Did somebody order fish and ships?

The harbor area of southwest Los Angeles County -- the closest thing we have to a blue-collar coast -- is where the cruise ships call, where global cargo gets loaded and unloaded, where ton upon ton of maritime machinery hums and looms. It's where the Queen Mary passes her awkward retirement. Close at hand, 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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Long Beach travel guide: A July 3 Travel section article on Long Beach and environs described the Palos Verdes Peninsula as north of the Los Angeles Harbor area. It is mostly west of the harbor area. —

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

Here's the sixth installment of our yearlong series of Southern California Close-ups --11 beach, peninsula and island micro-itineraries that cover Long Beach, San Pedro, the Palos Verdes area and Catalina.


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 neighborhood known as Naples. It's a cluster of three upscale residential islands, with waterways in between. And those waterways are a fine place to float, perhaps in a kayak from Kayaks on the Water (5411 E. Ocean Blvd) or maybe by Venetian gondola. For $85 a couple, Gondola Getaway offers 50-minute floating adventures just about 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 6-10 people at $35 per person). Some of the guys sing – a nice effect under the echoing bridges -- and many play mood music. Especially around sunset, it's a memorable float, to drift past snazzy 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 you proposal doesn't pan out – well, you can jump ship and swim for Tantalum restaurant (6272 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Suite J), which overlooks one of the marinas on Alamitos Bay and gets some serious 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 the 710 freeway goes, to the damp heart of Long Beach. You've stepped into the Aquarium of the Pacific, 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 venomous spine clipped (painlessly) to prevent venomous stings. Its skin, you must 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 vie for your attention, as will Bubba Gump, P.F. Chang and a bevy of the usual national-brand restaurant characters in The Pike dining and entertainment district. If it's a weekday, you might grab a drink and happy hour snack at the three-story, red-roofed Parker's Lighthouse in Shoreline Village, before the higher dinner prices kick in. But for more serious meat (and less view), you'll head about a mile east to 555 East, an old-school steakhouse on Ocean Boulevard. The walls are wood-paneled, and the meat loaf will brighten your day. As for the rest of your night, of course, Hilton and Hyatt and Westin are company are all huddled near the convention hall, but why not some place on a smaller scale? Flop at the 138-room Avia Hotel, which opened in 2009, a few blocks from the aquarium with a pool on the roof. Or, 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, nice ocean views.


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 old Long Beach Pike, a massive amusement park that went up in the early 20th century, a cousin to similar set-ups 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 seduce tourists. Enter the Queen Mary, a British ocean liver built in the 1930s, retired in 1967, recast here as a floating hotel. The ship does cut a striking figure when seen 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. 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 beyond you hand over $24.95 to tour the ship (or $139 to stay overnight). And 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 aquarium along, you get the Queen Mary, too, for $36. By the way, that pass won't get you aboard the remarkably small old Russian submarine that's moored next to the Queen Mary, but the gift shop is free and entertaining (need a vodka flask?) and you can roughly replicate the $10.95 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 Long Beach out, up pops bohemian Retro Row, a medley of funky vintage and design shops on Fourth Street, to show how little you know. About three-dozen shops are concentrated between Cherry and Junipero avenues. Near St. Louis Ave., check out the dinette sets and Dean Martin albums in Elan Collection (408 St. Louis Ave.), the lanais and lamps at j-2 Design (402 St. Louis Ave.), the hipster hats at Imonni (2106 E. Fourth), the wines at 4th St. Vine shop (2142 E. Fourth), the written words of {open} books (2226 E. Fourth). Or settle in at The Collective (2122 E. Fourth) with its art prints and Viewmaster reels of Mexico City in 1957 and Anchorage in 1973. When hunger rises up, stroll over to Lola's Mexican restaurant, (2030 E. Fourth; don't miss the patio in back) or sink into the calm, white corridor that is noodle house Number Nine (2118 E. fourth). Or duck into Portfolio (2300 E. Fourth) for coffee. 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.), which is housed in a boldly colored Mexican modern building; or the Long Beach Museum of Art (2300 E. Ocean Blvd.) , which has grown from a 1912 brick-and-timber home to include a later expansion.