I f you dread the canned carols and manic wattage of urban mall shopping this month, try giving yourself a present. Make a December escape to Solano County's Benicia. On the north shore of the Carquinez Strait, this historic town, briefly California's capital, offers unpressured browsing for one-of-a-kind gifts. It provides good lunch options too, food being an essential component of a shopping trip.
Art glass and antiques
Named for General Vallejo's wife, Benicia slopes gently uphill from its waterfront perch on the Carquinez Strait. First Street, the old town's main thoroughfare, is pleasantly walkable. Start at the foot of First and head northeast to J Street, a stretch of nine easygoing blocks. Antiques stores abound; explore as you choose.
Some of the buildings you'll walk past on First Street were fabricated on the East Coast, then shipped around the Horn and reconstituted here to satisfy a local post–Gold Rush boom. The fine old Southern Pacific Railroad depot at the water end of First was actually built in Contra Costa County and floated across the strait. It now sells souvenirs.
In the stolid brick Tannery Building, Cooper's Doll House Studio has wonderful small-scale furniture and dollhouse kits. There's even a furnished miniature lighthouse. Discover Yesterday offers truly vintage clothing and jewelry, plus lace trim and antique linens.
The Soiled Doves Bath House, in a dream of a setting, sells scents and creams from traditional English recipes (and do ask about the shop's name). Romancing the Home extravagantly packs several Christmas trees with unusual and charming ornaments (for sale). At tiny Buttons & Bows, admire sweet clothing for infants and toddlers.
For higher-end art, Studio 41 culls a distinguished selection of American crafts in all media. Don't miss the brilliant work of local wood turner Rigo Santos. And a couple of blocks east, you'll find an art-glass lover's heaven. Benicia Glass Studios contains work by three highly regarded workshops: Nourot Glass Studio, Smyers Glass, and Zellique Art Glass. With luck, you'll find seconds or discontinued items at great discounts.
For lunch, Venticellos prepares excellent Italian food. Camellia Tea Room is a local favorite for salads, sandwiches, or a full (three-tier) afternoon tea. This month it hosts two special events, the Teddy Bear Tea Party and Tea with Carolers. Both are very popular, so call now for reservations. Sala Thai serves fresh and delicately seasoned Thai food in comfortable seating wells. Back on the waterfront, Captain Blythers, known for its seafood, transforms an old building that was once a bordello.
You shouldn't leave town without exploring just a bit of Benicia's past. The Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and the adjacent 1856 Fischer-Hanlon House are decorated for the holidays and well worth a look.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church is also a must-see. Celebrating its 150th birthday this year – it was constructed by Scandinavian shipwrights from the Pacific Mail line – the church is one of the most beautiful in California. Its redwood Gothic interior settles over the pointed-arch stained-glass windows like the framework of an inverted ship's hull.
Benicia lies off I-780 in Solano County. You can get brochures, maps, and other information from the Benicia Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center (601 First St.; www.visitbenicia.com or 707/745-2120).
Almost all of the stops listed here are open daily, but call to check hours.
Benicia Glass Studios. The collective includes Nourot Glass Studio (675 E. H St.; 707/745-1463), Smyers Glass (675 E. H St.; 707/745-2614), and Zellique Art Glass (701 E. H St.; 707/745-5710).
Buttons & Bows. Closed Mon. 623 First; 707/745-1231.
Cooper's Doll House Studio. 129 First; 707/745-9411.
Discover Yesterday. 364 First; 707/747-0726.
Romancing the Home. 617 First; 707/747-1717.
The Soiled Doves Bath House. 611 First; 707/747-9177.
Studio 41. 700 First; 707/745-0254.
Camellia Tea Room. Teddy Bear Tea Party (Dec 5; $35) and Tea with Carolers (Dec 14, 21; $31) require reservations. $ lunch, $$$ afternoon tea; lunch and tea Tue–Sun. 828 First; 707/746-5293.
Captain Blythers. $$$; lunch and dinner daily. 123 First; 707/745-4082.
Sala Thai. $; lunch Tue–Fri, dinner Tue–Sun. 807 First; 707/745-4331.
Venticellos. $$; lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sun. 911 First; 707/747-5263.
Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and Fischer-Hanlon House. 10–5 Wed–Sun in Dec; $2 combined admission. 115 W. G St.; 707/745-3385.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church. 9–1 daily in Dec; free. 120 E. J St.; 707/745-0307.