THE HAPPY WANDERER: OAKLAND


Oakland has plenty to offer travelers

YOU’RE PLANNING A getaway. You see yourself having incredible adventures, capped off with elegant dinners and electrifying nightlife. You’re thinking Costa Rica, Bora Bora — maybe New Zealand. But before you book globally, think locally, because this year, it’s hip to stay home.

Once the long-suffering step-sister of San Francisco, Oakland is finally grabbing the spotlight for chic restaurants and nightlife. Cool new venues like Levende East in Old Oakland are energizing parts of the city that used to shut down at dusk. In the 1870s, Old Oakland was the heart of town, with grand Victorian hotels built for travelers coming in on the Transcontinental Railroad. Today, it’s part of a renaissance that includes a vibrant Friday Farmers Market and a plethora of popular restaurants.

A few blocks away, in Uptown, uber-trendy clubs and eateries are drawing an eclectic mix of hipsters and after-work professionals. A perfect example is Café Van Kleef, where an animated crowd fills the bar almost nightly, spilling out onto the sidewalk by 6 p.m.

Rockridge continues to shine with celebrated spots like À Côté, where the long queues for dinner testify to its popularity. And in Montclair Village, chef/owner Henry Vortriede has his own style of comfort food (along with killer blackened brussel sprouts) at The Montclair Bistro.

But food isn’t the only thing that should draw you to Oakland. Consider a hike with a llama. On an outing offered by East Bay Regional Parks a few years ago, I led my buck-toothed friend “Freckles” along a dusty tree-lined trail in Roberts Regional Park. Contrary to what you may think, he was not the spitting image of an old boyfriend. He did, however, make some odd nasal noises.

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. All this is just minutes from downtown Oakland, and as nature tends to be — it’s free.

So, too, is a stroll around the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, Lake Merritt. And while the bird-watching is good, the people-watching is even better, with regular sightings of Oakland’s celebrity former Mayor Jerry Brown. 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. 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 nonmotorized 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 regal 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; 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, Heinhold’s First & Last Chance Saloon. Like a scene from John Barleycorn, Heinhold’s is still serving ’em up — frothy and cold.

On my way to Yoshi’s World Class Jazz House near Jack London Square the other night, I watched the fog roll in — a little gift from our famous sister to the west. Its 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 I’m opting for Oakland.

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