Ships, spirits & more await at Alameda Point
Bay Area & Beyond
Driving around Alameda Point is a bit like looking for gold in a ghost town. The nuggets are there, and the search, among abandoned buildings and unused runways, is part of the fun.
The former home of the Alameda Naval Air Station, decommissioned in 1997, Alameda Point occupies 1,560 acres of prime western real estate. There's tremendous potential for wildlife, recreation and business, and the panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay and skyline add to the allure.
Three destinations represent an eclectic mix of diversions: the USS Hornet preserves military history; St. George Spirits occupies Hangar One, where it fine-tunes the art of distilling spirits; and Antiques by the Bay celebrates the art of collecting on a grand scale.
History and sheer scale combine to make the USS Hornet Museum a mind-expanding experience. This aircraft carrier was one of the most decorated naval ships of World War II, and participated in the Vietnam War and as a recovery vessel for Apollo 11 and 12.
Three decks are open to the public, but some areas are restricted to docent-led tours. Mostly veterans, the docents really bring the ship to life with their stories and details.
Entry is at the Hangar Deck level, where aircraft -- including a World War II bomber -- and space program artifacts -- such as a Gemini capsule -- are on exhibit.
Access to other areas involves climbing route ladders and
crossing raised doorways, an amazing look at how every inch of the ship is used. On the 900-foot flight deck, docents describe how planes were launched by the hydraulic catapult and brought in using arresting cables.
The intricacies of running this timeless, yet obsolete memorial to U.S. history are on display inside the Island and Navigation Bridge; the flight control, navigation and chart rooms; and pilot house.
Craft of distillation
Leave the kids behind for an excursion to St. George Spirits, distillers of Hangar One Vodka and much more. This destination combines top-rate tasting and lessons in creating artisanal spirits, all in an upbeat atmosphere.
Founded as an eau de vie distillery in 1982, St. George moved to Alameda Point in 2004, where it uses copper stills to produce small batches, applying whole-hog methods to maximize the flavor of its ingredients.
The spirits run the gamut from vodka, brandy, tequila, rum, whiskey and liqueurs to absinthe, with its notorious past.
Leading groups around the hangar, tour guides discuss company history, successes and failures, the distillery process and why a mechanical shark is a permanent fixture. (It's a movie prop that has nothing to do with distilling spirits, but rather stands as an example of the zany atmosphere that makes this place so appealing.)
The coolest story belongs to the popularity of absinthe. The presence of a 400-gallon still that runs all day is explained by the fact that St. George Spirits sold its entire first run of 1,800 bottles in six hours after the ban on absinthe was lifted.
The tasting is well worth the price, with at least 10 samples and a take-home glass, interspersed with tasting know-how and spirit characteristics, all in a hip atmosphere that rivals any club.
Antiques on the Point
On the first Sunday of every month, old aircraft runways are reinvented as Northern California's largest antiques show, Antiques by the Bay. With the San Francisco skyscape and Bay Bridge forming a postcard backdrop, between 800 and 900 vendors line up offering everything under the sun -- as long as the merchandise is at least 20 years old.
There's a carnival atmosphere as up to 10,000 people peruse their favorite regulars near the entrance and explore farther reaches for new discoveries.
Now in its 13th year, the fair is still expanding, offering merchandise from Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. Choices range from collectibles and high quality antiques to a current favorite: furnishings from the 1950s and 60s. A casual browse reveals French antiques, brightly painted flowers using recycled metal, vintage jewelry and clothing, and the popular stand selling keystroke buttons, sold as is or turned into jewelry or magnets.
An international food court occupies one side of the fair selling everything from Mexican and Indonesian food to made-to-order brick-oven pizzas. Picnic tables dot the grounds, a great spot to sit, enjoy the food and watch the fair walk by.
Alameda Point continues to be a work in progress, with plans on the books for further development. Who knows what might show up next?
IF YOU GO
USS HORNET: 707 W. Hornet Avenue, Pier 3, 510-521-8448, www.uss-hornet.org. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. $15 general; $12 ages 65 and older, students and military; $6 ages 5-17.
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