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Long Beach

Former ranchland dating back to early Spanish land grants, the modern city of Long Beach was named during the real estate boom of the 1880s and conceived as a seaside resort community. But industry and commerce quickly took over, with the discovery of oil and the development of Long Beach Harbor (along with adjacent San Pedro) as the primary port of Los Angeles. Despite a devastating 1933 earthquake, downtown Long Beach enjoyed a steady prosperity throughout the first half of the 20th century, acquiring the nickname of “Iowa by the sea” due to the many Midwest transplants who made their home here-and whose conservative pragmatic culture still pervades the area. An aggressive downtown redevelopment plan that began in the 1970s has helped draw visitors back with new tourist attractions, an expensive waterfront Convention Center, and the small-town flavor of remarkably well-preserved residential neighborhoods.

Mention Long Beach to many people and they are apt to associate the name with this city’s biggest tourist attraction, and one that virtually saved it from bankrupt obscurity in the 1970s. Once the world’s largest and most luxurious Atlantic ocean liner, the regal Queen Mary sits permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor, open to visitors, diners, and overnight guests. Easy to dismiss as a tourist trap, the ship really is a living museum, the only surviving example of a particular kind of 20th-century elegance and excess that’s hard to imagine until you actually stroll the gangways and grand salons of this splendid vessel. Vast teakwood decks, priceless interiors, and lavish staterooms once occupied by notables like Winston Churchill, the Duke of Windsor, and Greta Garbo all tell the story of a vanished era.

Aquarium of the PacificAcross the waterway is the Aquarium of the Pacific, which opened in 1998. City planners gave their all to the project, hoping that what worked in Baltimore and Monterey would reenergize the waterfront. Re-creating three separate regions of the Pacific, the Aquarium features animals native to tropical lagoons, coral reefs, the chilly Bering Sea, and temperate Baja waters. Kids and adults alike can learn little-known facts about sea creatures from sharks and sea lions to delicate sea horses and moon jellies; three-story-high tanks let you get nose-to-nose with these denizens of the deep. The waterfront also features aging Shoreline Village, a shopping/dining/marina complex disguised as a 19th-century fishing village. Savvy crowds no longer seem enchanted by its kitschy theme, but it still makes a pleasant stroll if you’re in the area, and it’s also home to a 1906 Charles Looff carousel. Nearby Rainbow Harbor is where the Tall Ship American Pride is docked. A day sail aboard this three-masted, 130-foot schooner offers passengers a chance to help raise and lower the eight sails, take a turn at the helm, and experience the “romance of the high seas.”