Hidden Treasures

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TRUCKEE • DOWNTOWN NAPA • SUISUN CITY • OAKLAND • THE PRESIDIO 

Suisun City bills itself as a “Bay Area gem with a touch of Cape Cod charm,” and indeed, your first impression of this charming waterfront community—with its scenic fishing harbor, clapboard buildings and weathered houses—is that of a coastal New England hamlet. That postcard-perfect image has been hard-earned: Over the past decade, this Delta town named after the Suisunes (pronounced suh-SOONS), a Native American tribe that lived in the area, has transformed itself into a sweet and delightfully surprising vacation spot (just 50 minutes west of Sacramento, it’s ideal for a quick or last-minute weekend getaway). While it’s still a work in progress with some empty storefronts and vacant lots, this city, which was once an industrial hub dominated by oil tanks, is now anchored by a beckoning lighthouse and replete with great restaurants, nearby wineries, and a highly walkable Main Street that’s eye candy for architecture buffs and nature lovers alike. Trust us, one visit to Suisun, and you won’t wonder why you want to go back so soon.

 

WHAT TO DO

Old Town
The Lawler House contains an art gallery and history center. Pull up those boots: Suisun City’s waterfront district (aka “Old Town” to locals)—which is bookended by a wildlife center to the south and a beautifully restored historic train depot (now an Amtrak station; yes, you can take the train from Sacramento to the heart of Suisun) to the north—is definitely made for walking. Stroll along the picturesque Suisun slough, where you can spot folks fishing for bass or catfish and boats floating in the marina; and cool off with a chocolate-covered ice cream sandwich at the It’s-It outlet store (304 Spring St., 707-425-1900)—the oatmeal cookies for the famous San Francisco treats are made in Suisun by Family Cookie Co. Also make sure to stop by The Lawler House (718 Main St.), which is home to an art gallery (check out its sculpture garden with whimsical works by local metal artist Phillip Glashoff) and the Solano History Exploration Center, where you can see photographs from the set of All The King’s Men (which won the best picture Oscar in 1950 and was partly filmed in Suisun) and of then Senator John F. Kennedy making a campaign stop at the train depot during his 1960 run for president, as well as pick up a free self-guided tour booklet of historic buildings downtown.

Sunset Bay Kayaks’ tour through the tules.Kayaking
When you’re ready to let your arms do the walking, rent a kayak from Sunset Bay Kayaks (reserve at least 24 hours in advance; 707-365-2436, sunsetbaykayaks.com). Starting out from the downtown marina, you can explore the waters on your own ($15 or $20 an hour) or take one of the group tours led by owner-operator Trish Abbatiello ($40 each)—themes include sunset, full moon and nature-focused paddles, during which you canoe through the Suisun Marsh and see plants like tules and Californian thistle, and—if you’re lucky—river otters, blue herons and jumping salmon.

Food and Wine Tasting
Vezér Family Vineyard’s  Blue Victorian tasting room. You won’t go hungry—or thirsty—on this trip; Suisun Valley is home to dozens of wineries and farms. Reserve a barrel tasting at Vezér Family Vineyard’s dramatic Blue Victorian location lined with palm trees (5071 Suisun Valley Rd., Fairfield, vezerfamilyvineyard.com, 707-422-8025), where you can sip its signature Jake’s Chieftain blend—a mix of petite syrah, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel—which is custom-poured into your glass directly from the barrels of each of the three wines. At Il Fiorello (2625 Mankas Corner Rd., Fairfield, 707-864-1529, ilfiorello.com), sample a wide array of olive oils (from lemon to jalapeño; $5) or reserve a $15 tour of its groves and mill. And don’t go home without stocking up at Larry’s Produce (4606 Suisun Valley Rd., Fairfield, 707-864-8068, larrysproduce.com), a bustling, supersized farm stand selling everything from locally grown apples to anise—which you can cart around in a wheelbarrow—all at fork-bottom prices. Are you loco for more local food and wine? At the Fairfield Tomato Festival (fairfieldmainstreet.com), which will take place on Aug. 17 and 18, you can taste almost 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, such as Green Zebra, Pink Girl and Black Russian, from regional farms. And on Aug. 25, check out Suisun Valley’s Harvest Festival, where you can take vineyard tours, go barrel sampling at the area wineries and even stomp some grapes (suisunvalley.com).

Jelly Belly Factory
You want candy? Get your sugar fix at the Jelly Belly factory in next-door Fairfield (1 Jelly Belly Ln., Fairfield, 800-953-5592, jellybelly.com), whose complimentary 40-minute tour along an elevated walkway was named the “Best Company Tour” in the country by Reader’s Digest in 2005. Or enroll in Jelly Belly University for an in-depth guided visit around the factory floor ($47 per person; buy tickets online six to eight weeks in advance or call the visitor center to check for more immediate bookings), where you’ll not only get to see, but taste and smell the sweet treats during the candy-making process (each bean takes up to 14 days to go through the nine stages of production, which includes separating the perfectly shaped candy from the rejected “Belly Flops”). On Sept. 28 and 29, Jelly Belly will host its first-ever Candy Palooza with carnival rides and Jelly Belly art (including a mosaic portrait of JB’s most famous fan, President Ronald Reagan). More a cocoa bean than jelly bean lover? Head upstairs to the Very Cherry room for a new wine and chocolate program (no reservations needed), featuring five samples from regional wineries and house-made desserts—for example, Wooden Valley cabernet paired with a dark chocolate truffle.

 WHERE TO EAT

Cast Iron Grill and Bar
Opened in 2009, Cast Iron (700 Main St., castirongrillandbar.com, 707-425-1700) is one of the newest restaurants in the waterfront district. And with its attractive décor (look for the large, colorful mural of Suisun Valley by Bay Area artist Miro Salazar) and a wide-ranging, accessible menu, it’s become a hot spot for Suisun’s citizens. Try the popular bourbon prawns (which are served, yes, in a cast-iron skillet), the signature jambalaya with spicy, locally made andouille sausage or the lavish weekend champagne brunch with fresh house-made bread. On warm summer nights, feel the Delta breeze at the restaurant’s courtyard patio with a stone fireplace.

Babs Delta Diner
A Suisun institution for more than 20 years, this waterfront diner in Old Town (770 Kellogg St., 707-421-1926) is a must for the ultimate comfort brunch, with heavenly hotcakes, buttery house-made biscuits and locally legendary corned beef hash. Dishes often reference family members of 81-year-old owner Babs Curless (who lives on the second floor of the restaurant’s lovely blue-and-white Victorian-style building and still works behind the counter), such as Deby’s Veggie Omelet, named after her daughter who now runs the day-to-day operations. Adding to the homey vibe are the bright yellow walls, country-style curtains and playful display of vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia

Mankas Steakhouse
Mankas Steakhouse’s  signature lobster bisque.This Suisun Valley eatery, which underwent an $800,000 renovation last year, got a menu makeover as well when chef Peter Halikas (formerly of Napa’s N.V. restaurant and San Francisco’s Gary Danko) and his partner Tim Gill (who previously managed the three-Michelin-starred Meadowood) took ownership of Mankas this past February. Offerings highlight the local bounty, as in the tomatoes and mozzarella small plate with produce from nearby Tenbrink Farms and olive oil from Il Fiorello, and three pages of wines from the Suisun Valley. Other standouts include the creamy lobster bisque (a house signature), the gooey-good mac and cheese, and velvety Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. And while the 16-ounce grilled rib-eye steak is popular, vegetarians won’t feel left out with inventive dishes like the toothsome and flavorful seared tofu “scallops” with black rice and miso broth (2522 Mankas Corner Rd., Fairfield, 707-425-3207, mankassteakhouse.com).

WHERE TO Sleep

Hampton Inn & Suites,
Suisun City Waterfront

Suisun City’s revitalized waterfront district.Built in 2009, this four-story hotel—the only one in Suisun City—was a key part of the area’s redevelopment puzzle and boasts a prime location at the north end of Old Town overlooking the harbor. Other pluses include free Wi-Fi, sheets and duvet covers that are freshly washed for every guest (sadly not the case at most hotels), a microwave in every room, and—eliminating a pet peeve of ours—plentiful electrical outlets for your cell phones, laptops and iPads. But you came here for a room with a view, so be sure to book a waterfront room (if you’re a light sleeper, ask for one on the fourth floor), and, if available, suite 430, 330 or 230, which each also includes a balcony ($119-$169; 2 Harbor Center, 707-429-0900, suisuncitywaterfrontsuites.hamptoninn.com). —E.L.