First published on July 3, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.

The harbor area of southwest Los Angeles County is the closest thing we have to a blue-collar coast. It’s where cruise ships call, where ton upon ton of maritime machinery hums and looms, where the Queen Mary passes its awkward retirement. A little farther west, the Pacific pounds the bluffs and pebbles of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and 22 miles off the mainland, the island of Santa Catalina primps and sparkles for weekend admirers.

This territory "to me, is like a secret," says Anthony Geich from behind the desk at Hostelling International's L.A./South Bay hostel in San Pedro. "You're in L.A., but you're away from all the bull."

1. A bottle of vino, a little boat and thou


Naples canal (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Just before Los Angeles County runs out and Orange County begins, a southbound traveler comes across the watery Long Beach neighborhood known as Naples. It's a cluster of three upscale residential islands, with waterways between. They're a fine place to float, perhaps in a kayak or maybe in a Venetian gondola. For $85 a couple, Gondola Getaway (5437 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.gondo.net) offers 50-minute floating adventures nearly every day, complete with gondolieri in striped shirts and straw hats. Bring a refreshment (no corkage fee) or a crowd: The 10-vessel gondola fleet offers various options for larger groups (including a "pizza cruise" for eight to 12 people at $40 a person). Some of the guys sing -- a nice effect under the echoing bridges -- and many like to punch up mood music on a portable device. Especially around sunset, it's a memorable float as you drift past well-heeled homes under the darkening sky. Ignacio Villanueva, a veteran gondolier, says he's seen many a marriage proposal and only one turn-down. Excellent odds, gentlemen. And if your proposal doesn't pan out, well, you can jump ship and swim for Tantalum restaurant (6272 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach; www.tantalumrestaurant.com), which overlooks one of the marinas on Alamitos Bay and gets some healthy singles happy-hour traffic.

2. This way to the bat ray

Aquarium of the Pacific (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

You've gone as far south as Interstate 710 goes, to the damp heart of Long Beach. You've stepped into the Aquarium of the Pacific (100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach; www.aquariumofpacific.org), a big and bright attraction that opened in 1998 near the city's convention center. Now find the Touch Pool. Reach into the shallows. And tickle the gray skin of the first flat, triangular creature that slithers by. That's a bat ray, its spine clipped (painlessly) to prevent venomous stings. Its skin, you'll agree, is surprisingly soft. And Long Beach, for all its heavy-metal maritime machinery and antiseptic waterfront redevelopment, can be downright cuddly here and there. This aquarium includes about 11,000 sea creatures and a see-through tunnel that surrounds you with sea life. Along the Rainbow Harbor waterfront outside, whale-watching boats, harbor cruises and dinner-cruise vessels will compete for your attention, as will Bubba Gump, P.F. Chang and a bevy of the usual national-brand restaurant characters. If it's a weekday, you might grab a drink and a happy-hour snack in Shoreline Village at the three-story, red-roofed Parkers' Lighthouse (435 Shoreline Village Drive, Long Beach; www.parkerslighthouse.com) before the higher dinner prices kick in. But for more serious meat (and less view), you'll head about a mile east to the old-school steakhouse 555 East (555 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.555east.com). Its walls are wood-paneled, and the meatloaf (served at lunch only) will brighten your day. As for the rest of your night, of course, Hilton, Hyatt and Westin are huddled near the convention hall, but why not try some place on a smaller scale? Out on Queensway Drive by the Queen Mary, check out the Hotel Maya, a DoubleTree by Hilton that in 2009 was jazzed up with modern Mexican design. Bold colors, fire pits, waterfront views and bracing ocean breezes.

3. Big ships

The Queen Mary (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In a slightly different universe, the Long Beach waterfront would still be dominated by the Long Beach Pike, a massive amusement park that went up in the early 20th century, a cousin to similar setups in San Diego, Santa Monica and Santa Cruz. But the Pike did not age well, and city leaders were scrambling for a new way to lure tourists. Enter the Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; www.queenmary.com), a British ocean liner built in the 1930s, retired in 1967 and recast here as a floating hotel. The ship cuts a striking figure from land or sea, especially if you're about to board a contemporary cruise ship from the embarkation center next door, where many Carnival Mexican cruises begin. And ghost-hunters love the place. But up close, the Queen Mary is tired. Red ink and management changes have been frequent. Many of its historical features have been removed or remodeled. Think hard before you hand over your admission fee for the tour (or your credit card for a night’s stay). But if you really love old ships and you're going to the Aquarium of the Pacific anyway, buy the combo ticket. That way, instead of paying $24.95 adult admission for the ship alone (as of early 2012), you get the aquarium, too, for $36. By the way, that pass won't get you aboard the strange little Russian submarine that's moored next to the Queen Mary, but the gift shop is free (want to browse vodka flasks?), and you can replicate the self-guided tour by imagining yourself wedged inside a vacuum cleaner with torpedo tubes.

4. Going retro

The Collective (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Just when you think you're beginning to figure out Long Beach, up pops bohemian Retro Row (www.4thstreetlongbeach.com), a medley of funky vintage and design shops on East 4th Street, to show you how little you know. More than two dozen shops are concentrated between Cherry and Junipero avenues. Near St. Louis Avenue, check out the new and vintage furnishings at Trebor Nevets (2116 E. 4th St.; www.trebornevets.com), the hipster hats at Imonni Nanala (2106 E. 4th St.), the wines at 4th Street Vine shop (2142 E. 4th St.; www.4thstreetvine.com), the written words of Open  Books (2226 E. 4th St.). When hunger rises up, stroll over to Lola's Mexican restaurant, (2030 E. Fourth St., Long Beach; www.lolasmexicancuisine.com), and don't miss the patio in back or the parklet Lola’s opened in January 2012. Or sink into the calm, white corridor that is noodle house Number Nine (2118 E. 4th St., Long Beach; www.numberninenoodles.com.). If there's time, top off your day's artsy excursion with a visit to the nearby Museum of Latin American Art (628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; www.molaa.org), which is housed in a boldly colored Mexican modern building, or the Long Beach Museum of Art (2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; www.lbma.org),which has grown from a 1912 brick-and-timber home to include a later expansion.

5. Eat, drink, shop, stroll