Happy Wanderer: For a nearby getaway, try historic Benicia

jay solmonson, staff, 1/3/04  herald newsThe old state capital in Benicia.


There’s nothing like a ghost to make history come alive. Touring the old Fischer-Hanlon House (circa 1850) in Benicia, my husband encountered a specter. And it made quite a spectacle of itself — popping open not one, but two, cabinet doors.

It may be paranormal, but not so abnormal in a town that has walking ghost tours and a self-guided downtown historical tour.

I’ll spare you the history lesson but tell you — first-hand — that Benicia is a surprisingly sweet getaway.

With a finely appointed room with French doors and a deck overlooking the Carquinez Strait, my husband and I mapped out a plan to see the sights over Mother’s Day. Our first stop was out to the Benicia Arsenal, where an artist’s community has sprung up on the almost 170-year-old U.S. Army ordnance depot that closed in 1964.

Just up the road on a grassy knoll are the old Camel Barns Complex (yes, camels were used to carry supplies during the 1850s and 1860s) and now home to the Benicia Historical Museum. The army’s architectural style is impressive. Uncle Sam spared no expense in designing these buildings, including one that could have gone up in smoke — a powder magazine with exquisite stone columns.

Benicia’s downtown is equally interesting. The first incorporated city in California, its historic buildings represent several architectural eras, including a large number from the mid-1800s. The Greek Revival-Palladian Benicia Capitol State Historic Park gleams as docents tell stories of the two years (1853-54) the building housed the Assembly, the Senate, and for a time, the state treasury. On special days, there are concerts in the Senate chambers.

Jack London once lived here, too, as an “oyster pirate” in his younger days and later “going straight” to help law enforcement catch poachers. All this was fodder for two of his well-known works, “John Barleycorn” and “Tales of the Fish Patrol.”

But while the town’s roots are deeply planted in its colorful past, there’s a palpable energy coming from its food, art and music scene. Benicia may look like a quiet New England coastal village, but First Street has no shortage of restaurants, shops, galleries, wine bars and upscale taverns, all within walking distance and giving it a block party vibe many evenings.

And that’s why we stayed overnight. With five different inns and hotels, we chose the one on the water — the Shorelight Inn. Just before sunset, we met up with friends who live at the Benicia Marina. Sitting on our deck as the moon rose above the distant Carquinez Bridge, we chatted about the town they call home.

“Every day is a vacation for us in Benicia,” they said, mildly boasting. After spending 24 hours here, we’d tend to agree.

What are your favorite local adventures? Drop me a line, and I’ll share them with readers. You can reach me at ginnyprior@hotmail.com or online at www.ginnyprior.com.


Benicia has more than 20 parks, including three on the waterfront. The 438-acre Benicia State Recreation Area has two miles of paths for cyclists, pedestrians, equestrians and skaters.
The Shorelight Inn and Inn at Benicia Bay are a short walk to popular restaurants like Lucca Bar & Grill and live music venues like The Rellik Tavern.
For more information on attractions, see http://www.” visitbenicia.org.



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