Unwinding in San Pedro

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Sunday, early evening. I'm at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Just me and one other guy on the path ahead. He has green canvas under one arm, a shiny stick under the other.

He pauses at the cliff's edge. The green canvas unfolds into a chair. The shiny stick turns out to be a flute. He sits and plays. No discernable tune, just notes to accompany the waves below.

"Mind if I listen?" I ask.

"Not at all," he says.

We get to talking. He says his name is Cyrus. He comes to this spot once a week or so. It's his favorite place: uncomplicated, uncrowded, unpretentious. Full of peace, he says. And at this moment, looking into a horizon of blue sky and sea, I have to agree.

I've interrupted his solo long enough. I thank him for the concert, explain that a cold pale ale awaits at a pub across town, and walk away. The flute resumes behind me, growing more faint until only the Pacific can hear it.

At the San Pedro Brewing Co., I sit down for dinner: Caesar salad, a good chicken sandwich, that cold pale ale. And, starting at the end, the weekend begins to rewind in my head....

Sunday, 3:35 p.m.: I'm in the basement of the Gen. Phineas Banning Residence Museum in neighboring Wilmington. Because I'm the only person in the last tour of the day, volunteer docent Nita Shidler makes small talk, asking why I'm visiting these parts instead of other, more obvious spots on the L.A. sites-to-see map.

My brain flashes a bunch of explanations: Short drive from my West Hollywood home. Smaller crowds. In a rare occurrence, though, my manners kick in before my mouth does.

"I like history," I say. "This place sounds interesting." Not the full truth but certainly no lie, as Nita is about to prove.

Nita dives into the historical photos on the walls, quickly recounting the life of Banning: Born 1830 in Wilmington, Del. (thus the name for this neighborhood). Made his fortune running a stagecoach and freight business. Died 1885. State senator, early champion of developing the Port of Los Angeles, and patriarch of one of L.A.'s founding families.

Not until we move up to the mansion's ground floor do I fully understand why this place is a National Historic Landmark. In the French Rococo Revival parlor, intricately crafted Henry Belter-style rosewood settees and a hand-carved marble-top music stand. In the dining room, Chippendale Centennial chairs, 1876 reproductions of a 1776 design.

Room after room is a stunning display of 19th century gentility that makes "Antiques Roadshow" look like "The Price Is Right." The house is all the more remarkable, Nita says, because of its rough-and-tumble era--a time when roughly one in 50 residents was murdered in this frontier town.

I ask about the two magnificent, hulking armoires--one American Empire, the other Renaissance Revival. In Banning's day, she says, property taxes were based on the number of rooms in a house. Closets counted as rooms. So in this home of 10,000 square feet, only about five closets.

Sunday, 2:10 p.m.: Of the 20 or so buildings that made up Union Army headquarters for California and Arizona, I'm standing in the only one that remains: the junior officers' quarters, now the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum.

Tour guide Lupe Tuliau points out major relics on display, including a Gatling gun, the hand-cranked machine gun invented in 1862. But I find smaller pieces more interesting. There's a rifle, quite ordinary-looking except for the 4-inch initials scratched into the stock: "N.M.," the first letter written backward by a soldier who probably died before learning to write properly.

When we're done, Lupe tells me to go to the Banning House. Ask about the armoires, she says. "It's a good story."

Sunday, 10:56 a.m.: My partner believes that a weekend isn't a weekend unless you sleep late enough to miss breakfast. Getting Todd up this morning would be like rousing a bear midwinter. So while he hibernates at our hotel, the Hilton at the San Pedro marina, I drive to the L.A. Maritime Museum by the ship docks, where volunteers lead tours outside 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Volunteer Leo Kowalski guides three of us visitors around two 70-foot, double-masted brigantines, a $5.6-million project built in part by participants in a youth sailing program. The vessels, still under construction, look like whale skeletons. Fifty-two ribs of white oak rise on each side, tethered to a spine of purple heart wood--heavy enough to sink in fresh water but light enough to float in the ocean.

I've never seen ships under construction, so it's an intriguing 30 minutes. I'd like to stick around longer to tour the Maritime Museum, but it's time to get Yogi out of his den.

Back at the hotel, the promise of a harbor-side picnic lunch inspires Todd to rise, if not shine. At the hotel cafe we order takeout sandwiches for two: a turkey club and a Southwestern chicken wrap.

After lunch, Todd returns to his grad-school studies at UCLA. I set off for the Drum Barracks and Banning House, hoping Sunday proves as rewarding as Saturday.

Rewind to Saturday night: Todd breaks from his schoolwork to join me in San Pedro. We ask a hotel clerk for dinner ideas. He recommends the Green Onion on 6th Street in Old Town San Pedro.

It turns out to be a pleasant family restaurant with good food. It's Cinco de Mayo, so a loud mariachi band fires up. A really loud mariachi band.

Just as our ears start crying for seis de mayo or siete de mayo , the band moves into the next room and our food arrives. For me, chicken and rice covered in mole sauce. For Todd, a house specialty called a fajitadilla (fajita ingredients served like a quesadilla). By the time our margarita glasses are empty (then full, then empty again), we declare the Green Onion a fabulous choice.

Saturday, 3:17 p.m.: To me, there are three keys to a perfect beach: clean water, a litter-free shore and available (and legal) parking somewhere in the same ZIP code. Cabrillo Beach passes the parking test: 39 steps from my car to the sand.

The north half of the beach isn't very scenic. Industrial cranes from the port dominate the horizon, and the lack of waves means the water is sometimes less than fresh. The south end is nicer. Gentle waves massaging the sand. Sailboats offshore.

After a quick peek in the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, I hop in the car and drive five minutes to Point Fermin Park at the top of the bluffs facing the ocean. Tree-shaded lawns, picnic tables, an 1874 lighthouse.

A steep trail winds down to the rocky shore. Only three people are here--me and a couple--watching daylight fade. This place seems to define San Pedro--nothing grand or showy. Just tide-worn rocks, white foam of an advancing surf and saltwater mist carried in the breeze. Perfectly simple. And simply perfect.

Saturday, 1:18 p.m.: I'm allowed to check in early at my hotel. I've seen weekend rates here advertised as low as $109. My room, booked the night before, is $139, plus taxes. Before I can fret over $30, my room door opens to a portrait of rest and relaxation. Framed in the window are yachts bobbing in the marina. Walkers making their rounds.

I open the window, kick back in a love seat facing the harbor and breathe in the scene. Looks like it's going to be a nice weekend.

*

Craig Nakano is an assistant editor in the Travel section.

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Budget for Two

Hilton, one night: $160.53

Admission, Cabrillo Beach and aquarium: $8.50

Dinner, Green Onion: $41.47

Lunch, Hilton cafe: $16.47

Admission for one, Drum Barracks: $3.00

Admission for one, Banning Museum: $3.00

Dinner for one, San Pedro Brewing Co.: $15.62

Gas: $8.01

FINAL TAB: $256.60

* Hilton Port of Los Angeles/San Pedro, 2800 Via Cabrillo Marina, San Pedro, CA 90731; telephone (310) 514-3344, fax (310) 514-8945, Internet http://www.hilton.com.

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