter your age.
More information can be found online at queenmary.com, where you can view the many videos and pictures of the ship’s history. “Chill” tickets and packages with lodging and/or special tours, including a display of Princess Dianna’s dresses and personal items, are offered. Although audio guides as well as guided tours can be booked, the ship is also open for “Chill” ticket holders to walk back in time and explore the vessel, take in the deck’s stunning Long Beach skyline, and perhaps have a meal or drink in one of three restaurants and Observation Bar.
If the “Chill” event isn’t enticing enough, consider the “Hollywood Comes to Life” movie themed New Year’s Eve event. Revelers have access to three-and-a-half acres of decks and salons to rotate between. Themes will have guests gambling and swing dancing in a “Godfather” inspired area, line dancing in “Urban Cowboy” style, enjoying top 40 hits with strolling magicians, tarot card readers to mimic the “Now You See Me” film, learning salsa and watching dance shows inspired by “Mambo Kings,” dancing and neon face painting in a black light “Avatar” inspired area, channeling their inner George Clooney in the “Ocean’s Eleven” themed lounge and casino, and rounding it off with dancing in a “Matrix” style.
Long Beach has much more to offer than the Queen Mary, however. The town’s easily accessible downtown is a treasure trove of restaurants, shops, early 20th century architecture, and Art Deco tiled elements. Bike rentals, city bikes, and trails abound as well. My favorite is the 3.1-mile Shoreline Bike Path located close to downtown hotels and must-see attractions.
Beginning at the lighthouse in Shoreline Aquatic Park, the route juts out and around the Aquarium of the Pacific – with more than 11,000 regional fish, sea animals, penguins, and a huge Lorikeet aviary – and then through the Rainbow Lagoon Park, which offers the best view of the world’s largest mural. As one of the 100 “whaling walls” painted by artist Robert Wyland, the large circular tank-like building convinces most visitors it’s part of the aquarium rather than a large arena within the Convention and Entertainment Complex. The bike path then turns back to the beach’s permanent volleyball nets, where Olympian Misty May Treanor and many world-class volleyball enthusiasts play, along with world-class wannabes and weekend warriors. Continuing past the Long Beach Museum of Art sitting high atop a bluff, the route continues into the neighborhood of Belmont Shore. The Belmont Brewing Company, located across from the Belmont Beach Pier, is right on the way and a great place to stop for a quick meal or drink while enjoying the ocean air. It’s also the perfect spot for people watching, especially when four to five person peddle-propelled surreys pass by.
The Belmont Shore area of Long Beach sits directly across from Naples Island, a lovely little land mass filled with beach cottages (some more akin to mansions) beautifully decorated for the season. The city does its part as well by installing underwater platforms to hold lighted Christmas trees, which appear to “float” in the bay. You can reach the island by bicycle or foot after continuing along the oceanfront another .25 miles, turning left onto Bay Shore Avenue and a quick right onto East 2nd Avenue. Home to another “must-do” Long Beach activity, the Gondola Getaway* has authentic Venetian style boats complete with a gondolier to row through the cozy canals of Naples. And on Dec. 17, the 70th Annual Naples Island Boat Parade takes place at 6 p.m. Streets close at 5 p.m., so get there early and stake out a spot along the parks, bay frontage, or bridges to see larger boats, small Duffy electric vessels, and gondolas lit and decorated in crazy and creative ways. Everyone with a boat joins in, so you’ll find none for rental that evening, but you can inexpensively tour around the island during the season on the 110 passenger Harbor Lights Christmas Cruise* leaving from Alamitos Bay Landing.