April 18, 2013

Long Beach offers leisurely weekend activities

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 7:13 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda and I love weekend trips where there’s something new to see, great food to sample, and time to just be together without planning out every minute.

One recent weekend, I picked her up at Los Angeles International Airport and we decided to go to Long Beach, about a 40 minute drive away. The name Long Beach may evoke images of longshoreman at a port of call (which it is), but it’s also a city with a rich history and lovely neighborhoods.Dinah Eng

Originally settled by the Spanish, the area grew as a commercial center and resort town, known for its long, wide beaches.  In 1921, oil was discovered, and building boomed, until the earthquake of 1933.  Much of the downtown area was rebuilt in Art Deco style, which can still be seen today.

In more recent years, Long Beach’s proximity to Los Angeles made it the site of four Olympic events during the L.A. Olympics in 1984, and a number of tourist attractions from whale watching to this week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 19-21, 2013) now draw visitors to the area.

We decided to stay at Hyatt the Pike (http://www.thepikelongbeach.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels-thepikelongbeach/index.jsp?null), a lovely boutique hotel in the middle of The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex near the beach.

The lobby, which has wonderfully cush rocking chairs, opens to a lively bar and restaurant on one end, and a small fitness center and business center alcove on the other.  A great rooftop pool, protected by glass partition windbreakers, offers patio and lounge seating, with panoramic views of the city and harbor.

Our room, done in contemporary soft gray tones, featured a fun sliding pocket door to the bathroom. If you love taking luxurious showers, this is the kind of large, walk-in stall you want, complete with a choice of rain head shower fixture or hand shower, and a wooden bench to sit on or put toiletries on.

From the hotel, it was a short walk to a number of touristy shops, so Linda and I strolled around Shoreline Village at Rainbow Harbor and the stores at the Pike. Readers who love used books stores should check out Piccolo Books underneath the Cinemark Theatres.

Belmont Shore shopping - Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

Belmont Shore shopping – Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

The best “specialty” shopping, though, was found on Second Street in a neighborhood called Belmont Shore. With more than 250 businesses, it was fun to walk through the gift shops and clothing stores, browsing the wares. Our favorite find was Luna (http://www.lunabelmontshore.com/), a lovely gift shop that features exquisite jewelry, art glass and hand-made pottery.

While interesting restaurants are everywhere, an eatery named Nick’s on Second (http://www.thenickco.com/nickson2.php) beckoned. We have a nephew named Nick, and a look at the menu gave me a good feeling, so we went in to try their classic American comfort food. With everything from burgers and sandwiches, to salads and short ribs, there was plenty to choose from.

Linda, who loves to make deviled eggs for family parties, ordered the Fried Deviled Eggs ($6), which were amazing. A Nick’s original, this version fried the white of the egg, and placed it between the mashed yolk topped with bacon bits. She chose Nick’s Ribeye Melt ($15), while I had the Tuna on marble bread ($12) and a side of Mac & Cheese ($5). We both split the restaurant’s Warm Butter Cake ($8), which was indescribably delicious. Think of a mixture of lemon, vanilla, and raspberry flavors, and forget the calories. As we waddled out the door, we both wished there was a Nick’s closer to home.

One of the best reasons to stay at Hyatt the Pike is its location, which also happens to be just across a pedestrian bridge to the Aquarium of the Pacific (http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/), a beautiful homage to the world’s largest ocean that is both entertaining and educational.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water.  Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water. Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

“We have a very interactive aquarium,” explains Lori Perkins, interpretation manager for the facility. “You can go to Shark’s Lagoon, for example, and touch a shark. You learn that most sharks are not dangerous to humans, and are important to our ecosystem, so it’s important to protect them.”

We loved seeing the June Keyes Penguin Habitat, which has a crawl space that makes you feel like you’re in the exhibit with the animals. The Magellanic penguins live in temperate climates, so don’t need ice and snow to be happy. Linda was taken with the cute-looking creatures, and tapped on the glass of their swimming pool, hoping they’d swim over to her… and they did.

Another popular exhibit is the Lorikeet Forest, where more than 100 small, brightly colored birds from Australia live. If you buy a small cup of nectar, they’ll flock to you to get a taste of the treat. While I didn’t have any nectar on me, one chose to land on my  head anyway. I could feel its talons walking around overhead, but when Linda and I  walked toward the exit, the lorikeet decided to go in search of a nicer nest. Talk about feeling like you’re really in the middle of a forest!

For dinner, Linda and I both love Italian food, so we tried La Traviata (http://latraviata301.com), a wonderful restaurant-bar downtown that has both old world charm and food that would please any gourmet’s palate. The menu, deceptively simple, offers homemade pastas and entreés that would stand out in any fine dining restaurant.

For an appetizer, we tried the Coco Prawns ($12), which were large, tiger shrimps done tempura-style, with kumquat mustard sauce. They were so good, we were almost reluctant to move on to the rest of the meal. But the best was yet to come.

For our entreés, we started with the Chilean Sea Bass ($39), which came miso glazed, with Tobiko caviar, Jasmine rice and seasonal vegetables. This fish melts in your mouth, with a delicate flavor that clearly makes it a house favorite. Then came the Diver Sea Scallops ($28), wrapped in Dover sole, lemon, butter, capers, and fried Julienne vegetables.  I didn’t care for the fried vegetables, but a taste of the Wild Mushroom Tortelli ($19), stuffed with portobello, shitake and button mushrooms in a garlic parmesan sauce, more than made up for it.

Dessert was an amazing Tiramisu ($8) with vanilla gelato, strawberries and blueberries. We didn’t leave a bite.

The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is the creation of owner Mario Nasab, who managed small restaurants in London before moving to Long Beach. “I wanted to do something around the opera ‘La Traviata’ and Italian food,” Nasab says. The restaurant, housed in the Wiltmore Building, a 1920s Long Beach landmark, is an intimate setting that also features entertainment during the week. Nasab, who makes the rounds to greet diners each evening, has created a neighborhood favorite not to be missed.

For a weekend getaway, Long Beach had more to offer than we had time to sample. All the more reason to go back.

For more information on where to stay, dine and local attractions, check out the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.visitlongbeach.com/.

Next: The Queen Mary

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