By John Reilly
Have you ever felt you needed to get away from it all but didn’t have more than a day to spare? Recently, a friend and I wanted to get away, if only for an afternoon. We pointed the car south in search of something interesting and out of the ordinary. We found it in a place not too far away, San Pedro. Our adventure started with a drive around the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Driving past the Pt. Vicente Lighthouse in Palos Verdes, the stunning coastline near the old Marineland and Portuguese Cove, we finally came upon our first stop, the Pt. Fermin Lighthouse, located in a green, leafy park overlooking the ocean where in the summer free Shakespeare plays are held.
The Pt. Fermin Park is a place for locals to picnic, kick soccer balls, or just relax. The trees in the park are great for climbing. Sometimes you can hear, if not see, a group of green parrots that call these tall trees their home. We toured the renovated lighthouse, built in 1874, and learned about the fascinating history of the lighthouse keepers and their families, who manned the lighthouse in harsh and often isolated conditions in the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. Interestingly, Pt. Fermin’s first lighthouse keepers were women, Mary and Ella Smith, who resided in this remote location from 1874 to 1882. The Smiths, like other keepers, were true pioneers, living many miles from their closest neighbors and surviving on the supplies that were shipped in each month. The lighthouse housed other keepers, including Captain George Shaw (1882 – 1917) and the Austin family (including eight children) until 1926 when the light was electrified and managed by the city. After Pearl Harbor, the light was forever extinguished but the house continued to serve as a lookout tower and signaling station for ships. Later, it became a residence for city park maintenance employees. In 1974 the Pt. Fermin Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was restored and retrofitted in 2002 and opened to the public in November 2003.
After we finished our lighthouse tour, we got another taste of San Pedro history, mostly by accident. A strange looking, ramshackle bar with lots of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked out front sits across the street from the park. Not sure what we would find inside, we decided to check out the old diner anyway.
The Walker Café, run by two daughters of the original owner named Walker has withstood the test of time and still retains its authentic home-style decor from the 1940’s. The Café’s charms lie in its basic menu, cold drinks, good prices and old-fashioned service. Best of all, walking into the diner is like stepping into another era. One of the bikers joined us at the bar as we looked out past the lighthouse at Catalina Island. The Walker Café, as noted in its menu/brochure, has Hollywood screen credits as well, having been the locale for a scene in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” starring Jack Nicholson.
Up the street from Pt. Fermin, you can walk or drive to the Korean Friendship Bell. This ornate bronze bell and painted pagoda was a gift from the Republic of Korea for the 1976 American bicentennial. The bell is perched on top of a hill overlooking the peninsula where you can witness a spectacular panorama of Palos Verdes, San Pedro, and the Long Beach Harbor. Notice the concrete slabs located below the bell. These are remnants of where World War II cannons once stood to protect the harbor from a Japanese invasion that never came.
The Friendship Bell Park is a quiet, peaceful place where kids fly kites, roll in the grass, or play basketball on the nearby courts. There are fewer places in southern California that afford a better view of the Pacific. Our drive into old California’s history continued in downtown San Pedro. Near the harbor, we boarded a renovated Red Car. The Red Car line is short, only about two miles long, but is well worth the nostalgic trip. Tickets are only $1.00 per passenger and, during the day, there is easy access via a free shuttle bus at the end of the line to San Pedro’s impressive Cabrillo Aquarium. After riding the charming Red Car, you will wonder why our city ever got rid of them.
We ended up at Ports of Call where you can choose from a variety of restaurants for an early dinner. We liked “Alaska Seafood and Sushi” for its Mariachi band, fish and chips, jumbo oysters and cervezas, all on the water’s edge. The place and its menu seemed to sum up the best L.A. has to offer. I’m not sure if it gets any better than this. You could also opt for Greek food at the famous Greek restaurant, “Papadakis”, where the waiters sing, dance and even break a few plates.
Extend your day trip with a visit to the historic movie house, the Warner Grand Theater. Built in 1931, this is one of the few remaining old cinema houses in southern California. This theater typically shows classic and foreign films that are best seen in such grand venues. A local San Pedro group affiliated with the theater sometimes arranges special “dinner and a movie” nights where you can eat at a local ethnic restaurant and then see a movie whose theme is based on that same culture.
San Pedro is often an overlooked and you’d be missing out if you were to dismiss it. Look closely enough and you will discover its many historic and cultural places of interest, all of which are within an easy drive from the South Bay.