I know, it doesn’t sound very sexy, but you’d be surprised how much fun you can have on a weekend getaway to the East Bay. Think of it as a far more affordable and closer alternative to Carmel or Napa, yet with all the same (and often better) attractions: wine tasting, botanical gardens, farmers markets, hiking trails, world-class museums, superb restaurants, and even steam train rides—all within easy driving distance. Check out a few of my top tips below, each one a great excuse for a weekend getaway to the East Bay.
LIVERMORE VALLEY WINE TASTING
I’ve been blowing through Tri Valley on my way to Yosemite for decades, and it wasn’t until recently that I spent a wonderful weekend in Livermore Valley wining, dining, and losing badly to my girlfriend in bocce ball. It turns out Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines on these rolling hillsides in 1840, and pioneer winemakers such as C. H. Wente and James Concannon recognized the area’s winegrowing potential as well and founded their iconic wineries here in the early 1880s (in fact, Livermore Valley captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition).
There are more than 40 wineries within the Livermore Valley Wine Country, all within easy driving (or biking even) distance from each other. In fact, a company called Livermore Valley Wine & Cycle Tours offers weekend bicycle tasting tours throughout the valley. You can even take BART to the Dublin/Pleasanton station and pre-arrange to have a limousine pick you up, take you wine tasting, and bring you back to the station that evening, thus avoiding the need for a designated driver.
Better yet, book a night’s stay at The Rose Hotel and make a full weekend of your getaway, starting on Saturday with an alfresco lunch at Cafe Garré and ending with a hilarious game of wine-impaired bocce ball at Campo di Bocce. I also highly recommend having dinner at the wonderful Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. For more information about the Livermore Valley Wine Country—including a handy Wine Country Map—log onto www.lvwine.org.
BLACKHAWK AUTO MUSEUM, DANVILLE
You’ve been warned: If you come to the Blackhawk Auto Museum with auto enthusiasts, you’ll have to drag ‘em out of here. You don’t even want to know how much it cost to build this beautiful museum and stock it with some of the most rare and gorgeous autos ever built. The 70,000-square-foot nonprofit museum was built in 1988 to house and display some of the finest automotive treasures in the world, and there’s no other place on the planet quite like it.
The Blackhawk Auto Museum houses about 90 cars built throughout the world, many of which are on loan from collectors. It’s not only the historic significance of these super-exotic cars that’s impressive, but also the artistic inspiration behind them. Each one is a work of art, a rolling sculpture conceived by the world’s leading designers and engineers. Some of my favorites include the retro-sleek Dodge Firearrows, Alfa Romeo BAT concept cars (which really do look like a bat) and the American-made Duesenberg convertible—the sports car of choice for Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Even if you’re not a car nut, the Blackhawk Auto Museum is a must-stop for anyone visiting the East Bay who appreciates the art and design.
EAST BAY PARKS—HIKING, CAMPING, BIKING, AND MORE
The East Bay Regional Park District operates 65 parks covering over 100,000 acres and 1,150 miles of trails. My favorite park of the bunch is Del Valle Regional Park, set deep in a valley framed by oak-covered hills about 10 miles south of Livermore. This dog-friendly park has everything you could want for an outdoor getaway: a five-mile-long warm lake that’s ideal for swimming—there are two swimming beaches with lifeguards—and bass fishing (it’s also stocked regularly with trout and catfish); a marina that rents motorboats, patio boats, peddle boats, canoes, and kayaks; the Del Valle Family Campground with 150 sites; dozens of miles of horseback and hiking trials, including the Ohlone Wilderness Trail with 28 miles of scenic back country trail; and even boat tours of the lake led by Park Naturalists.
If you an avid mountain biker like me, then you also want to check out the 5,271-acre Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park, one of the prettiest parks in the East Bay that straddles a mountain ridge with postcards views of Pleasanton and Livermore Valley. The multi-purpose trail system is also popular with hikers and horseback riders.
NILES CANYON RAILWAY’S TRAIN OF LIGHTS, FREEMONT
If you live in the Bay Area and want to take the kids on a Christmas Train ride (yes, it’s time to start thinking about Christmas), head over to Niles Station in Freemont and hop on board the Niles Canyon Railway’s Train of Lights. Four times a night the brightly decorated holiday train—covered with thousands of festive lights—winds through Niles Canyon on a 75-minute round-trip ride either from Fremont to Sunol or from Sunol to Fremont and back.
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, with seats located either inside or outside. It’s run by a non-profit charitable organization made up entirely of volunteers who love this historic locomotive. The Train of Lights runs from late November through December, but they also run a steam train year-round; log on to their website for a schedule—www.ncry.org.
CHABOT SPACE AND SCIENCE CENTER, OAKLAND
I’m always surprised how many people who live in the Bay Area have never even heard about the Chabot Space and Science Center, an interactive learning center in the Oakland Hills. It is, by far, the best place in Northern California to take kids and get them interested in astronomy. Among the Center’s fun and educational exhibits—including a huge telescope for viewing of the stars—is the new Bill Nye's Climate Lab, which offers interactive ways to identify why climate change is needed and what needs to be done. It's great for families because both children and adults are able to learn in a fun, hands-on way, and clips of Bill Nye will entertain visitors along the way. Chabot also has many ongoing exhibits as well, and they even host summer camps for kids too.
UC BERKELEY BOTANICAL GARDEN
What started as a small garden planted by the Dean of Agriculture on the Berkeley campus in the 1870s is now one of the largest botanical gardens in the state: The University of California Botanical Garden. Let me guess—you not only haven’t been there, you didn’t know UC Berkeley had a botanical garden. Today the Dean’s humble garden is now home to 13,000 different kinds of plants from around the world—many rare, unusual, and endangered—that are cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes covering 34 acres of Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley hills. It’s one of the most diverse collection of plants in the world.
If you’re a gardener (or have landscaping issues at home), the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is the ideal place to talk with the staff about waterwise plant choices: which plants will grow in your own garden, and what they will look like as they mature. Free docent-led tours are led year-round on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 PM, as well as a Waterwise Gardening Tour every third Thursday and the following Saturday and Sunday of each month at 1:30 PM.
The UC Botanical Garden also publishes online a wonderful Botanical Garden Newsletter that’s available on their website. The Garden is open to the public daily (except for the first Tuesday of every month and certain holidays) and admission is only $9.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on your favorite East Bay getaways that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.