24 hours in Oakland, California

Over 9.5 million people flew in and out of Oakland International Airport in 2009, but few of them targeted Oakland as their vacation destination. Most folks fly in and drive out as soon as possible, headed toward San Francisco, Napa, or Sonoma.

When friends recently flew from Seattle to Oakland, a TSA agent gently chided them. “Oakland,” he said. “You need to go somewhere nice.”

Later, when they were seated in our Oakland home overlooking the San Francisco Bay and a forest of cypress trees, my friend said, “Oakland is so underrated.”

Blame Gertrude Stein, who famously wrote “There is no there there” in her book Everybody’s Autobiography. No one remembers she was on a return visit looking for her childhood house. Instead it’s become Oakland’s unofficial slogan.

Or blame the earthquake, the fire, and crime typical of a large city. But no large city is all of one thing. Oakland is large, vibrant, full of historical, natural, and culinary wonders.

So let’s pretend the formerly unthinkable happens. You are stuck in Oakland for a layover. Your plane arrives here at 5 pm on a Tuesday and due to airline bungling, you don’t have another flight until 7 am Thursday morning. You spring to action and follow these steps.While waiting in the car rental line, you pull out your iPhone and make reservations for two nights at the Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square. Drive ten minutes on 880 (yes, not a fabulous freeway, but the trip is short) and there you will be on the water. Ask for a room with a view, and quickly unpack.

Whip out that iPhone and make reservations at The Lake Chalet for dinner. Before getting back in that rental car or taking the cab to the restaurant, saunter down the waterfront, making sure to see Jack London’s Klondike cabin, a perfect replica of where London wrote White Fang. While admiring the relic, listen to the gulls, hear the water, and checkout passing Coast Guard cutters.

Drive the 1.4 miles to The Lake Chalet and do the smart thing and let the valet park you. The restaurant is situated on Lake Merritt. Once upon a time, the lake was actually a tidal estuary formed by several creeks. In 1868, Mayor Samuel Merritt proposed to dam and clean up the estuary, and the jewel of Oakland was born. Lit at night by a necklace of lights and surrounded by the city, it is a lovely sight.

Drive back to the hotel, park, but don’t go into your room just yet. Cross the street and head to Yoshi’s Jazz Club for some music. Occupying 17,000 feet of performance space and sushi bar, Yoshi’s offers live performances almost every night of the week and has hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Diana Krall, Branford Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Harry Connick Jr., and Oscar Peterson.

You’ve had a long day. Time for a lovely sleep in your king-sized bed. But in the morning after a cup of coffee, skip the gym and take the hotel shuttle back to Lake Merritt. Walk (or run) the 3.4 miles around the lake, stopping and heading up Lakeshore Avenue to get some freshly baked brioche or muffins at Arizmendi Bakery. Stroll up and down Lakeshore and Grand Avenues, making sure to appreciate the Grand Lake Theatre, one of the few functioning art deco theatres left in the area. If you get peckish, stop for a light lunch at Cafè DiBartolo on Grand Avenue.

At 1 pm, head to the Camron-Stanford House located on Lakeside Drive for your docent tour of one of the few remaining Victorian houses in Oakland and the first site of the Oakland Public Museum. The docent tour will provide you with a look at a grand house but also with colorful information about Oakland’s past.

Back to the hotel with you. You need to rest. You’ve walked for miles. And there’s more to do. Take a shower, put on some comfortable shoes, and get back in that rental car. It’s time for nature. Drive the 12 or so miles up into the hills to Joaquin Miller Park and the Sequoia-Bayview Trail, a flat and wide trail that winds in and out of a canopy of Redwoods. Yes, you are in the forest. Lovely views of downtown Oakland, the Bay and the San Francisco skyline.

That’s enough. It’s time for a drink. You have to fly out tomorrow, and you’ve walked and learned quite a bit today. Head back down to the Rockridge District. Park in the BART parking lot, and walk down College Avenue to A Cote, tasty small plates establishment that serves up a wicked margarita and has a wine list that makes a layover worth it. One small plate to order: the French fries.

Saunter back up College Avenue, stopping into some of the wonderful stores like Itsy Bitsy, and then it’s time to go back to the hotel. Sure, you could go to Yoshi’s again (Diana Krall might be there) but you have to pack.

Thursday morning, you are at the airport by 6, all checked in and ready to go. You’ve just spent a full day in Oakland, and while you are looking forward to being in Bali, you’ve had a good time. There is a there there. Nothing untoward happened. Water, history, forest, and food. Who knew?

Jessica Barksdale Inclan is a novelist who teaches literature and creative writing for Diablo Valley College. Visit her at Red Room to read more of her work, including her latest supernatural romance novel, The Beautiful Being.

[Photos: Flickr | Eric Fischer; darinmarshall; hitchster; Allan Ferguson; www.bluewaikiki.com]