By Amity Bacon
“Well, this feels pretty remote” is all my boyfriend can say as we take off our motorcycle helmets and scan the dead-end street that meets the waterfront. We’ve been cruising through winding country roads just a few miles southeast of the town of Crockett, home to the C&H Sugar factory, with an occasional bat flapping by, and we’ve finally reached our destination.
It’s here in Port Costa that we find the Burlington Hotel, a scuffed-up yellow Victorian where we’ll be staying for two nights.
“This is definitely the type of town where, if someone gets murdered, everyone agrees to keep it a secret and not make a fuss,” he says.
Port Costa is a place that feels worlds apart from San
Francisco, even though it takes us less than an hour to get there. Once a
bustling way station between Sacramento and the city, the town has changed a
bit since its Wild West days.
Today, the air is filled with the sounds of birdsong in the morning and rambunctious bar flies at night. I can’t help but think that things have always been this way.
The Burlington Hotel
The Burlington was what intrigued me about Port Costa to begin with. I’d heard the tales of the hotel for years: the former brothel known to be a biker crash pad, a place for Burner gatherings, and even the site of all-night rave parties back in the day.
In the past few years, management has switched hands, and a series of community renovation projects have led to a cleaner set of rooms and lobby, and, under the management of beekeeper Earl Flewellen, an adjoining café. It serves fine drip coffee that Earl pours himself, a few homemade baked goods, and the best bacon I’ve ever had.
Each room of the Burlington, named after a different “lady of the night,” has a unique look to it: dated wallpaper, antique light fixtures, oil paintings, and throw blankets only a grandmother could love.
Is the Burlington Hotel haunted? I’m not one to say, but if management finds out that you’re a ghost hunter, they’ll cancel your reservation.
The Warehouse Café
The Warehouse Café is literally a former warehouse and, on the inside, is as sprawling as some mall food courts. It’s large enough to house a stuffed polar bear, round tables seating 30, and enough bric-a-brac to fill about a dozen TGI Fridays.
On a Saturday night, the place is packed with an eclectic crowd of local yokels, leather-clad bikers and their babes, rockabillies, and Burners. We sit down next to a white-bearded bar fixture named Allen, clad in a cowboy hat and poncho, who suggests that we take advantage of the extensive selection of beers (more than 250) served in Mason jars.
We have several rounds of beer, play pool, work the jukebox, and stumble into the souvenir shop.
The Bull Valley Roadhouse
On a hopping Saturday night at the Bull Valley Roadhouse, a new restaurant with a food and cocktail menu curated by the Slanted Door folks, we pass under the golden ox hanging above the restaurant’s front door and step into a time machine, plopping ourselves down on a Victorian sofa to wait for our table.
A woman in a vintage dress and with a flower behind her ear belts out jazz standards, and everyone – from the bartenders concocting Prohibition-era cocktails to the locals (I spot beekeeper Earl, who is also the owner, chatting at a sofa nearby) to the busy servers in their denim aprons – seems to be swaying to the music. Or maybe it’s just me.
At the communal dining tables, we dive into juicy fried chicken, biscuits, smoked beans, and a pot of mac ’n’ cheese. For dessert, homemade pound cake drizzled with honey is served.
Theatre of Dreams
Another day, another whimsical yet mislabeled place of business: Theatre of Dreams is actually the home of the shadow boxes and vintage-paper crafts of local artist Wendy Addison.
Bookended by two empty storefronts that currently serve as storage units for antique goods, Theatre of Dreams is open “by chance or appointment.”
While browsing the dainty tree ornaments and other trinkets covered in glitter made from antique glass, it’s easy to see how Theatre of Dreams only enhances the sense of whimsical nostalgia of the town itself.
Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline
Hopped up on drip coffee and thick, delectable bacon strips, we set off on a hike at Earl’s suggestion, finding the westernmost edge of the parking lot before walking through someone’s driveway, past an abandoned-looking house, and up to steep, vivid green bluffs.
We make it to the Carquinez Overlook Loop Trail, with the eucalyptus groves of Bull Valley to the left and the Carquinez Strait waterfront to the right.
Although this area is touted as “John Muir Country” (his former mansion is located nearby in the county-seat town of Martinez), the curious mix of power lines, gas pipelines, and industrial waste in the water is hard to ignore.
Bailey Art Museum
On a community message board outside the post office, we find a flyer for the Bailey Art Museum that proclaims, “The robots are coming,” and decide that a visit to the nearby town of Crockett is in order.
Clayton Bailey, the Wisconsin-raised sculptor who opened the museum just this year, is a very friendly host. He shows me his largest robot, which is actually a suit that he once wore while taking a walk downtown. He carefully explains every apparatus. “This is where the penis goes,” he says. When I ask how that works, he says, “Well, it springs out when it sees a pretty lady.”
Psychedelic posters for art festivals he headlined in the ’60s and ’70s also grace the museum’s walls. If the Merry Pranksters had an art movement, this would be it.
As the sun begins to set, we ride past the industrial behemoth that is the C&H Sugar factory, up and down hilly residential streets, and pass the seemingly abandoned storefronts of brick buildings. I forget that I’m in California for a moment – a feeling that’s both bewildering and exciting.