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Indoor fun

California aquariums please both young and old

By CARY ORDWAY

While California has a lot of temperate winter weather, outdoor activities along the coast still may call for warm clothing and hot cider to take on the elements as you visit one of the state's northern cities such as San Francisco or Monterey. And, once the sun goes down, even L.A. and San Diego can get a little nippy.

That makes winter a great time of year to visit some of the state's spectacular indoor attractions. Topping the list are the elaborate aquariums located up and down the state that offer a fascinating — and educational — look at life from the sea.

If you have young kids, a trip to an aquarium can be richly rewarding experience as you watch the wonder in their eyes as they get an up-close look at the other-worldly creatures swimming in tanks designed to look like native habitats. With elaborate signing and fun hands-on exhibits, an aquarium seems almost like a theme park to most children. The sea life they discover will keep them stimulated for hours.

California is fortunate to have some first-rate aquariums that you should be sure to include when you get close to one on your next getaway.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

With its colorful history and Cannery Row sightseeing, Monterey is a popular destination for many California travelers. And one of the biggest reasons people visit Monterey is the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can easily spend many hours in this first-class facility housing more than 6,500 fascinating sea creatures.

Housed in one of the former cannery buildings, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a fascinating exploration of the undersea life found near Monterey. The aquarium covers everything from tide pool creatures to sharks and even features a 31-foot high kelp forest that is visible in one of the aquarium's huge tanks. Two-story viewing windows give visitors the feeling they are truly 20,000 leagues under the sea.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has taken the unusual approach of combining these living creatures with art displays and one of our first impressions was how unique and artistic many of the exhibits are. Exhibits frequently change but, while we were there, we enjoyed the Jellies: Living Art exhibit which featured not only the always colorful jellyfish, but artwork and installations by such well know art figures as Dale Chihuly, David Hockney and Cork Marcheschi.

Among the other parts of the aquarium we enjoyed were the sharks and schools of fish in the Monterey Bay Habitats section, the unusual animals found only at great depths in the Mysteries of the Deep exhibit, and the California Sea Otters, always a crowd favorite.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way in Long Beach. For more information, phone 1-800-756-3737 or visit www.montereybayaquarium.org.

Aquarium of the Pacific

If you haven't been to Long Beach yet, you're in for a treat. You've no doubt heard about the famous Queen Mary — worth an hour or two of exploration all by itself — but nearby is Rainbow Harbor, which offers a multitude of activities that are all within a short walk. The "boardwalk" around the harbor's shoreline takes you past a host of sea-going vessels ranging from huge excursion boats to paddle-wheel riverboats to historic schooners to garden-variety fishing boats. Several boats offer harbor tours while others will take you whale-watching.

One of the must-see attractions right in Rainbow Harbor is the Aquarium of the Pacific. Home to more than 12,500 ocean animals, the Aquarium also features 19 major habitats and 32 focus exhibits. We spent a couple hours wandering through the exhibits and found each one fascinating and a fun experience for oldsters as well as youngsters.

One of the most popular exhibits at Aquarium of the Pacific is Shark Lagoon, among the Aquarium's newest. With more than 150 sharks, the lagoon includes large sharks, rays and shark touch pools where you reach down and feel them as they swim by. There is much more at the Aquarium including exhibits on Southern California/Baja, Northern Pacific and the Tropical Pacific.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is an example of major redevelopment that has made Long Beach one of the most surprising and interesting destinations in California. For decades this was a Navy town and some say the types of businesses that sprung up to cater to young enlisted men were not the type the city needed to become a major tourist destination. All of that has now changed and the stylish condos, new restaurants and colorful shopping areas such as Shoreline Village and Pine Avenue have made Long Beach a popular spot for families and couples from all over California.

For more information, phone (562) 590-3100, or visit www.aquariumofpacific.org.

Aquarium of the Bay

Next time you visit Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, the Aquarium of the Bay is right in the center of the action. Even in summer, the chilly breezes blowing down on the wharf may convince you it would be good to take a break and see a great exhibit that happens to be located indoors.

Uniquely, the Aquarium of the Bay has about 300 tunnels that visitors can walk through that makes it feel like you're walking through a fish tank. Sharks, eels, octopus — whatever sea animals you're interested in, chances are you'll see it swimming somewhere at the Aquarium of the Bay.

The kids will be especially interested in the touch pools where they can touch starfish, bat rays and even small sharks.

But here it's not just the aquarium that brings the ocean to life — the many seafood restaurants and tourist attractions along Pier 39 create a festive atmosphere with great vistas of the San Francisco Bay. Take a walk along the pier and you'll probably spot dozens of sea lions sprawling on the docks below. It's as if they're holding court for the tourists who can't resist their charms.

For more information on the Aquarium of the Bay, visit www.aquariumofthebay.com or call 1-888-732-3483.

Birch Aquarium

The village of La Jolla, near San Diego, is worth a getaway any time of year with its spectacular coastal views, great restaurants and trendy shopping. But one of the best local attractions for kids is the Birch Aquarium.

This is not a huge facility like the aquariums in Monterey and Long Beach, but rather a smaller, more intimate experience where the kids can take their time viewing the exhibits and where parents won't have to deal with large crowds.

Exhibits at the aquarium are organized by type of fish, and by type of environment. For example, the "Gateway to Baja" looks at fish from that particular region. Another exhibit is on the various species found in tide pools. You can see the difference between the fish found in Southern California waters and those found in the tropics.

Among the most popular exhibits at the Birch Aquarium is the seahorse exhibit where you can view a wide variety of these creatures ranging from tiny half-inch seahorses up to sea dragons. Kids also will learn a lot about oceanography through various interactive exhibits. They can ride an earthquake machine or learn the properties of water and how waves are made. Videos offer extraordinary glimpses of life beneath the sea.

For more information on Birch Aquarium, call 858-534-3474 or visit http://aquarium.ucsd.edu.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

Photos:  Life-size whale models greet visitors to Monterey's aquarium; also in Monterey, a youngster enjoys one of the colorful fish tanks; Rainbow Harbor is location of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a Southern California beach city is your idea of a great California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.


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