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WEEKEND ESCAPE: LONG BEACH

Junket on a Junk

A Chinese boat provides shipshape accommodations for a getaway that combines a gondola, an aquarium, the Queen Mary and other marine activities

August 06, 2000|ELLEN CLARK | Ellen Clark is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and photographer

LONG BEACH — Boats and the water are the stuff my dreams are made of, though distance and expense keep me on land most of the time. So imagine my delight upon hearing that I could spend a night on an authentic Chinese junk in Long Beach Harbor.

My husband, Geoffrey, was as intrigued as I, so we made a reservation for July and planned a nautical-themed trip: a night on the Mei Wen Ti, a visit to the Long Beach aquarium and brunch on the Queen Mary.

After we'd driven from our Los Angeles home, the trip began, appropriately, on the water of Long Beach Marina on the east end of town. Nestled snugly in one of Gondola Getaway's Venetian boats, Geoffrey and I munched on salami and cheese as we drifted through the waterways surrounding Naples Island, lined with million-dollar homes.

Our gondolier, Cliff Kjoss, gave us a brief history of the area, which was built as a resort at the turn of the century. He reminded us to kiss under the bridges and even sang to us a cappella. Though the idea of sailing around artificial Southern California canals with a gondolier of Danish descent sounds a little contrived, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

After the hourlong ride, we headed west for Rainbow Harbor, the new waterfront area near downtown. Per instructions, we parked at the end of Pine Avenue and walked toward the water and Dock 5. The junk was easy to spot: Bobbing ever so slightly, it was the most unusual boat in the harbor.

The 50-foot Mei Wen Ti, which translates roughly from Mandarin as No Problem, was built in China in the early 1990s for Walt and Virginia Hackman, then crated and shipped to California. The Hackmans moved it from San Diego to Long Beach this spring and began renting it out through Dockside Boat and Bed. (The boat stays in the harbor.)

The Mei Wen Ti's wood exterior is stained golden brown. Stylized Chinese designs painted in green, red and yellow decorate oval panels set into the outer railings. A smiling, yellow-eyed tiger with fierce teeth graces the long bow.

The bow is separated from the longer and higher stern by a glass structure with a lacquered red roof; it looks like a greenhouse but actually is the engine house, with controls set in polished wood.

Inside, the junk is comfy and compact. The galley is surprisingly spacious and fully equipped, including refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, electric rice cooker and a table carefully laid with lacquered rice bowls and chopsticks, wineglasses and fresh flowers. A sitting room with couch, a bathroom and a bedroom with queen bed are also down below.

Our favorite was the aft deck. Outfitted with cushioned wicker couches, it has an unobstructed view of the harbor, the colorful restaurants and shops of Shoreline Village and the Queen Mary.

It was too early for dinner, so we set off for the Aquarium of the Pacific, a few minutes' walk along the Rainbow Harbor promenade.

Sea jellies, a.k.a. jellyfish, are the newest (and highly publicized) members of the aquarium. We joined the hefty crowd waiting to see the exhibit "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep." The line moved quickly, and in a few minutes we were in a dark room surrounded by tanks of jellyfish.

As a kid, I remember avoiding jellyfish at all costs when swimming off Southern California beaches, so it was fun to observe these weird and wonderful creatures at a safe distance.

Though the jellies were fascinating to watch, the exhibit fell short of my expectations. The exhibit was big--2,500 square feet--but there were only a dozen or so tanks, and most were small, so only a couple of people could see at a time. The fast line--a blessing at first--soon became frustrating. We were rushed along by the crowd, and we decided we'd rather return for a more leisurely visit after the hype has died down.

We left the aquarium and, charmed by our accommodations, decided to eat aboard the boat. We picked up food at a supermarket, then found covered parking for the night at the Hyatt near the harbor.

Back on the boat, we uncorked some Chardonnay, arranged the wicker couches to take in the best view and watched the setting sun cast golden tones over the marina.

Geoffrey pulled himself out of his seat long enough to cook steaks on the private dock's grill, while I microwaved potatoes and tossed salad. As the sky darkened, we ate dinner and watched the Queen Mary become silhouetted in tiny white lights, music drifting across the water from Shoreline Village.

We slept soundly until 6 a.m., when a loudspeaker from a charter fishing boat announced that the barracuda were running. We went back to sleep, waking up in time for breakfast a few hours later. A Dockside Boat and Bed manager delivered a basket of muffins, croissants, fresh fruit and a pitcher of orange juice. We munched slowly on these goodies, reluctant to give up our ship.

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