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Alameda, Calif.: Island City

The Island City has a broad beach, gingerbread house, and lots of collectibles.

Alameda's High St Bridge
Photo caption
The High Street Bridge, one of Alameda's four drawbridges, spans a tidal canal.

Alameda, Calif., wasn't always a place apart. In 1902 workers cut off a woodsy peninsula from the Oakland shore by carving a tidal canal, and since then salt water has ringed this town of tidy streets, colorful mansions, and mom-and-pop shops. It's also the home of Crown Memorial State Beach, one of the East Bay's true jewels. The "beach," near the foot of Webster Street, is actually a broad, shady park with lush lawns, picnic tables and barbecues, horseshoe pits and volleyball courts, a bike path, views of San Francisco, and 2.5 miles of sand—all capped by the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary. In the park's snug Crab Cove Visitor Center, amid fish tanks and ecology exhibits, are irresistible photos and home movies of the era when a shoreline amusement park made Alameda the Coney Island of the West.

From the park, stroll a few steps up to Central Avenue for an espresso drink and pastry at Spritzers Streetside Cafe. Or cross over to the New Zealander at the corner of Webster and Central, an easygoing pub featuring exotic bottled beers and homemade meat pies in the Croll building, circa 1879. Alameda is in fact rich with fine old landmarks, including scores of ornate 19th-century homes now scrupulously restored. Queen Anne gems cluster on Clinton Avenue between Union and Chestnut streets in five-block Leonardville, named for architect Joseph Leonard, who designed beautiful houses on both sides of the bay.

Peruse art and crafts by more than 100 local artisans at Art in the Park, a festival held August 28, 11 a.m.–5 p.m, at Jackson Park. 2430 Encinal Ave., 747-7529.

But the town's heart beats on Park Street, newly revamped with benches, young trees, and old-timey streetlights. Stacked up here are some 20 home furnishings stores, many graced with treasures you won't see on television's Antiques Roadshow. Need an Elvis magnet or a Bettie Page diary? Stop by Happy Trails, a five-and-dime for the tattoo-and-piercing genera-tion. Or settle into one of the many eateries—join locals in Jim's Coffee Shop off Park on Lincoln Avenue—before crossing the island to the former Alameda Naval Air Station. There you can tour the USS Hornet, a mothballed aircraft carrier; taste hand-crafted brandy, grappa, and vodka in a converted hangar at St. George Spirits; or roam the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire, held on the tarmac the first Sunday of every month. Most visitors find they have to take something home, if only wind-tossed hair and a sun-burnished nose.

Photography by Mark Compton

This article was first published in September 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.