This Island Off The West Coast Is A Lesser-Known Historic Paradise With So Much To Do

What do you get when you take an island, turn it into a Navy shipyard, and eventually shut down the base after 142 years? It might not sound like much, but according to some locals and a handful of developers, you get a day trip destination and idyllic getaway for Bay Area residents — and we would agree. The island in question is Mare Island, a slab of land (technically a peninsula, not an island) tucked away on the San Pablo Bay in the city of Vallejo. It's best known for its military past. Founded in 1854 — just four years after California became a state — the island was the first Navy base on the West Coast and the site where over 500 military ships were constructed, including the first electric-powered Navy vessel and legendary war-era ships.

However, Mare Island isn't just a relic of American history. It's becoming a burgeoning tourism hotspot in Northern California with hip breweries, a thriving local art scene, hidden-gem nature trails, and more. For locals and travelers visiting or road-tripping on the West Coast, a stop at Mare Island reveals a different side to the state than the glitzy streets of Hollywood and famous landmarks of San Francisco — and that's just what makes it worth the time.

How to spend a day on Mare Island

Mare Island is a bit of a trek to get to but you'll have plenty of opportunities to refuel with delicious food and locally-made drinks. Many of the island's gems are located on the Wet Mile, a few developed blocks situated near its eastern edge. There, you'll find Savage & Cooke, a distillery and restaurant serving Southern soul food favorites like fried chicken, collard greens, and whiskey cocktails. Mare Island Brewing Co. is also nearby and hosts a large outdoor beer garden right near the waterfront. For wine aficionados, Vino Godfather Winery is the place to be. Head to its historic mansion and imagine that you've been transported back to the early 1900s while sampling the latest line-up of wine.

Order a brew at the Quarters Coffee House next to Vino Godfather Winery for a non-alcoholic pick-me-up. The interior is warm and inviting, with century-old detailing and contemporary flair — much like the island. Once you've perked back up, check out the works of art at Mare Island Art Studios (consider visiting on the second Friday evening of every month during the Vallejo Art Walk, when galleries open for free). Much of Mare Island remains wild and hardly touched, and this ruggedness only adds to its character. Spend some time in nature by hiking the island's San Pablo Bay Hiking Trail or spending an afternoon at the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve.

How to get to Mare Island

The closest major city to Mare Island is San Francisco, but keep in mind that the bay of water separates the two. One way to get to Mare Island from the city is by car, following I-80 until you reach exit 29A. Continue to Mare Island Way, crossing over the Mare Island Causeway to reach your destination. Without traffic, the journey only takes about 40 minutes, but note that you might have to compete for parking during busy times on the island, and lots are mostly limited to one area near the Wet Mile. Cycling can be an easier way to get around and explore the peninsula, so consider bringing your bike along with you.

Visitors from San Francisco and Vallejo on the other side of the Napa River can take a ferry instead. The ferry runs daily between Downtown San Francisco and Mare Island, stopping at Vallejo along the way, and it takes about an hour and a half for the entire journey. The ferry might take longer than driving, but it eliminates some of the hassles of bringing a car and, given Mare Island's naval past, offers an opportunity to channel the area's rich maritime history and view the bay from a whole new perspective.