My first trans-Atlantic ocean voyage was on a most memorable sailing, quite some time ago, aboard a Cunard ship, the Queen Elizabeth II. Two friends and I traveled on a “student rate,”and we were stacked quite tightly in a cabin in the bowels of the ship. Many sea voyages later, I was thrilled to visit the historic Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, 877/342-0738) for the weekend. This time, my cabin was decidedly different: I slumbered in a king suite, once fit for royalty, both real and Hollywood. My spacious burl-wood-paneled king sized bedroom, A127, was replete with remnants of yesteryear, including a vanity with beveled mirrors and four hot-and-cold bathtub faucets (albeit no longer functioning) labeled for “Fresh Sea Water” and “Fresh Water.” Portholes provided views to the Queensway Bay along with all the comforts of a hotel room, and then some.
Spending time experiencing the grand lifestyle of yesteryear can take up plenty of time. There’s an on board historian, as well as audio and organized tours, including a late night Ghost tour that sounded as much fun as the annual Art Deco weekend in August, when guests come in period dress. One caveat: although the ship is a delightful venue for special events and such gatherings, I find it annoying, even though the front desk will provide earplugs, when guests dance the night away ’til midnight to a loud live band during a late night wedding party. And as one passenger visiting from the U.K. noted as we strolled the grand promenade deck, “It’s a three star hotel on a five star attraction.” Yes, the grande dame has seen better days (peeling wallpaper and a soap holder could have used a better scrub in my loo), but just the same, she’s truly worthy of a visit.
So is Long Beach. I relished Long Beach’s contrasting views. As the second busiest container port in the U.S., Long Beach’s shipping containers, cranes and other harbor accouterments delighted as much as vistas across the channel to downtown’s skyline. This I ogled, as well as the lovely homes that fringe the sea in Belmont Shore on a drive to dinner one evening.
Although hard-pressed to leave ship explorations, Long Beach has many other reasons for a visit. The city boasts a couple of small but stunning art museums: the Museum of Latin American Art (628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, 562/437-1689), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, shows terrific contemporary Latin American art in a modern venue, and the Long Beach Museum of Art (2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, 562/439-2119), set in an oceanfront Craftsman building, also features contemporary artists of note.
On the culinary front, I did some fine grazing. Shared appetizers of duck meatballs and roasted squash with mushrooms and green beans were a meal in itself at Saint & Second (4828 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, 562/433-4828), a bustling and popular bar and restaurant in Belmont Shores. For wine, our terrific waitress recommended the perfect accompaniment, Domaine du Beaurenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 2012.
At the recently opened Taste (3506 E. Broadway, Long Beach, 562/433-1000), a wine and beer kitchen in the Belmont Heights neighborhood, sommelier Alicia Ajolo curates a terrific wine list, and red and white wine flights to accompany dishes by Executive Chef Brad Neumann. A friend and I dined at the 12-seat communal table (the restaurant is quite small) and chatted with locals while ogling their orders. We opted for the smoked beet salad and the Chawanmushi, a warm Japanese egg custard dotted with veggies. Smoked duck, braised pig cheeks and grill trout all looked worthy of a return visit. Our wine flights included wines from Sonoma, Lake County and Napa. Restaurateur Erin O’Grady and her partner are also long time owners of Olives Gourmet Grocer (3510 E. Broadway, Long Beach, 562/439-7758), a terrific stop for picnic supplies just next door.
Hotel Maya (700 Queensway Dr., Long Beach, 562/435-7676), not far from the Queen Mary, has an extensive tequila bar as well as stunning city views from the outdoor patio and a Sunday brunch that features live Latin jazz. Speaking of music, there’s a jazz club called Bluebird, part of Roscoe’s House of Waffles and Chicken (730 E. Broadway, Long Beach, 562/437-8355) in Long Beach, home to one of the southland’s best jazz stations KJAZZ 88.1 FM at Cal State University Long Beach.
The Queen Mary’s maiden voyage took place in 1936. She retired in 1967 to Long Beach. Royalty, both real and Hollywood sailed on the Queen Mary in her day. These days, regular folk (in regular clothing, I might add) can enjoy this classic piece of history whether as a hotel guest or day visitor for a tour or for a meal, including sumptuous Sunday brunches.
If the wood burl walls on this iconic ocean liner could talk, imagine what the ghostly voices of Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mum might have to say?
Shipboard romances were not uncommon either: My godmother, Virginia Cherrill, former wife of Cary Grant and actress who played “The Blind Flower Girl” in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, told the press that she met husband number three, Lord Jersey, at Queen Mary in the fall of 1936. Soon after, they married and she became the Countess of Jersey.
I am excited to note that I, too, can now add my name to the passenger list that has slumbered on this grande dame without the risk of mal de mer. No shipboard romance this time for me, sadly. But previous sails? The word is mum.