Seeing Oakland Through the Eyes of a Travel Writer

(Oakland Magazine, July/August 2004)

You’re planning your vacation. You see yourself having incredible adventures, capped off with an elegant dinner and electrifying nightlife. You’re thinking Costa Rica, Bora Bora–maybe New Zealand. But before you book globally, think locally, because there’s a world of adventure in your own backyard.

Seeing Oakland through the eyes of a travel writer is something I do often as a freelance journalist living in Montclair. What other big city offers miles of open space with winding trails and sweeping vistas, a bustling sea port and one of the most diverse populations in the country? Oakland may get a bum rap from some, but I’ve never met a travel journalist that didn’t like it here. So let’s go exploring and celebrate the sunny side of the bay. Right after breakfast.

It’s a well known fact that the morning meal is critical, especially when you’re touring, and The Montclair Egg Shop is known city-wide for its hearty omelets. In a cozy cafe with a model train that goes clickety clack on an overhead track, this place is all it’s cracked up to be, and more. It’s also located in one of the Bay Area’s most charming neighborhoods, Montclair Village. Nestled in the Oakland hills, Montclair’s old fire station and library feature the story book architecture seen often in Oakland. But surrounding this village is something even more unique–miles and miles of parkland and water shed, where you can hike for days and rarely see another person.

But you can see a llama. In fact, you can rent one to carry your pack on a hike through Roberts Regional Park. Open to everyone, these llama hikes can be booked through the East Bay Regional Park District several times a year. On a recent outing with some out of state travel writers, I led my buck-toothed friend “Freckles” along the dusty tree-lined trail. Contrary to what you may have heard about llamas, he never spit once. He did, however, make funny low-pitched noises that sounded like a cow with laryngitis.

While the llama trek may be an Andean-like adventure, the Oakland hills have parks that are reminiscent of other faraway places. Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve reminds me of Ireland, with its velvet green crests and vast, sweeping views of the mountains and sea. In winter and spring, nearby Redwood Regional Park is so dense with vegetation, it resembles a rain forest. Waterfalls tumble from granite rocks into steep canyons. All this is just minutes from downtown Oakland, and as nature tends to be–it’s free.

Gondola ride on Lake Merritt

Gondola ride on Lake Merritt

But not everyone find solitude on a dusty trail. If it’s urban fitness you’re looking for, then catch the morning stroll at the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, Lake Merritt. While the bird-watching is good, the people-watching is even better, with regular sightings of Oakland’s celebrity mayor (Jerry Brown) on a jog with his dog. Speaking of sights, along the shores of this great urban lake is a magical place that some say was the inspiration for Disneyland. When Walt Disney came to Children’s Fairyland in 1954, he was so impressed, he hired the director away at double her salary. Some 59 years later, fairy tales still come alive here and so do innovative ideas, like Fairyland’s summer overnights for families to pitch tents and see puppet shows under the stars.

Oakland is a mariner’s paradise and Lake Merritt is no exception. At the Boathouse you can rent sailboats and other non-motorized vessels for a leisurely cruise. But for something really different, book a ride in an authentic Venetian gondola. With a handsome gondolier at the helm, you feel like royalty as you glide across the placid waters. All around you are the skyline and city, and the lights of lake Merritt–like a romantic string of pearls.

Then there’s a nautical adventure that is more–interactive. Sea kayaking on the Oakland Estuary. California Canoe & Kayak has dozens of colorful kayaks in the water at Jack London Square. Take one out (instruction is available) and tour the waterfront that Jack London made famous in his adventure novels. You can even see a replica of his cabin in the square next to one of his favorite watering holes, the 121 year old Heinhold’s First & Last Chance Saloon. Like a scene from John Barleycorn, Heinhold’s is still serving ’em up–frothy and cold. On foot or by boat, Jack London Square is great for exploring, and just blocks from the perfect place to have lunch–in a gingerbread house. Though it’s certainly not real, it almost looks edible -the candy-cane pillars and chocolate brown bric-a-brac make T.J.’s Gingerbread House irresistible to passers-by. Even more enticing is their Cajun-Creole cooking, which T.J. Robinson learned from watching her grandma cook in Louisiana. Jambalaya, cracked crab and cornbread–served in a fairytale setting. No wonder this place still has a line out the door many nights.

In some countries, a good lunch calls for a good nap. In the Bay Area, it calls for a spa treatment. And while a massage can aid in digestion, it’s more fun to think of it as pure indulgence. It’s the underlying theme at The Claremont Resort and Spa. With treatments so exotic, you’ll dream you’re in far away places–the term “out of body experience” must have been coined here. Perched majestically on a hilltop, the grand lady is also a very hip place for happy hour, with it’s long luscious views of the Oakland and San Francisco skylines. The Paragon Bar takes full advantage of the scene with almost every seat near a window or on the outdoor deck.

When dinner calls, Oakland answers with so many top-rated restaurants, it’s impossible to choose. One place that garners great revues is the chic and sexy A Coté on College Avenue, where the long queues for dinner testify to its popularity. Since this restaurant takes no reservations, be prepared to window shop while you wait.

Or you can head for Old Town Oakland, a much more subdued setting for an evening repast. There are several good restaurants here, including the popular Vietnamese café called Le Cheval. But for a quiet, comfortable meal, my favorite place is Twist, in the historic old Washington Inn. In the 1870s, Old Oakland was the heart of the town, with its grand Victorian hotels built for travelers coming in on the Transcontinental Railroad. The Washington Inn still operates as a boutique hotel today, and the atmosphere and Italian food are superb. It’s also close to one of the hottest spots for nightlife in Oakland, Yoshi’s World Class Jazz House. Everyone from Joe Sample to Diana Krall comes to play here, and there’s no bad seat in the house.

Walking out of Yoshi’s the other night, I watched the fog role in from our famous neighbor to the west. It’s clammy fingers tried to pull me toward it, toward the city that always seemed to steal the spotlight. “Not this time,” I thought to myself. This time it’s Oakland’s time to shine.

If you’re going:

  • Montclair Village 510-530-8052 or visit
  • East Bay Regional Park District 94,500 acres with 1150 miles of trails. 510-562-PARK
  • Children’s Fairyland 699 Bellevue Avenue–open year round. Admission $6 including unlimited rides. Adults must be accompanied by a child. 510-452-2259
  • Gondola Servizio Lake Merritt Boathouse. Open year round. Reservations required. Call Monday through Friday from 10-2pm. 510-663-6603
  • California Canoe and Kayak 409 Water Street in Jack London Square . Open year round. Kayak rentals start at $15 per hour. Canoes–$25 per hour. 510-893-7833
  • Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon 56 Jack London Square. 510-839-6761
  • T.J.’s Gingerbread House 741 Fifth Street. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. 510-444-7373
  • Claremont Resort and Spa 41 Tunnel Road. 510-843-3000
  • A Coté Restaurant 5478 College Avenue. Lunch Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. 510-655-6469
  • Twist Italian Restaurant 495 10th street in the old Washington Inn. 510-832-7449
  • Yoshi’s 510 Embarcadero West. Open nightly for dinner and jazz. Reservations recommended. 510-238-4551

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