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The strait story: Art, history and the outdoors come together along the Carquinez Strait.

The Carquinez Strait is the watery throat of California--an 8-mile channel between Vallejo and Martinez through which 4.5 trillion gallons of water pour each year en route to the Pacific Ocean. The strait is also a crossroads. Deepwater ports at. Carquinez permit oceangoing vessels to link with inland river traffic.

The waterfront towns here are also a crossroads of sorts, where California's history and changing economy meet environmental activism and an emerging arts scene. Martinez, former home to John Muir, honors the legacy of the Sierra Club founder with its growing open-space district. Benicia's arts scene is spreading out too. And preserved historic sites are a reminder of the key role Carquinez played in the settling of the West.

During its early days, the area could have been called the land of dashed hopes. Farming, shipping, fishing, and industry have all sputtered here. But hope seems to always return along the Carquinez. After the Benicia Arsenal munitions factory closed in 1964, artists' studios and antiques shops began to open in the neighborhood. Today the arts can be found all along the strait. The regional plein air artists' festival, Scene on the Strait, celebrated its fifth anniversary this past August. Festival coordinator Sarah Beserra says artists are drawn to the area for its mix of natural beauty and historic, industrial towns. "Artists like to use the word gritty to describe the scene here," she says.

Artists aren't the only ones who appreciate this distinctive scenery. For the last decade, the East Bay Regional Park District, aided by local land trusts, has been preserving land on the strait's south side. Tina Batt, executive director of the Muir Heritage Land Trust, says the blend of new and old, natural and man-made, is what appeals most to her about the area. "At the shoreline, I walk through the marsh, past the open hills. A train will be going by and I'll see a big tanker coming down the strait. The mix is thrilling."

At the water's edge in the tiny town of Port Costa, visitors on a Sunday afternoon double the resident population of 300. Some are just out enjoying the Carquinez Scenic Drive; others are here to dine at the Bull Valley Restaurant. Most evenings visitors and locals alike pause to enjoy the twinkling lights of Benicia, the graceful arc of the Benicia Bridge, the stately progress of a passing oil freighter--the uncommon blend that is Carquinez.

RELATED ARTICLE: Carquinez Strait travel planner

Downtown Benicia (First St.) and Martinez (Main St.) have good antiques shopping and galeries. Benicia's First Street pier and the shoreline on the strait's south side provide nice strolling and hiking.

For regional information, contact the Benicia Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center (601 First; 707/745-2120) or the Martinez Area Chamber of Commerce (603 Marina Vista; 925/228-2345).

An excellent book on area history is Gateway to the Inland Coast: The Story of the Carquinez Strait, by Andrew Neal Cohen (California State Lands Committee, Sacramento, 1996; $21.95). To obtain a copy, call the Carquinez Strait Preservation Trust at (510)787-2487.

Attractions

Benicia Capitol State Historic Park. This handsome brick building was California's capitol from 1853 to 1854. $1. 115 West G St., Benicia; (707) 745-3385.

Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns. Photographic history of Benicia in the original 1850s arsenal buildings. Closed Mon-Tue; $2.2024 Camel Rd., Benicia; (707) 745-5435.

Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline and Martinez Regional Shoreline. Trails near Port Costa and in Martinez run through 2,800 acres of blufftop and shoreline parklands off Carquinez Scenic Drive. The Franklin Ridge Loop from the Bull Valley Staging Area in Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline offers hikers and bikers nice views. To access Martinez Regional Shoreline, which has bocce courts, a baseball field, and paved bike paths, take the West Marina Vista exit off I-680 in Martinez. Carquinez Scenic Drive is a lovely winding road along the 4-mile stretch between Crockett and Port Costa and on the 3-mile portion west of Martinez. (510) 562-7275 or www.ebparks.org.

Epperson Gallery. Paintings, sculpture, and pottery by many local artists. Closed Mon--Tue. 1400 Pomona St., Crockett; (510) 787-2925.

John Muir National Historic Site. Self-guided tours of Muir's 1882 home. Closed Mon--Tue, ranger-led walks at 2 P.M. Wed--Sun; $3. 4202 Alhambra Ave., Martinez; (925) 228-8860.

Nourot Glass Studio, Smyers Glass, and Zellique Art Glass. Handblown vases, paperweights, lamps, tableware, and jewelry at three Benicia studios. On weekdays you can watch glassblowers do their fiery work. Nourot and Smyers: 675 East H St., Benicia; (707) 745-1463 and (707) 745-2614. Zellique: 701 East H St.; (707) 745-5710.

Dining

Bull Valley Restaurant. Steak dinners in an 1897 roadhouse. Closed Mon--Tue. 14 Canyon Lake Dr., Port Costa; (510) 787-2244.

Dead Fish. Have crab for brunch, lunch, or dinner as you look toward the Carquinez Bridge. 20050 San Pablo Ave., Crockett; (510) 787-3323.

First St. Cafe. Small eatery serving breakfast, sandwiches, and pasta, with great homemade desserts. 440 First, Benicia; (707) 745-1400.
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Title Annotation:San Francisco bay area
Author:Taggart, Lisa
Publication:Sunset
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Words:828
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