Nearby getaways: B & B-style hospitality is abundant in East Bay

Planning a getaway can take on tax-preparation proportions, from calculating your frequent flyer miles to your baby sitter’s wages. But vacation depends more on state of mind than the state you’re in. Instead of mapping exhaustive sightseeing itineraries, Bay Area folks can simply sling an overnight bag over one shoulder and cross a city boundary or two for a blissful respite.

Call it a commentary on our times or unadulterated laziness (which could also be a comment on our times). Or maybe it’s a fulfillment of all those drive-by promises to appreciate that quaint shopping district or the intriguing architectural wonders right in your own back yard.

As for your own out-of-town guests, bed-and-breakfast inns often cost less than chain hotels, and are certainly less sterile. Setting up the overflow in a bed-and-breakfast doesn’t seem as though you’re foisting your guests off. Instead, you’re entrusting them to kind hosts who would entertain them as they would, well, a guest in their own home.

Services such as the B & B International (415-696-1690, 800-872-4500), Bed and Breakfast of San Francisco (415-479-1913, 800-452-8249, and Bed and Breakfast Accommodations in Berkeley (510-548-7556) match visitors’ interests with the ideal environment. Splendid accommodations lie at most a tunnel away, and no bridges were crossed in the researching of this story.

Alameda County

Garratt Mansion, 900 Union St., Alameda, 510-521-4779.

The four-story 1893 Victorian sits on the Gold Coast of Alameda, where Bay waters lapped before landfill extended city property lines. Refined grace emanates from every inch of its 9,000 square feet, from the leaded stained-glass windows to the carved oak and redwood paneling to the four massive fireplaces on the main floor.

Guests can gather under the crystal chandelier in the formal dining room for a full breakfast cooked by proprietor Betty Gladden. She and her husband, Royce, have run the seven-room establishment for two decades, welcoming business travelers or repeat visitors who include this mansion as part of their anniversary or Valentine’s Day traditions. The inn stands just seven or eight blocks from the reinvigorated Park Street and 1 1/2 miles away from a San Francisco ferry ride.

A natural for weddings and performances (such as the March 25-26 Gold Coast Chamber Players performance with San Francisco Opera members), the inn also has a second-floor living room where guests can relax undisturbed. But why leave the delightful theme rooms? The Captain’s Room, for instance, oozes 19th-century masculinity with its collections of Venetian masks and cigar boxes and its iron canopy bed as the room’s commanding post. Other motifs include the rustic a tree-house setting to traditional, such as Pennsylvania Dutch and Colonial. “It gives me an excuse for a place to put everything, ” says Betty, who decorated the Christmas tree with her antique handkerchief collection.

Children: behaved, yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: TV, VCR, videos, telephone. Breakfast: full, afternoon cookies. Rates: $80-$130. Credit cards accepted.

Albany Bed and Breakfast, 1320 Marin Ave., Albany, 510-524-9702.

“As far as I know, I’m the only one in Albany, ” says Irene Petrel, who has rented out two rooms in her three-bedroom home for about 11 years. Her foray into innkeeping came when a friend had guests visiting from Germany. Her college-bound son had just vacated his room, “so I just emptied out three bedrooms and put everything in the back shed that I didn’t need.” Since then, she has hosted visitors from as far as Australia, Switzerland, Budapest, Israel and Wilmington, Del. “It’s very satisfactory, ” Petrel says of her experience.

She describes her 1949 ranch-style building as “the newest house on the block. Of course, these homes were built in 1924.” Warm climes allow slacking off in the enclosed patio or the garden, resplendent with vibrant yellow lemons, dark orange tomatoes, green string beans and blooming roses. Colder weather means enjoying the bedrooms’ garden views, shuffling on heated floors or maybe snuggling up to Petrel’s “extremely sociable” Siamese. Marin Avenue parallels Solano Avenue, which is rampant with eclectic browsing and feasting opportunities.

Children: yes. Pets: yes. Minimum stay: two nights preferred. Amenities: TV, telephone, sauna. Breakfast: expanded continental. Rates: $40-$50, $10 additional twin. No credit cards.

Bonita Studio Bed and Breakfast, Berkeley, 510-525-6416,

Consider yourself lucky if you can snag the 350-square-foot English cottage, usually reserved by Marie Minghini’s long-term renters. The other more contemporary room also has a private entrance as well as marble floors. Says Minghini about her rooms, “They’re unusual in the sense they’re large and spacious and they have attention to detail that most B & Bs in someone’s home don’t have.” Quiet environs include a reading area and garden deck.

Guests wake up to a definitive Berkeley breakfast, not surprising since the gourmet ghetto lies just three blocks away: scones, brioche, English muffins and goat cheese from the superlative Cheese Board, organic fruits from Monterey Market, homemade apricot jam and the house favorites baked apples and bread pudding.

Children: no. Pets: no. Minimum stay: two-night weekend. Amenities: telephone, TV. Breakfast: expanded continental. Rates: $85-$130. No credit cards.

The Brown Shingle Bed and Breakfast, La Loma Avenue, Berkeley, 510-848-6385.

Helen Christensen modestly describes her 1920s two-story house as a “gracious, typical Berkeley brown shingle.” What’s typical in Berkeley, however, would be the cat’s tie-dyed pajamas anywhere else. For instance, three of the four rooms have a splendid view of all the bridges. Besides glassed-in balconies for half the rooms, a common deck lets guests kick back and take in the Bay.

Antique oak lends reassuring earth tones to every room. A fireplace warms the common area, which includes a piano for an evening of karaoke-free music. It’s an ideal setup for a family, with two rooms sharing a bath and the rest having private facilities. A quick jaunt takes you to the gourmet ghetto, the north campus and enchanting urban stairways.

Children: negotiable. Pets: negotiable. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: TV, hallway telephone, fax. Breakfast: continental. Rates: $75-$95. No credit cards.

Gramma’s Rose Garden Inn, 2740 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, 510-549-2145,

Even Berkeley natives miss the recessed gated complex in its unlikely Telegraph Avenue surroundings. Cater-cornered to Williard Elementary and about five blocks before the avenue becomes a one-way thoroughfare, this grandmother of bed-and-breakfasts comprises five buildings, among them a 1903 shingle-style, four-story Fay House and an 1849 half-timber main house. Guests can relax amid the idyllic backyard rose garden.

The inn changed hands March 3 from a bankruptcy trustee to a native South Bay family that also operates the Queen Anne Hotel in San Francisco. This means major sprucing up, from carpeting to bathrooms, from drapes to linens. “It’s going to be a crown jewel, ” operations manager Brett Watkins predicts. Renovations should conclude by May, but it’s open in the meantime. Opt for Bay views from the Fay building.

Children: yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: two nights during graduation season. Amenities: cable TV, telephone. Breakfast: limited full buffet, afternoon cheese and fruit spread. Rates: $95-$175. Credit cards accepted.

Hillegass House, 2834 Hillegass Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-5517.

Proprietor Richard Warren chuckles when he recalls how he got into the B & B business back in 1985. “At the time I was married to a Swiss woman who had gone to hotel and restaurant school, ” Warren recalls. “When we split up, I ended up with the place. I had so much money invested in it, I didn’t have much choice.”

The retired mechanical engineer, who twice graduated from nearby Cal, stays mostly hands-off in the daily running of the three-story 1904 brown shingle. He relies on student staff, “a big variety of very bright young people, ” to oversee the four rooms with private baths. “I consider it a privilege to work with these kids, ” Warren says.

The house itself is a “very comfortable, very quiet place, with a big deck and garden in a quiet neighborhood, but yet very close to the best of Berkeley shops and restaurants in the Elmwood area. In keeping with the tranquillity, the house provides books instead of TV, and enough space to sprawl, whether in the two sitting rooms, the decks or the Scandinavian sauna on the second floor.

Children: well-behaved, yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: two-night weekend. Amenities: sauna, telephone, voice mail. Breakfast: continental. Rates: $55-$100. Credit cards accepted.

North Berkeley Bed and Breakfast, Milvia Street, Berkeley, 510-849-0649,

Despite the charm of the 1913 two-story shingle, it’s the spectacular woodland garden that really makes guests feel at home. A 40-foot trellis traverses 15 feet above the winding graystone path and flower bed. Guests come to one of two sitting areas sheltered by maple trees to read, eat and otherwise take in the lush oasis, featured in a 1994 “Secret Gardens of the East Bay” tour.

Reg and Pat Ungern, who work respectively as a postal employee and schoolteacher, decided about five years back to let others enjoy their great location and garden. “It’s nice to provide a good service to people where you make a little money but they’re pleased with what they get, ” Reg says. In turn, the charming Ungerns have loved entertaining people from all over the world. Reg, by the way, will be happy to drop off postcards at work.

Children: yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: cable TV, telephone, refrigerator. Breakfast: continental. Rates: $75-$140. No credit cards.

Oxford Place B & B, 1151 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510-559-0089,

“We’re not too far from the madding crowd, ” quips Bernard McPhillips, who has run the bed-and-breakfast with his wife, Lisa Nelson, for the last year and a half. The couple bought the fourplex with relatives seven years ago; they decided to convert the spare areas when a friend who also runs a bed-and-breakfast encouraged them to help meet the demand.

McPhillips says that the original owner built the 1908 Craftsman-style house when people were discussing the possibility of moving the capital to Berkeley. “When Sacramento got wind of it, they shot it down, ” but the city population tripled anyway in the two years following the great San Francisco earthquake.

The three rooms, two of which are generally long-term rentals, have private entrances. Guests have access to the garden blooming with herbs, flowers and fruit; the pump organ in the living room, and a library brimming with local history. While Nelson is a native San Franciscan, a soft lilt betrays McPhillips’ Scottish roots. The two met in Greece, where McPhillips recalls, “She was on her way to Saudi Arabia, I was on my way to Germany.” She changed her route to coincide with his. Their traveling days have left them with a smattering of languages, from Chinese to French, which helps them communicate with their many international guests, although “sign language works very well.”

Children: yes. Pets: negotiable. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: kitchen, TV, VCR, telephone. Breakfast: expanded continental. Rates: $60-$125. No credit cards.

Redwood House, Dunsmuir Avenue, Redwood Heights, Oakland, 510-530-6840.

Anyone who bothers to climb the 56 steps to the front entrance will have to backtrack. Otherwise, he or she will miss the truly grand rear entrance to the 2 1/2-story solarium. Glistening goldfish flitting back and forth in the aquarium and Oriental rugs lend just some of the Sybaritic touches to the profusion of ficus, giant birds of paradise and other plant life in the self-enclosed garden. Even more spectacular are the 400 birds which, owner Don Tyler assures, “are guaranteed quiet unless disturbed by raccoons.”

All this, and one hasn’t even entered the 1938 Queen Anne Victorian, with beam ceilings, hand-painted wall designs and a view encompassing the Bay from San Rafael to San Mateo. Tyler, who opened up his home less than two years ago, has both international guests and locals who come for “a getaway without truly getting away.” That Tyler, an Oakland High School history teacher, avows he is “hecka nice” and will serve a modified Victorian fidget (sausage) pie for breakfast with proper crystal and silverware, pushes the experience well into this side of hedonism.

Children: no. Pets: no. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: marble spa, TV, VCR, telephone. Breakfast: full. Rates: $80-$100. No credit cards.

Purple Orchid Inn Resort and Spa, 4549 Cross Road, Livermore, 925-606-8855,

Owner and therapist Karen Hughes had long sought a location to open up a health and wellness resort and realized her “own back yard was the best place to build, the best place to be and the best place to live.” Hughes hired Alamo feng shui expert Marsha Golangco to review the site and every detail, from the angle of every window to the placement of every chair.

She says she ended up with “the largest residential Lincoln log structure in the world, due to my overactive imagination.” The 10,000-square-foot, two-story rustic splendor features eight luxury accommodations, library, pool, two spas and meeting rooms. The hand-carved bedroom doors echo popular Livermore recreational activities and the room themes, such as the Vintners and the Eight Seconds Ride. (Honeymooners tend to stay away from the latter, which refers to the fastest juried rodeo.)

The 21-acre estate includes an olive farm, which provides freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil for salads, olive herb bread and even olive oil massages in the spa. The made-to-order breakfasts include signature dishes such as the raspberry Grand Marnier French toast, eggs Blackstone, biscuits and gravy, and chicken fried steaks. While people who aren’t guests can’t enjoy the breakfasts, they can make appointments at the full-service spa salon.

Children: none under 14. Pets: no. Minimum stay: two-night weekends. Amenities: TV, VCR, telephone, fax, pool, dry sauna, spa, gold driving range. Breakfast: full, afternoon hors d’oeuvres, wine. Rates: $150-$250. Credit cards accepted.

Contra Costa County
Brentwood Oaks, 1850 Arabian Lane, Knightsen, 925-634-0378.

The entire 10-acre property straddles Brentwood and Knightsen, although the house, pools and gardens take up a mere two acres. Owner Richard (who explains his one-name moniker by saying he’s a child of the ’60s) refers to the 3,500-square-foot residence as a “Mediterranean escape in the country that nobody lives in. … We are geared to privacy here.” In fact, Richard prefers to rent the gated five-room spread with two hot tubs, marble fireplaces, large-screen TV and swimming pool to one couple at a time or a group of friends.

The sensual spread is “dead center” of the U-Pick farms, with the nearest town three miles away, Delta waters 1 1/2 miles away and Discovery Bay or the Livermore wineries a good 20-minute car ride. Guests have included film people working on location who escape here for hard-won solitude. Richard says people can even land and take off in their helicopters on the property without a fuss. As a site for weddings, parties and church events, the place has earned its nickname as “oasis in the middle of nowhere.”

Children: yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: TV, VCR, sauna, pool, kitchen, hot tub, telephone. Breakfast: full. Rates: $85-$125. No credit cards.

The Secret Garden Mansion, 1056 Hacienda Drive, Walnut Creek, 925-945-3600.

Formerly known as the Mansion at Lakewood, Sharyn and Michael McCoy changed the name to reflect the ballroom mural’s floral theme as well as the English and vegetable gardens throughout its three acres. The original owner’s Japanese gardeners created delightful stone bridges arching over water outlets, some of which remain standing.

The McCoys have run their 1860 seven-room inn for 11 years. White wrought-iron gates and the spacious building, which includes a library and parlor with wood-burning fireplaces, impart the feel of a luscious plantation. Attention to detail extends to the individual rooms with private baths (some clawfoot tubs), from the original hand-crank doorbell to the lace sheets and Egyptian cotton towels.

Besides business clientele, “80 percent of our guests are from the local Contra Costa area, ” says Sharyn. “Neighbors have walked down the street with their suitcases to celebrate their anniversaries.” Distractions are plentiful with downtown Walnut Creek nearby, Shell Ridge and a crisscross of bike trails. The public can come for holiday and special-occasion teas in the magnificent ballroom.

Children: yes. Pets: no. Minimum stay: none. Amenities: TV, telephone. Breakfast: weekday, continental; weekend, full. Rates: $145-$345. Credit cards accepted.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features