The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Directly south of downtown Los Angeles, the city of Long Beach (pop. 462,257) is the second-largest of L.A.’s constituent cities, but it feels more like the Midwest than the cutting-edge West Coast. Long Beach is probably best known as the home of the cruise ship RMS Queen Mary (877/342-0738, tours $25.95), one of the largest and most luxurious liners ever to set sail. Impossible to miss as it looms over Long Beach harbor, the stately ship is open for self-guided tours. You can also stay overnight in one of the many staterooms and cabins, traveling back to a more elegant time for surprisingly reasonable overnight rates. In place of Howard Hughes’s famous “Spruce Goose” airplane, which used to stand next door, there’s now a Cold War-era submarine.
Across the bay on the main downtown Long Beach waterfront, the Aquarium of the Pacific (100 Aquarium Way, 562/590-3100, daily, $30 adults) explores the diverse ecosystems of the Pacific Ocean, from tropical coral reefs (shown off in an amazing, 350,000-gallon display) to the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. The tanks full of jellyfish of all kinds, colors, and sizes are the main event.
Other Long Beach attractions include the “World’s Largest Mural,” a 115,000-square-foot painting of migrating gray whales on the outside of the Long Beach Arena, and the self-proclaimed “Skinniest House in the USA” (708 Gladys Ave.).
Long Beach also marks the southern end of L.A.’s reborn streetcar and subway system, and you can ride the Blue Line north to downtown and connect to everywhere else. It’s an inexpensive base for exploring the Los Angeles area, especially if you avail yourself of the HI-Los Angeles South Bay Hostel (3601 S. Gaffey St., 310/831-8109), in a peaceful locale on a hill overlooking the harbor area. There’s also a Best Western (1725 Long Beach Blvd., 562/599-5555, $96 and up) directly across from a Blue Line train stop.