This January, after getting my Master’s degree in Edinburgh, along the way all but inevitably falling in love with Scotland, I returned to America a sadder, wiser, whisky-scented man. I had meant to stay in Edinburgh, but it is apparently impossible to claim asylum in the UK on the basis of US student loan debt. My appeals arguing that complicity with foreign indentured servitude amounts to a human rights abuse continue to go unheeded.
And so, on the 14th of January, brimming with Britishisms for which I knew I’d be mercilessly teased back in America, I vacated the country. Instead of returning to my pre-UK home of Portland, Oregon, however, I decided to do the scarier thing and move somewhere new.
Kinda. I decided to move to California, the state I’d spent my entire childhood plotting to escape. But So Cal’s a big place, and instead of moving back to the inland cities of my youth – I believe San Bernardino’s official slogan is ‘Where the soul goes to die’, but repression’s made my memory unreliable on certain points – I took advantage of a friend’s offer to stay with him in LA county. Specifically, Long Beach, which borders Los Angeles to the south, and shares most of its diversity and culture, but with cheaper sunglasses and slightly less traffic.
Long Beach California, at least in general reputation, is perhaps best summed up by one of its own billboards, which boasts the following catch phrase: ‘From Snoop Lions to Sea Lions’. (Snoop Lions, by the by, are apparently what Snoop Dogs evolve into, Pokemon-style, after accumulating large amounts of money and becoming musically irrelevant. Anyway, Snoop’s a Long Beach native. Also, we have a well-known aquarium here – which I’ll discuss momentarily. And now you’re caught up.) A few other factoids: Long Beach is the 36th largest city in America (the 7th in California), has the US’ second-busiest container port, and was famous in the early 1900s as the home of the Balboa Amusement Producing Company, the most dominant motion picture studio of the silent-film era.
But rankings only tell you so much – so let’s Long Beach, shall we?
Grab your sunscreen.
This is true: growing up, there was a privately owned gas station 10 minutes from my house whose owners had avocado trees. They sold their own avocados at the gas station – each one soft as a baby’s fontanelle, and roughly the size of a Christmas ham. And about 50 cents each (that’s, at the current rate, about 30p)!
This was the one bright spot to my entire, otherwise awful childhood, but it made up for everything else. Which is to say: if you enjoy nothing else about So Cal, you will love the food. Indeed, Long Beach’s Mexican food – Mexican food, you understand, is to Americans what Indian food is to Brits – is some of the best in the state. As usual, the smaller and more, let’s say, eccentric the eatery, the better its eating is likely to be. And there are many such restaurants in the LB, but Cinco de Mayo, on Pacific Ave downtown, is my current favourite. Its front and back doors are usually propped open on any given day. Walking in, one finds a small space whose no-fuss tables and chairs contrast noticeably with walls that look for all the world like the scene of a civil war fought between opposing armies of crayons; splattered all over with gaudy, if standard-issue Mexican paraphernalia – on the rather off-chance, I suppose, that you didn’t know, walking into a place called ‘Cinco de Mayo’, that you were in fact walking into a Mexican restaurant. But it’s a moot point, because what counts most, obviously, is the food – which is inexpensive and delicious. Indeed, I’m addicted to the vegetarian burritos, which are served, in high Mexican restaurant style, with home-made tortilla chips and little plastic containers of the kind of salsa that I would have traded my own limbs for back in Edinburgh. The chile verde has been vehemently recommended to me more than once.
Food aside, if you mention the fact that you’ll be visiting Long Beach to anyone who is even remotely familiar with the city, this is what they’ll say, ten times out of ten: ‘Oh, are you going to the aquarium? You should!’ No one ever explains why you should; it is simply, like gravity, or awkward elevator silence, a universal given. But in fact these people are right, and you should visit the aquarium. Now, my saying this is a big deal: I have been quoted many times, accurately, as describing sea life as ‘the shadiest of all life’, and I stand behind that assessment. I do not like sea life, cannot fathom it, and actively avoid it. I will not smile at a goldfish. If a jellyfish cat-called me, I wouldn’t even turn around to scowl. If I got a text from Shamu (or any whale, really), I’d wait all day before returning a one-word response without a smiley.
So naturally, 80% of the documentaries I watch in my spare time, alone in the dark, are oceanic in theme. The ocean is fascinating because, like Hollywood, it’s obscure despite its familiarity, and full of grotesque things that seem and probably are cruel. Enter aquariums – which, at their best, literally and figuratively shine a light into the earth’s murkiest crevices. Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific houses over 500 individual aquatic species, most nicely contained behind thick, thick glass, where they cannot touch you – most. The Aquarium’s shark lagoon, however, features a petting tank where you can lay hands on little monsters with deceptively cute names like ‘epaulette shark’ or ‘bamboo shark’, if indeed that’s your sort of thing. A bit more my speed is the Aquarium’s distinctly non-aquatic Lorikeet Forest, a 3,200-square-foot aviary tenanted by over 100 little parrot-like birds, each nearly as brightly coloured as a Mexican restaurant, if somewhat larger in size. You can buy cups of nectar here which will cause the lorikeets to swarm – adorably, though – all over you. Very strong selfie material.
Now, after eating and aquariuming, you may find, during your stay in Long Beach, that you need a new haircut. And why not? If it looks great, you can brag that you got it in California. And if not, you can say the same thing in a you-don’t-understand-my-art sort of way. Except that it will look excellent if you go to the right place – like downtown’s The Den Salon. Full disclosure: my opinion isn’t entirely unbiased, as I work for the salon part-time. But don’t rely on my word alone; check the reviews. The Den is a modern update of the American barbershop. The décor is sleek, beard trims are as common as ombrés (if not usually for the same client), men’s hair cuts come with a hot towel and straight razor neck shave, and I can personally vouch for the professionalism and skill of the stylists. Oh, and how do you feel about complimentary wine or beer with your service? Cause I feel really good about complimentary anything – especially alcohol.
Speaking of alcohol: hair upgraded, you’ll naturally be wanting to show yourself off. And while Long Beach suffers no shortage of hip bars, the most unique is undoubtedly (deep breath) The Observation Bar and Art Deco Lounge, located in the retired Jazz Age ocean liner-cum-hotel/restaurant/venue/national tourist tra… I mean, hot spot, the Queen Mary. Genuinely gorgeous, its wood panelling, snappy red-leather trim, half-moon bar, and astounding views of the harbour are unequalled in the city. I strongly recommend happy hour, Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 PM. Note to paranormal enthusiasts: consider bringing your Ouija board with you to drinks, as the great ship is also well known as one of the most haunted spots in America.
And there are endless other things you can do in Long Beach that space constraints don’t permit me to detail, but briefly: Broadway Ave has a strip of gay bars walking distance from the heart of downtown that locals lovingly call the ‘Gay Ghetto’. Also, sooner or later you’ll end up at The Pike (at Rainbow Harbour), Long Beach’s go-to amusement area since its inception as a resort in 1902. Today it contains numerous restaurants and bars, a cinema megaplex, and an iconic, solar-powered Ferris wheel. Given Long Beach’s name, you might suspect it’s rollin’ in beaches – and you’d be right. I don’t need to explain to you what one does at a beach, but be aware that LB water quality can vary by the day, so always check before you head into the waves themselves (such as they are; protected by the harbour breakwater, don’t expect to surf Long Beach’s calm waters). Its sands, however, are soft, and its weather is everything you want from So Cal, so lazing about in the sun is almost always in order. And finally, if possible do ferry over to Catalina Island, a marvellously quirky holiday haven that, even for So Cal, seems to exist in a world of its own.
And thus do we Long Beach, friends. This hasn’t been an exhaustive study, of course, but I hope it gives some idea of the holiday opportunities that abound in Long Beach – and proves that life does, in fact, exist in So Cal outside San Diego and LA.
Russ Sanchez is a travel expert for HomeAway.co.uk