OAKLAND — An antidote to the expensive and crowded top tourist trap in San Francisco —Pier 39 — can be fittingly found in Oakland in a place named for a true blue collar writer, Jack London. It’s called Jack London Square.
It isn’t located next to the world famous Fisherman’s Wharf with a view of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island with Coit Tower overlooking it. But it is located next to the only real working port left in the Bay Area — the Port of Oakland — with a view of the futuristic Oakland-to-Treasure Island Bay Bridge segment as well as direct access to the Bay Trail that links Oakland with 47 other cities around the bay.
And while it isn’t on San Francisco Bay proper it does open up to the Oakland/Alameda estuary.
Jack London Square isn’t Pier 39, which is exactly the point.
It is a low-key, family-style gathering place. It’s a great place to people watch, take in the smells and views of the bay, shop, dine, stroll and enjoy entertainment. It has a host of free events throughout the year. Best of all, it’s one of the easiest day trips to the “inner bay” that can deliver a bit of urban feel and is relatively easy to access from a freeway.
It also has the prerequisite palm trees. (Think the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I get that people associate the ocean with palm trees in California but come on; this is Northern California, not Venice Beach or San Clemente.)
Jack London — for those not familiar with him — is a hometown boy who grew up in Oakland in the late 19th century and became one of the first Americans to earn a living as an author. His famous works include “Call of the Wild.” The square played a role in shaping London as well as providing inspiration for some of his characters.
Historic dive & boats
That is why one of the oldest — and arguably the most historic — dive in the Bay Area can be found along Jack London Square in the form of Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.
The pub is in a building originally fashioned in 1880 from the remnants of an old whaling ship at the foot of Webster Street where it still sits today. It was used as a bunkhouse for workers of nearby oyster beds until 1883 when Johnny Heinhold bought it for $100 and converted it into a saloon. The reference to “first and last chance” alludes to its location on two points: The nearby ferry between Oakland and Alameda (where it was illegal to drink) and the Oakland Port with sailors departing and arriving from long trips.
As a schoolboy, London would study at the bar’s tables that remain in place today. There is even a photo taken in 1886 of London as a young teen hunched over a book with elbows on the table and hands holding his head.
When he told Heinhold as a 17-year-old he was planning to attend the University of California at Berkeley and pursue a career in writing, the saloon owner loaned him the money for tuition. London made it through just one year of higher education.
Heinhold introduced London to sailors and adventurers that passed through the saloon. Those meetings would influence his writings as London would spend evenings listening to the patrons and gathering ideas that would later produce such classics as “The Sea Wolf” and “John Barleycorn.”
The “drinks only” saloon is open Monday from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from noon to 11 p.m., Thursday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday from noon to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s yacht known as the USS Potomac and dubbed “The Floating White House” is docked at Jack London Square. Commissioned in 1934, the ship was secured and moved to Oakland where the 165-foot-long vessel underwent a $5 million, 12-year restoration to become a National Historic Landmark. Since its rebab was completed, more than 250,000 people have boarded and sailed on the yacht.
The ship is in dry dock Feb. 26 through March 25. Dockside tours will be suspended during that time. There are public cruises throughout the year. Among them is a Mother’s Day Cruise featuring a catered brunch with wine. The cost is $100 per person and $60 for ages 2 to 12.
For prices of future tours and other cruises as well as dates and times call the visitors center at 510-627-1215.
The Lightship RELIEF — WLV 605 is berthed next to Roosevelt’s restored yacht. It is one of only 12 of the original 174 lightships still in existence that worked the coasts along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as the Gulf of Mexico from 1820 to 1983 to aid in navigation such as showing the entrance to a harbor or to warn of dangerous underwater obstructions such as reefs.
Lightships were used where it was impossible to build lighthouses.
Lightship tours are by appointment. They are conducted by The Anchor Program. They can be made by contacting John Hastings at 510-685-2345 or emailing email@example.com.
There is little doubt Jack London Square is a low-key outing as opposed to Pier 39 across the bay. That said it is a nice little day trip that can give you a somewhat different view of the Bay Area.
Dining, stores & other options
There are nine restaurants on Jack London Square.
*Belcampo, restaurant and butcher shop.
*Dyafa, Arab cuisine.
*Farmhouse Kitchen, Thai cuisine.
*Forge, wood-fired pizza.
*Kincaid’s, fish, chop and steak house.
*Lungomare, Tuscan and Ligurian specialties.
*Plank, beer garden bowling, bocce ball.
*Scott’s Seafood, seafood.
*Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese restaurant.
*Grocery Café, Burmese food.
Among the more interesting commercial attractions are:
*Baia pasta, a shop that specializes in brass-extruded pasta crafted using the finest organic American flours.
*California Canoe & Kayak offering rentals, sales, accessories, and lessons along with casual and outdoor wear.
*Esports Arena, 16,000 square feet devoted to esports.
*Oakland Supply Co., showcases best local wares from Oakland as well as A’s, Raiders, and Warriors gear; Levi’s; Obey; Mollusk Surf Shop; and more.
*Visit Oakland, the visitors’ center is open and staffed with travel advisors Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
*Captain Kirk’s San Francisco Sailing, boats can accommodate between 2 and 24 passengers for Angel Island barbecues, sunset trips, and special events such as birthdays and anniversaries. Food and drink can be provided. Each trip is tailored to your desires. For more information go to www.sfbaysail.com or call 650-930-0740.
*Roseblum Cellars — dubbed “the original urban winery.”
There are weekly farmers market on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with more than 40 vendors that — on the first and third Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — are joined by other vendors as part of “The Buck” selling unique clothing, jewelry, food and other items.
Pedalfest — a celebration of all things bicycling — takes place Saturday, Aug. 3, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is considered the Bay Area’s premier bicycle festival. This annual event fills Jack London Square with more than 20,000 bicycle enthusiasts including avid cyclers, two-wheeled newbies, hipsters, families and more. It includes bicycling daredevils performing in The Drome, a 30-foot banked wooden board track; dazzling two-wheeled stunts by pro riders; a pedal-powered stage featuring live music; kids bicycle parade; inventive cycling creations; pedal-powered food; homemade, new and antique bicycles; and more.
There is “Dancing Under the Stars” on Friday evening throughout the summer that offers free dance lessons and a dance party with professional instructors covering a range of genres including samba, rumba, cha cha, and more.
Other events include summertime date night movies, car shows, food festivals, and a Fourth of July celebration on the waterfront.
There are three parking garages and four parking lots that are fee-based. Information can be downloaded by accessing www.jacklondonsquare.com/PDF/JLD_Parking_Map.