A winter escape to the “hidden gem” city of the S.F. Bay Area



Benicia served as the California state capital from 1853 to 1854. Photo credit Visit Benicia.

Benicia served as the California state capital from 1853 to 1854. Photo credit Visit Benicia.

Immediately after the Minnesota snowbirds return from all points south… Florida, Arizona, south Texas, a Caribbean cruise or Mexico, especially after this year’s brutal winter, the conversation immediately shifts next year’s winter escape.

This winter I chose not to take “the road well-traveled” southerly route; rather, I listened to the manifest destiny echo of Horace Greeley, “Go West young man…go West” to California. My escape to moderate temps (by Minnesota standards) delivered me to the settled solitude of Benicia, a small, historic former state capitol and very quaint hamlet tucked away along the Carquinez Strait in the San Francisco Bay area.

Looking for sandy beaches, cabanas and Tahitian coconut drinks garnished with the kitschy mini-umbrellas? Well, fun seekers…this isn’t it! Wintering in northern California all depends on the extent of the winter rainy season, if there is one. California weather can be extreme from drought conditions to periods of rain punctuated by glorious days of sunshine with winter temps in the 50s. Sometimes, the winter temps dip into the 30s, displaying rare snow-covered hills surrounding the Bay Area.

David Setnicker has enjoyed Dianna’s Bakery during his time in Benicia, CA. Submitted photo.

David Setnicker has enjoyed Dianna’s Bakery during his time in Benicia, CA. Submitted photo.

The locals, bundled in down vests, gloves and assorted beanies, love gazing at the winter’s portrait while at sidewalk bistros sipping a pour of Napa’s finest while their dogs tuck themselves under the bistro tables. Unless the rains are torrential, everyone loves being outside and walking to almost everywhere. Hibernation is not part of the California lexicon.

Benicia has a rich history as a former state capital in 1853 and a busy Pacific Coast seaport serving as an ordnance supply depot during WWI and WWII. Benicia and neighboring Vallejo were maritime and shipbuilding hubs during WWI while serving the cannery and tanning industries. Dec. 7, 1941—the attack on Pearl Harbor triggering WWII—changed the Bay Area landscape. The war immediately energized and transformed the entire San Francisco Bay Area into the logistical and military operational center during the war in the Pacific Theatre.

Not unlike the Iron Range towns producing iron ore during the early 20th century, Benicia and Vallejo prospered during the war years. Blue collar energy found comfort and enjoyment in any number of B-n-Bs (bars and bordellos) along these small-town main streets. Without judgment, it became part of the colorful historical narrative as depicted by Jack London and other California writers.

We all remember reading books by Jack London. Much of his inspiration came from his time spent in Benicia. He claimed Benicia as his adult hometown after growing up in rough and tumble San Francisco before the turn of the century.

“I now made the old town of Benicia, on the Carquinez Straits, my headquarters. In a cluster of fishermen’s arks, moored in the tules on the water-front, dwelt a congenial crowd of drinkers and vagabonds, and I joined them.” (From Jack London’s novel, John Barleycorn.)

A bit of salty, historical lore came from a young, local bearded bartender at The Bottom of the Fifth, the only tavern not located on Benicia’s now trendy 1st Street (Main Street)—it’s on East 5th. Whoever coined the bar name was very clever! Into baseball? Like to drink copious amounts of wine, beer or whiskey? Oh, it’s on 5th and it’s been around a while. It’s kind of a “Cheers” locale where can you find someone to talk to about almost anything relating to Bay Area sports while watching an array of sporting events on large screens dotted around the restaurant/bar. If you get to Benicia and are looking for your ersatz “Cheers” establishment, give it a shot, or three, and think about some past “Cheers” laugh lines courtesy of the Coach and Norm:

Coach: Can I draw you a beer, Norm? Norm: No, I know what they look like. Just pour me one. Coach: How about a beer, Norm? Norm: Hey I’m high on life, Coach. Of course, beer is my life.

After the war Benicia still retained its quaint, small city character as mostly a blue collar working and undiscovered community until the forthcoming tech boom.

But booms always bust and small towns are continually look for active economic ways to draw industry and people. And Benicia’s boom-bust problem was no different than the Iron Range towns. However, its proximity to San Francisco and Oakland business and tourism, coupled with the high-tech boom, shed light on Benicia as a desirable, comfortable location to live and raise a family. The small city was discovered both as an affordable, livable community and also a tourist destination.

It’s a walkable and bike-friendly city. I’ve been here for three months and I walk practically everywhere from my second story dwelling overlooking bustling 1st Street, the Main Street. There is no shortage of coffee and wine bistros, boutique shopping, quality art galleries and antique shops. For you “foodies,” there’s Thai, Italian, Indian, Burmese, Cajun (to die for), Chinese, sushi bar and a couple of good pizza places.

And did I mention the superb Benicia city library and friendly staff? I spend at least a couple of hours a day reading, writing and conversing with the friendly Benicians. I met this wonderful octogenarian Kate who worked in the LBJ administration. She related inside scoop stories about LBJ, JFK, Gene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and other colorful pols. Once in a while I see her in the back section near the fireplace engrossed in the New York Times and always open for a brief chat.

Planning a trip to the SF Bay Area? Rent a car and make Benicia a must see and stay a while before exploring the Bay Area. Stay at the Union Hotel on the 1st street for a few nights. Built in 1882, the hotel rooms echo the times and historic guests like President Ulysses Grant who overnighted and, rumor has it, saw “the bottom of the 5th” more than once in the historic hotel bar. Then-governor and future president Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy stayed at the Union, and Humphrey Bogart frequented the hotel for an occasional assignation. Bogart sailed his yacht out of the Benicia Yacht Club.

Side trips are easy. Head to cosmopolitan San Francisco by car or take the scenic ferry from Vallejo or jump on BART in Concord just across the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. The scenic ferry from Vallejo takes you right to the Giants’ ball park or tourist haven Pier 39 where you can walk down a few blocks and catch the Powell Street cable car back to the Embarcadero.

Benicia is at the doorstep to the wine country of Napa/Sonoma (preferably during the weekdays) for wine tasting coupled culinary experiences like the Culinary Academy of California or The French Bakery Laundry in Yountville or discover your own favorite fermented berry locales. Sip, Sip…yum, yum. You won’t be disappointed. At the end of the day or two it’s always nice to return to Benicia with my growing album of people and memories. Sometimes, home is wherever your thoughts are at any one time.

If Minnesota has it’s “Minnesota Nice,” well then, it’s “Benicia Bueno” for the people are genuinely very friendly and helpful. If you decide to experience “Benicia Bueno” it won’t take long as this lovely hamlet retains every nurturing, small city adjective.

All good winter retreats must come to an end. So, I’ll be back on the Iron Range around mid-May long after the nesting “snowbirds” returned only to shovel out once or twice before the robins find green grass and night crawlers. Soon I’ll be slurping a nice espresso at The Hive in Aurora thinking about another story to write…probably reviewing springboard diving videos on my laptop or planning next winter’s escape…maybe Benicia again.

Meanwhile I’m spending the remaining mornings and early afternoons walking Benicia, parking myself at Dianna’s Bakery and Cafe or One House Bakery (amazing bread), people watching and writing this and other stories while sipping on my double espresso. The denouement of my trip and this story is a solitary stroll to the city pier along the Carquinez Strait hoping to see another ocean vessel seeking its nearby moorings in Martinez, sampling the salt water, Bernoulli breeze and absorbing the flaring sunset backlighting the topography of the Carquinez Strait.

So next summer when August evening temps dip on the Range and the riot of color falls to the ground next to frosted pumpkins, put Benicia Bueno on your winter escape possibilities.

David Setnicker lives in Biwabik, MN.

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