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If you can overlook a little decay, make sure to visit the East Bay’s two large former naval bases. You’ll find gardens of delights at both Mare Island and Alameda Point, which have blossomed in recent years.
Among the rusty, rundown buildings, there are restaurants, bars, art galleries, shopping, historic sites, parks, wetlands and great views of the bay. Mare Island, a former naval shipyard, is located near downtown Vallejo, while Alameda Point is the former Alameda Naval Air Station in the city of Alameda.
This isn’t San Francisco’s Army Presidio, which is polished and Instagram-ready. These former naval bases still need lots of restoration and remodeling. But Mare Island and Alameda Point are so interesting, that there’s no need to wait until they’ve been completely redeveloped and rehabilitated.
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Both these huge East Bay sites were important parts of the Navy’s defense efforts during World War II and the Cold War. Mare Island is 3.5 miles long and a mile wide. The Alameda Naval Air Station covered about 2,500 acres and had five runaways and seven aircraft maintenance hangars. Both closed in the mid-1990s.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard employed more than 40,000 people for ship- and submarine-building during World War II. Thousands worked there after the war. Alameda Naval Air Station employed about 45,000 people during World War II. It was the home port to a number of aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War and in its later years.
Today, it’s easy to notice the weeds and wild plants, the fences that surround buildings, the peeling paint and the broken windows. But new residences have been built on both bases, and a new mixed-use economy has developed at each. Both former bases have ferry service to San Francisco. They’re liveliest on weekends.
Both Mare Island and Alameda Point offer plenty of diversions for day-trippers with families and dogs. There’s a chance to drink and eat outside overlooking the water at both locations, at wineries, breweries and distilleries. Both islands, in fact, have named drinking districts: Mare Island has the “Wet Mile” next to the Napa River, and Alameda has “Spirits Alley” along its northern waterfront. On sunny days, bicyclists arrive in droves at Alameda Point, and visitors converge for special events on Mare Island.
Alameda’s “Spirits Alley” features great views of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and Treasure and Yerba Buena islands. A few blocks inland, there’s a lively scene at the Almanac Brewery and The Rake at Admiral Maltings, whose tables spread outside under patios. Many of these establishments serve food, or are close to food trucks serving tacos, mini donuts and ice cream. A weekend trolley takes visitors to the nearby ferry terminal.
Mare Island, which dates from the 1850s, has more architectural highlights — numerous old brick buildings and a restored chapel and admiral’s mansion are among the structures that are have gained protection as state and national historic landmarks. The island’s historic museum is closed for repairs, but outdoor monuments to ships and submarines are easy to spot on a drive through the island.
On Mare Island, one impressive restored brick building houses a distillery and restaurant called Savage & Cooke at 1097 Nimitz Ave. A few blocks away, the Mare Island Brewing Company is located in the one of the restored coal shed buildings at 850 Nimitz Avenue.
The coal sheds were built at the beginning of the 20th century when the Navy used coal to power its ships. When the Navy switched to diesel fuel soon afterward, the sheds were used for storage.
Not surprisingly, visitors can visit restored ships at either site. Mare Island features a landing craft support ship, a small Mighty Midget that fought in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. It can be visited on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the intersection of Nimitz Avenue and A Street. Admission is free. The tiny ships had no names, only a string of letters and numbers. The Vallejo ship is called USS LCS(L)102.
Alameda Point’s big ship is a Bay Area landmark. It’s the mighty USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier built during World War II. A museum there includes exhibits from NASA moon exploration, along with several aircraft from earlier eras. Tours are available. For hours and admission information, see https://uss-hornet.org/.
Shoppers will want to explore the Mare Island Art Studios, where 19 artists from the region display their wares on Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m. Among the art is work by painters, woodworkers, metalworkers, printmakers, photographers, videographers, sculptors and textile artists. The studio is located at 110 Pintado St., and is one of the first buildings that visitors see when they enter the base. At Alameda Point, shoppers are drawn to a Pottery Barn outlet in a warehouse located at 1680 Viking St. There’s plenty of street parking nearby.
Art and sculptures are easy to spot at both bases. The newest, a nearly 40-foot steel sculpture called “Beken,” was installed in August at Seaplane Lagoon Park at Alameda Point.
At Mare Island, three striking sculptures can be contemplated over a glass of beer at the promenade next to the Mare Island Brewing Company. Two of the sculptures were previously featured at Burning Man festivals. The nearby wall of a brick building also features a colorful mural of seaweed and sea anemones.
There’s more to be seen at both these bases — Alameda Point hosts a skateboard park, and soon will include a location of Oakland’s Firebrand Artisan Breads. Visitors to Mare Island can hike a 1.8 mile path along San Pablo Bay, where they can watch for ducks, geese and other migrating birds.
Both former bases are best explored by either car or bicycle. Sidewalks, parking lots and streets are in disrepair, although they are usually in good condition near the newest buildings.
Two weekend events are planned this month at Mare Island: the Dock of the Bay Music Festival is this Saturday, and Mare Island PedalFest is set for Sept. 25.
Dock of the Bay features eight bands and musicians on two stages, including the Mother Hips and funk and jazz saxophonist Karl Denson. The event runs from 2 p.m.to 9 p.m., and includes vendor arts and crafts. Ticket prices range from $85 to $175, and children get in free. For more information, visit https://dockofbayfest.com/.
PedalFest is a family-friendly cycling event involving docent-led bicycle tours, bike races, a kids’ bike rodeo and a festival area with food and wine. Visitors without bikes are welcome, too. For details, visit https://www.mareislandpedalfest.com/.
For more information on visiting Mare Island, go to https://www.mareislandco.com/.