A trip to longtime Navy shipyard Mare Island is for the birds – and the art

The San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival is an annual visual treat at Mare Island in Vallejo.
The San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival is an annual visual treat at Mare Island in Vallejo.

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Crossing the light blue span of the Mare Island Causeway bridge, you can’t help feeling like you’re heading to a place lost to time.

The warehouses, ammunition depots and officers’ quarters of the former longtime Navy shipyard still dot this tongue of land off mainland Vallejo, but except for a few remaining troops, the 150-plus year military history of Mare Island – which is actually a peninsula – is mostly history now. In its place has sprouted a burgeoning community of nature lovers, artists and startup businesses that is making the most of the historic buildings and waterfront in the upper East Bay.

The bird lovers out there probably already know about the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve, where egrets, hawks, scrub jays, ducks and all manner of other fowl luxuriate in the peninsula’s tranquil waters. The Mare Island San Pablo Bay Trail makes for an easy walk to the birds, forming a 4-mile loop out toward San Pablo Bay and back, starting from Azuar Drive not far from where the causeway bridge connects to the peninsula.

The Shoreline Preserve Scenic Vista Trail starts farther southeast along Mare Island, past the genteel officers’ mansions and Touro University and branching off from an old ammunition depot. The trail takes walkers past old bunkers, bomb shelters and workers’ housing reclaimed by the grass and trees to places with great views of the East Bay Hills, the Carquinez Strait and Mount Tamalpais.

A great time to glimpse all that wildlife is the annual San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival, which takes place each winter. The three-day event is a birdwatcher’s feast, with lectures, music and guided walks celebrating the island and San Francisco Bay’s avian bounty.

Elsewhere on the sensory spectrum is the recurring experimental music series, Re:Sound, which fills a cavernous, former ammunition depot every few months with evocative sound and video. The latest installment, held Feb. 11, drew sound art fans from around the Bay Area eager to be mesmerized by musicians and video artists from around Northern California.

Past installments have include Japanese butoh dance performances and live music. An extra treat: Step out of the ammunition depot during intermission to take in countless frogs holding their own concert in the brisk night.

Adding to the peninsula’s diverse mix, golfers have long played the Mare Island Golf Club – the oldest course west of the Mississippi River. You can unwind in the tasting room of the Vino Godfather winery (500 Walnut Ave., 707-552-2331), one of several businesses that have opened in former Navy mansions and other buildings. Finally, the Mare Island Museum (1100 Railroad Ave., 707-557-4646) takes visitors through the shipyard’s long, dramatic history.

Walking or driving around, however, it’s hard not to feel like another chapter in this wind-swept island’s history is just getting started.