Manhattan Beach Pier (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
www.roundhouseaquarium.org) operates inside the eight-sided Roundhouse building (built in 1922, rebuilt in 1991), and it's free (though donations of $5 a family are suggested). It's tiny, but it has just enough to quicken the pulse of a junior oceanographer -- sea star touch tanks, eels and fish of various stripes, a leopard shark and more. Fewer than two blocks away, the Manhattan Beach Creamery (1120 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach; www.mbcreamery.com) awaits with ice cream and other sweet treats. And later, when it's time for a proper meal, there's Rock'n Fish (120 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach; www.rocknfishmb.com) restaurant with seafood, steaks and convivial atmosphere. (Beware the two-hour limit on table-occupation.) Or there's the Strand House (117 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach; www.thestrandhousemb.com), a sleek new fine-dining place (the Zislis Group, same owner as Rock'n Fish) that opened across the street in 2011.
7. Bagels and Metlox
Simmzy's Pub on Manhattan Beach Boulevard (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Walk a few blocks up the hill from the Manhattan Beach Pier on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, pass Noah's Bagels on your right, and look left. That's Metlox (www.metloxmb.com), a sun-splashed semi-minimalist collection of shops and restaurants that's too genteel to call a mall. (The median household income in Manhattan Beach is more than $100,000, which makes it the wealthiest of the three beach-city neighbors.) There's sushi over here, Mediterranean food over there, plus a spa and Le Pain Quotidien bakery (Suite A-132; www.lepainquotidien.us). And there's the Shade Hotel (1221 N. Valley Drive, Manhattan Beach; www.shadehotel.com). It opened in 2005 (the Zislis Group again), and if you're wealthy enough to pay between $300 and $400 in summer, it's the coolest lodging in the South Bay. Its public areas are handsome and modern (except that the upstairs pool is too small for anything but a quick splash), and the guest rooms have spa jets in their two-person tubs, along with retracting screens between the bathroom and bedroom areas. If you're not quite wealthy enough -- and if you're antsy about easy airport access -- the Belamar Hotel (3501 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach; www.thebelamar.com) might make sense. Though it has the feel of a business lodging (with boutique flourishes), it's less than two miles from the beach, connected to downtown Manhattan Beach by the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt footpath and less than four miles from LAX, with nightly rates that often fall beneath $175, especially on weekends.
8. Hotel confidential
Sheraton Gateway (Sheraton)
No leisure traveler should spend more than a single night in one of those big hotels in the soulless zone that is Century Boulevard. But if you have a late-night arrival or early-morning departure, or both, that single night can be crucial. When that time comes, remember that the big airport hotels have free LAX shuttle bus service with departures every 15 to 20 minutes and that their rates are often much lower on weekends, when business travel slows. Also, many of these hotels have specials offering up to a week of free parking if you book a room for just one night. Three good choices are the 802-room Starwood-affiliated Sheraton Gateway (6101 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles; www.sheratonlax.com); the 499-room Marriott-affiliated Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel (9620 Airport Blvd., Los Angeles; www.marriott.com/laxrr) and the 740-room Starwood-affiliated Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel (5400 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles; www.westinlosangelesairport.com). In early 2012, all three often had weekend rates under $130 (and weekday rates twice as high). All have heated outdoor pools and club levels, and in-house restaurants serving all three meals. All three ding you for parking and Wi-Fi, adding about $40 a night unless you've grabbed one of those free-parking packages.
9. In the white spider
The Theme Building and Encounter restaurant (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
You know you've wondered exactly what's inside that spider-legged Jetsons-era Theme Building in the middle of LAX. The building and its Encounter restaurant (209 World Way, Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles; www.encounterlax.com), which was substantially renovated in 2010. So maybe, if you have a couple of airport hours to kill outside the security checkpoint, it's time to explore. There's a free observation deck up top that's open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. By day, concrete dominates the view. So wait until sunset, when takeoffs and landings show up better, and head to Encounter for a drink. (The food gets mixed reviews.) You'll hear a goofball sci-fi soundtrack as you ride the elevator, and you'll find lava lamps all around. But be advised that unless you drink way too much, the restaurant will not spin. It never has. (In its grooviest days before 9/11, Encounter buzzed with diners and drinkers and didn't close until 2 a.m. Nowadays, it closes at 9 or 9:30 p.m., depending on the night.) And if none of this quite satisfies your plane-craziness, just a few blocks away, close by a busy runway, awaits the Proud Bird (11022 Aviation Blvd., Los Angeles; www.theproudbird.com), a restaurant that since 1962 has been fixated on the fun of flight. Not only do its window tables and patio offer prime views of landing jets, but its backyard is also decorated with more than a dozen historic planes.
10. To float your boat
Marina del Rey (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Just 10 miles north of Manhattan Beach and right next to Venice, Marina del Rey is an 800-acre sailors' haven -- a man-made lagoon with six hotels, six yacht clubs and about two dozen marinas and anchorages along its shores. Take a toddler to Mother's Beach near Admiralty and Palawan ways. Take a picnic to the grassy hillocks of Burton W. Chace Park (13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey; www.chacepark.com), which is surrounded by water on three sides. Rent just about any kind of watercraft you can imagine or sign onto a harbor cruise (www.visitmarinadelrey.com). Or, if it's a Wednesday from mid-April through early September, grab a sweater, take a patio seat at Shanghai Red's (13813 Fiji Way, Marina del Rey; www.shanghairedsrestaurant.com) and order a happy hour drink and snack (4-7 p.m.). Then lean back and watch sailboats by the score as they head out to open water for the California Yacht Club's weekly Sunset Series regatta (beginning at 5:55 p.m. Wednesdays). The boats head back in again as the sun sets. By the way, don't expect Chinese food at Shanghai Red's. It's been a surf-and-turf standby, with room for about 200 on that patio, for more than 40 years.