Wednesday, May 6, 2009


One of my favorite outings, when I have house guests, is to Benicia, a waterfront city in Solano County, close to most parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. Benicia is something of a hidden treasure, which most tourists don't get to visit,despite its proximity to the popular tourist venues.

Amy, MA, and I headed to Benicia for one of our last outings during Amy's visit. We went on a weekday, so that we could watch the glass blowers at work (they are not at work at the glass studios on weekends, except for special open house events).

I like Benicia because it is historic, an arts community, and just a pleasant place to spend a day. Benicia is a laid back community where it is easy to park and easy to get around. On a hot day, I come here to cool off along the waterfront which overlooks the Carquinez Strait.

I never tire of watching the glass blowers at the Smyers and Nourot studios while they work. You can fish off the dock at the end of First Street. It is a pleasant place to ride a bicycle. The shops on First Street are a mix of antiques and other unique merchandise. There are several good restaurants in town.

Founded in 1847, Benicia was the California State Capitol for 13 months in 1853 and 1854. The State Capitol Building and its grounds are open to the public for visits and tours (small admission fee). Benicia was a way station during the Gold Rush for miners coming and going to Gold Country. It was also where Pony Express riders stopped and often boarded ferry boats to and from Martinez.

In the 1850s and 1860s, the U.S. Army had a corps of camels which they used as pack animals. When the Civil War broke out, the Camel Corps was abandoned and the camels were shipped to the Benicia Arsenal where they were housed until they were sold. The site of the Camel Barn is now the Benicia Historical Museum.

What was the Benicia Arsenal for the military from 1849 to 1964 is now a community of artists and craftspeople. The Arsenal is now live/work studios for many artists, who make up Arts Benicia. In addition to their annual Open Studio weekend, Arts Benicia, offers classes, programs, and other events for the public throughout the year. Often when I visit the Arsenal, I will find some galleries and studios where the artists are working and which invite me to come in to look around.

We started our visit with a walk down First Street to the waterfront. We were not sure where we would have lunch but decided on the, a popular local dining spot.

Amy marveled that her Turkey Sandwich was filled with "real" turkey, freshly roasted and sliced.

MA had a cup of soup and the delicious house salad (greens, sliced apples, pecans and both Balsamic and Blue Cheese dressings).

My choice was one of the day's specials, a PLT Sandwich, with the P being hot pastrami.

Everything was delicious and fresh. Portions were so large that we sandwich eaters, took home half of our sandwiches for lunch the next day. We had a hard time passing up the homemade baked goods but decided to move on to the glass studios before the glass blowers stopped working for the day.

Smyers and Nourot are housed in the same building, a short drive from downtown. On this day, only the blowers at Smyers were working. As always, they welcome visitors to get up close to them and, despite working with molten glass, they casually chatted with us and another group of visitors. On this day, they were making glass clocks, an example of which is in the bottom right of this photo.

Both Smyers and Nourot have full retail shops here and also sell their seconds at reduced prices. Their glass is famous throughout the world. It is special to visit the "source" and watch the glass items being made.

By the time we tore ourselves away from the glass studios, it was almost time to head home.

We took a quick drive through the Arsenal and into the former military base. The girls were fascinated by the story of the Camel Corps, so we made a stop at the Camel Barns, but did not have time to go to the museum.

In our 5 hours or so in Benicia, we scarcely had time to see and visit most of its attractions.

A few added notes on Benicia...

Another, somewhat newer glass studio is Lindsay Art Glass. It is located right in the downtown, off First Street...a good choice if you are limited on time when you visit and, of course, if you just want to see another style of locally made art glass.

For those who like Victorian Tea Rooms, Camellia Tea Room is a good choice for lunch. Captain Blythers overlooks the water and features lots of seafood offerings. Its building is the 1850s home in which sea captain Samual Blyther lived with his family.

My favorite downtown Benicia shop is Studio 41, a shop and gallery that features unique, decorative, foods.., all of which are crafted in America.

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