Think beyond the foul oil smell you conjure up when imagining Martinez on a sunny day. It isn’t always there, and a rather historic small town is. Thriving on pride derived from its famous sons, major league baseball’s Vince, Dom and “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio, and the city’s claim that the martini was born here, Martinez offers collectibles and antique stores, great parks and historic sites, of course surrounded by Shell oil tanks.
A gold rush port from 1849, Martinez was settled by traders who bought, sold and shipped goods on Dr. Robert Semple’s ferry boat to Benicia and beyond. Martinez was declared the county seat in 1850, lacked the required 200 registered voters to incorporate, but finally made it in 1876. The county seat attracted lawyers and judges as permanent residents, and Martinez’s first newspaper, the Contra Costa Gazette, began publication in 1858. Two years later, Martinez became the shipping port preferred by grain growers around Mt. Diablo and the Livermore Valley, with cargos going to and arriving from England, France, Russia and Scandinavia.
Railroads reached Martinez in 1877, and the Central Pacific linked its “world’s largest ferry boat” from grain wharves lining the shoreline from Martinez to Crockett to transcontinental rail routes.
The Martinez Museum, located in an 1890 Victorian cottage at Escobar and Court streets, is loaded with maps, photographs, county history, railroad, educational, legal and baseball items. Docents show impressive knowledge of local lore. Shell Oil Company even offers the Shell Oil Alumni Museum, organized by former Shell employees, displaying large machinery, lab equipment and tools, pictures and screens, video tapes on oil processing, chemical testing demonstrations and bus tours. (Pacheco Boulevard and Arreba Street)
The John Muir National Historic Site at 4202 Alhambra Ave. is worth the whole trip. Underknown and undervisited, the site offers a tour of the 17-room John Muir home (do not miss the library or the Sierra Club Exhibit Room), the Orchard Trail through nine acres of vineyards and orchards, a Victorian garden and a natural area by Franklin Creek. The Martinez Adobe was built by Don Vincente Martinez, son of the commandante of the Presidio of San Francisco. Muir’s father-in-law, Dr. John Strentzel, bought the property in 1874, planted fruit trees and used the adobe for storage. Eventually the Muirs’ eldest daughter, Wanda, and her husband, Thomas Hanna, lived in the home, where Muir played with his grandchildren. The whole site is wheelchair accessible. Be sure to stop in the visitor center for a great collection of John Muir’s writings, environmental publications and loads of children’s books, coloring books, a Kids’ Guide to the John Muir Historic Site and the “Earth Planet Universe” video shown hourly.
Upcoming Muir events include the two-mile Full Moon Walk across the street at Mt. Wanda Park Aug. 11, the Perseid Meteor Shower Walk Aug. 13, and Ranch Days Sept. 13. Muir fans will enjoy John Muir’s Mountain Days, performed by Willows Theatre Company Aug. 8-31 in the John Muir Amphitheater at the Martinez Regional Shoreline. Call (925) 798-1300 or www.willowstheatre.org.
The Shoreline, a feat of the city of Martinez and the East Bay Regional Park District at the foot of Ferry Street, includes surprising amenities, such as cycling paths, fishing, walking paths along Pickleweed Trail through the enhanced Marsh, boating, soccer, Waterfront Park with the latest in modern children’s climbing equipment, picnic tables, the Joe DiMaggio Ballfields and Martinez’s local obsession, bocce played on 15 covered courts. Bars, restaurants and other local groups field bocce teams and compete at the national level.
The old Southern Pacific Station has steam cars on display, and the attractive new station sits just west of the old one. Watch carefully for passing trains.
Antiques and collectibles shops line Ferry and Main streets, a real find for bargain hunters. Prices here beat anything in sight.
Food is not an obsession in Martinez, so settle into comfortable country food at the Copper Skillet Courtyard, which does not have a courtyard, or at Victoria’s Café, once the DiMaggio Fine Foods and Bakery.
The Copper Skillet has an elevated corner loft called “The Jury Box” where Contra Costa County’s judges have lunch every Wednesday. Bountiful breakfast specials begin at $3.99 and weekday lunch specials, such as a chicken Caesar, fish and chips, Greek salad or a grilled Portobello or chicken sandwich with mushrooms or bacon on grilled sourdough top out at $5.99.
At Victoria’s Café, owner Willie Ebrahimie offers too-cute-named sandwiches such as the “Buttafuoco” and the “Legal Eagle” under $8, with ample salads and burgers under $8. Marilyn Monroe used to hang out here when it was DiMaggio’s. The only good restaurants open in the evening are Bertoli’s Italian Restaurant and Thai Lanna Fine Thai food on Ferry Street and Marina Vista.
Collectors and garage sale aficionados alert: the Martinez Peddlers’ Faire on Main Street is Saturday, Aug. 2.
The official City of Martinez Gold Rush-era original martini recipe (does not resemble mine):
Dash of bitters
2 dashes maraschino liqueur
1 pony Old Tom gin
1 wine glass vermouth