Benicia, a small waterfront town in the Bay Area often overlooked by travelers, is an elixir for big-city angst. Less than an hour from Oakland and San Francisco, this charming hamlet gives visitors a chance to relax as they stroll the compact downtown's boutiques and antiques stores. This one-time state capital (1853-54) and location of the first Army post on the West Coast is dotted with historic sites and is a haven for the creative set — about 500 artists make Benicia their home.
Close to the Carquinez Strait, the Union Hotel (401 1st St.;  445-2323; rooms $99-$179, including breakfast) offers 12 romantic, individually decorated guest rooms that recall the hotel's 19th century roots. Antiques abound, and there are such flourishes as ornate wood headboards, four-poster beds, gold sconces and crystal chandeliers; all have bathtubs (some Jacuzzi). Some have views of the water and the Carquinez Bridge. Spring for the Coast Lotus suite, which is lovely and has the best view.
Grab a table upstairs at Sailor Jack's (123 1st St.;  746-8500; appetizers, $5-$14; entrees, $15-$31) to watch the sun set. The restaurant has a nautical feel and it comes by it honestly: It was built in 1868 as a sea captain's home. "Sailor Jack" is legendary author Jack London, a one-time oyster pirate who fished the Carquinez Strait and went on to write about it. You can make a great meal out of the appetizers, and we did. The New England clam chowder was terrific, as were the Trio of Crudo (sashimi, scallop ceviche, salmon poki), beer-battered veggies, fried calamari and a dozen oysters. (On Mondays they are only $1 each.)
The Arsenal (991 Tyler St.), a short ride from downtown, makes good use of former military and commercial facilities and has scores of artists' studios. On any given day, you may come upon a painter, sculptor or metalsmith at work — some spaces are live-work studios — as you wander through the galleries and shops. The artists and shop owners choose their own hours; that's part of the charm. There are two open-studio events on the first weekends in May and December. Be sure to explore the surrounding area — there are museums, historic buildings and more.
The lesson learned
Bring hiking shoes. The Benicia State Recreation Area covers 400 acres and has paths for walkers and runners, and the Bay Ridge Trail follows the waterfront all the way to Vallejo. Pamper yourself afterward at one of the 40 spas and hair and nail salons in Benicia.
Excluding gas, we spent about $260 for a night at the Union Hotel ($179) and dinner at Sailor Jack's ($80).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun