Across the Bay Bridge, six miles from San Francisco, Alameda’s shores offer a day-trip retreat from the pulsating pace and constant stimuli of its big sister city across the water.
“Hi, I’m Nichole and I’m from Alameda.” If this sounds like the opening to an AA meeting (Alamedians Anonymous), that’s how my youth on this island in the San Francisco Bay felt - like somewhere you hit rock bottom, normally at the hands of a peer’s cruel emotional battery or some inappropriate mischief I’m not at liberty to discuss, which then required a 12-step program to recover.
Despite the trauma we inflicted on each other, many of my classmates never retreated elsewhere – and many of those that did, returned calling it a place like no other – a mainland paradise due to its desirable location, elegant Victorian houses, moderate climate and relatively high quality-of-life standards. I was never hypnotized by their allure. To me, Alameda was small, isolated from the rest of the Bay Area’s culture and diversity by four bridges, a tunnel and no cars before the age of 16; a place that bred ennui not elation. The first chance I got, I escaped the town of my formative years.
But to honor my graduating class’ recent reunion, in a show of hometown camaraderie, I look at Alameda with an outsider’s eye, taking 12 steps towards discovering what makes this island existence special.
STEPS 1 – 2: EXERCISING OUR DEMONS
Be Well: At the mercy of “discount flights”, it can take 24 hours door to door, for me to return to Alameda’s sands - that’s 9,000 miles and four time zones of jetlag! To battle the ‘lag, try Alameda owned and operated Be Well Pilates (2189 Harbor Bay Parkway; +1-510-865-0300; www.bewellpilates.com). Using machines that look like modern racks when exhausted may not sound sane, but afterwards I slept soundly and woke up the next day mostly adjusted to the time change. A single class costs $28 with other pricing packages available.
Tee Off: Back in the day, our mischievous ways led to interesting interpretations of the intended use of the Chuck Corica Golf Complex (1 Clubhouse Memorial Dr.; +1-510-747-7800; www.golfinalameda.com). Rumor has it though, that then and now, people actually play 9 or 18 holes there! Non-residents rates range from $10 - $60 per round.
STEPS 3 – 5: PERSONAL INVENTORY OF ISLAND LANDMARKS
In the Navy: Alameda’s claim to fame is that The Doors’ Jim Morrison attended my alma mater, although he didn’t graduate from there. Alameda’s significance was a military one, as home to an integral naval air station. Demilitarization and base closures caused the base to reinvent itself, but a piece of the island’s naval history remains, the U.S.S. Hornet (www.uss-hornet.org/). This mighty aircraft carrier with an impressive World War II combat record that was part of the Apollo 11 recovery mission, now serves as a floating museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the ship’s and its sailors’ distinguished service. For $6-$15, guests can explore the ship themselves or with a guide. Don’t be disturbed by strange noises or bumps in the night – rumor is, the Hornet’s haunted.
Fun, Naturally: Once known as Neptune Beach, former baths and a world-class amusement park with a roller coaster offering prime views of the Bay, Crab Cove Visitor Center (1252 McKay Ave.; www.ebparks.org/parks/vc/crab_cove/; +1-510-544-3187) now offers views into the Bay. An 800-gallon aquarium system and interactive stations allow visitors to check out sea creatures and experience their underwater lives. The outside estuary is wheelchair friendly at low tide.
Curtain Up: At its opening in 1932, it ranked among the grandes dames of theaters alongside San Francisco’s Castro Theatre and Oakland's Paramount Theatre. By the time I was a kid, the Alameda Theatre (2713 Central Ave.; +1-510-769-FILM; www.alamedatheatres.com/history.html) had been converted into a gymnastics studio and later, the Twilight Zone dance club, haven to us misanthropic teens. After years of court cases, the theater has been restored to its former Art Deco glory, re-opening in 2008.
Catch a flick after basking in the Art Deco-dence, which includes two of the lobby’s original chandeliers – stolen after the theater closed and anonymously returned after restoration began. The theater added a Cineplex and parking garage, which most people find horrible. Tickets, $7.75 – 10.50.
STEPS 6 – 8: HUMBLY REMOVING OUR INNER HUNGER
When a friend picks me up at the airport, she doesn’t ask, “Do you want to rest?” she asks, “So, La Piñata?” Called La Penca Azul since September 2010 (1440 Park Street, +1-510-769-9110; 891-B Island Drive, +1 (510) 814-0560; http://lapencaazulalameda.com), these family-owned restaurants have been warming Bay Area bellies with tasty Mexican treats such as enchiladas, chile rellenos and tamales for over two decades. Their menu also includes seafood selections such as fish tacos or even pulpo (octopus). Guests come for the food but stay for the tequila - over 300 blue agave tequilas. Entrees run from $6 - $16.
Mexican places abound but the hometown favorite remains Acapulco Restaurant (2104 Santa Clara Ave.; +1-510-523-4935; www.acapulcorestaurant.net). Run by the Quinteros since 1953, three generations of Alamedians, surly teens included, have devoured endless tostada and quesadilla dinners, carne asada and huevos rancheros within the family-friendly walls. With dinner, enjoy a cerveza (beer) or a wine margarita – a house specialty. Entrees run $7 – 13. CLOSED AS OF MID-AUGUST, 2011, AFTER OVER 50 YEARS OF SERVING UP HEARTY MEXICAN FARE>
Alamedians take their burritos very seriously. Before boarding her flight to Europe, my sympathetic friend stopped by a taqueria to bring me a burrito. That burrito could ONLY come from Taqueria Romero & Sons (2321 Alameda Ave.; +1-510-523-5071) – super veggie, whole pinto beans with sour cream, guacamole and extra hot sauce! For those in the burrito know, they use shredded meats.
STEPS 9 – 10: ADMITTING WE ARE POWERLESS TO MERRIMENT
“Make Booze, not War”: When the Alameda Naval Air Station was decommissioned in 1997, St. George Spirits saw opportunity where others saw economic disaster. They moved into Hangar 21, former home to the reserve attack squadron, the Firebirds, and started distilling Hangar One vodka (2601 Monarch Street; +1-510-769-1601; www.stgeorgespirits.com/hangar-history/; www.hangarone.com/). A tasting, or flight, costs $10 and includes sips of all of St. George spirits including their popular vodkas: raspberry, mandarin and my fav, pear. Upgrade to a full flight ($15) and finalize your Hangar One experience with the island’s own green fairy, Absinthe Verte.
Taste Responsibly: California’s gold country but it’s also Zin country and some of the state’s top-rated Zinfandels can be savored right on the island at Rosenblum Cellars (2900 Main Street; +1-510-865-7007; www.rosenblumcellars.com). The tasting menu also includes varietals such as Syrah and Petite Sirah. Tasting room guests receive a complimentary sampling, but a $5 per person charge applies for groups of 8+. An additional reserve flight costs $10.
STEPS 11 - 12: GETTING THERE
Bay Breeze: One of the best views of the Bay is from the water. One of the most hassle-free ways to get to Alameda from Oakland and San Francisco is also by water - the Bay Ferries. (www.eastbayferry.com/) Enjoy a relaxing and romantic 20-30 minute, wind-whipping-through-your-hair ride for $3.25 – 6.50, preferably at sunset.
Lift Off: More convenient than San Francisco International Airport, Oakland Airport (www.flyoakland.com/) reflects our relaxed island sensibilities as an easy pick-up/drop-off airport just 10-15 minutes from Alameda.
I once read that one thing that makes California unique is that every Californian thinks they’re special. With Alameda, this is doubly so – just take these 12-steps to understand why.
Hella, a contraction of “hell” + “of”, used for emphasis like “very”. “That was very cool.” “Yes, that was hella cool.”
Bay Farm Island = Harbor Bay Isle