Long Beach
Step aboard a floating bed and breakfast

Check any California marina on any given day and you'll invariably see a fleet of yachts and pleasure craft tucked securely in their moorings, canvas draping most of the windows with little sign of life. The owners presumably are toiling in the corporate world somewhere earning the money to pay for boats that just stay tied up at the dock.

This situation got Oakland's Rob Harris to thinking — what if some of these boats could be made available to people who can't afford to own and maintain a boat, but have the time to actually use one? That's how Dockside Boat and Bed was born and, today, the company rents out yachts and pleasure craft to eager would-be boaters in Long Beach, San Francisco and Oakland.

There is one important catch, though: Guests at Dockside Boat and Bed don't take these boats anyplace. They're content to stay on the boat while it stays tied up at the dock — just as many boat owners do.

Actually, staying dockside makes this getaway experience easy and suitable for almost anyone, as we found out during our recent stay on the 40-foot Desiree in Long Beach's Rainbow Harbor. No need to mess with the engine compartment or study charts or worry about dinging the boat when you come into dock just a little too fast. Just bring your suitcase, step on board and it's time to open the champagne because you also don't have to worry about pesky harbor patrol agents citing you for BUI — boating while under the influence.

The first thing we noticed was that our boat was immaculate — maybe a little bit of wear and tear on the outside flying bridge, but the interior was spotless and almost gleaming. The Dockside Boat and Bed cleaning crew had polished everything to the hilt, and our boat had a clean, fresh smell. A large circular seating area had a table making this part of the cabin ideal for meals or playing cards or, if you must, working at your laptop computer. The kitchen area was compact, yet complete. If we wanted, we could easily prepare a five-course meal and have plenty of refrigerator storage.

Cozy is the word for the master bedroom, located down just under the bow. A king-size bed took up just about every inch of this area's width while his-and-her reading lights were conveniently located in the low ceiling. A small window in the ceiling popped open for ventilation. Bunk beds were in the tiny second bedroom which our five-year-old found fun and quite different from home.

Our boat was moored along with four other boats on what has to be the best dock in all of Long Beach California. Dockside Vice President Kim Harris explained that the company was involved in the early stages of the Rainbow Harbor development — six years ago, we're told, this area was a useless swamp — and, because of that, was able to reserve an excellent location for their dock. So rather than be situated at a dock where all you see is other boats, the Dockside location in Long Beach is set apart by itself, affording great views of the harbor and a feeling of real privacy.

Dockside Boat and Bed is operated much like a bed-and-breakfast inn. The five boats clustered on the Long Beach dock are each a little different — one of them, an authentic Chinese junk, is a lot different — and guests are in close enough proximity that they'll often socialize with one another on the dock. The company has set up a few tables on the dock so it becomes a great place to enjoy coffee or even a meal. In fact, the situation is ideal for some of the companies exhibiting in shows at the nearby Long Beach California Convention Center — a company will rent out all of the boats and then invite clients down after the show.

Breakfast is dropped off at your boat each morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m., unless you specify otherwise. A basket of fresh pastries, fruits and snacks is just the right start to a morning on the water. A number of major restaurants have opened within easy walking distance of the dock, so there would be no need to prepare any meals if you didn't want to.

In fact, the Rainbow Harbor area 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. Then, of course, off in the distance is the Queen Mary, well worth a visit any time you're in Long Beach California.

Launched in 1934, the Queen Mary made 1,001 Atlantic crossings before its retirement in 1967. During its heyday, this was the way that America's elite shuttled between the U.S. and Europe and so the ship was outfitted to make this journey as comfortable as possible. Guests can tour this grand old ship — indeed, even spend the night on it — and imagine what it must have been like for the wealthy travelers who could afford to cruise the Atlantic before cruising became more accessible to the middle class.

As you move around the Queen Mary on a self-guided tour, you come across many salons — all regal with their decidedly British influence in decoration. In-laid wood gives many of these areas a boardroom feel, while original paintings and artwork help to complete the mood. The Queen Mary really is a museum — a big, old charming ship not to be confused with the gleaming, modern vessels of today.

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, 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 California one of the most surprising and interesting destinations in California -- a great base of operations, in fact, for any Southern California vacation. 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 many a California vacation.

At the heart of it all is Rainbow Harbor and what better way to enjoy a visit to one of the world's busiest port cities than to experience it from the deck of your own pleasure boat? With so much nearby, it just doesn't matter that your boat won't be going anyplace anytime soon.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Long Beach California is about an hour's drive southwest of downtown Los Angeles and enjoys easy access from locations all over Southern California. Dockside Boat and Bed is located in the city's new Rainbow Harbor development. The company also has locations in San Francisco and Oakland.

WHAT: Luxurious boats that anyone can spend the night on. While these aren't especially cheap vacations or getaways, many travelers are discovering that staying on a boat has a charm and ambience you can't find elsewhere.

WHEN: Any time of the year, but it's always good to book early. There are a limited number of boats available and Dockside books weekends several weeks in advance. Weekday visits are especially enjoyable and easier to book. Always be on the lookout for travel deals, and renting a boat for the night is no exception -- if you have last minute travel plans that include a weekday, you might just find a boat available at an exceptional price.

WHY: You can experience what life is like for those who own a large boat or yacht, yet have none of the hassles. What better California vacation than staying on the water in one of the state's most interesting ports?

HOW: Boats rent for around $200 a night. For more information on Dockside Boat and Bed, phone (562) 436-3111 or visit www.boatandbed.com. The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way in Long Beach. For more information, phone (562) 590-3100 or visit http://www.aquariumofpacific.org. For a list of recommended accommodations in Long Beach California, click here. Be sure to ask about travel packages.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a stay on a boat in Long Beach California is your kind of California vacation, be sure and check out California Weekend's articles on the Queen Mary, Balboa Bay Club and the Delta King.

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