Exit the Caldecott Tunnel, take a deep breath, and rethink your image of Contra Costa County. Think of it as suburbia done right, a sane balance of nature and culture, diversity and convenience. In Orinda and Lafayette, cute, civilized downtowns are lined with boutiques and restaurants, from four-star French to fast falafel, with every cuisine in between. Right down the road, grassy hills and oak forests, preserved as state and regional parks, comfort hikers and mountain bikers. A few miles further out, Walnut Creek's martini lounges and wine bars are practically in the shadow of Mt. Diablo. Here are a few places well worth the trip.
In this already walkable, BART-accessible neck of the woods, the Central Contra Costa Regional Trails (888-EBPARKS, EBParks.org/parks/trails) is like a heaping scoop of extra icing. Cycling around on the system's 250 miles of bikeway, ambling along placid canals, through leafy backwoods, and from town centers to wilderness areas feels positively European. Pick up a map online or at kiosks along the trails.
Talk about retail therapy. Broadway Plaza (South Main St. & Mount Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, 925-939-7600, BroadwayPlaza.com) is a mall turned inside out and spread over a few square city blocks. Essential retail chains face tree-lined streets and quiet pedestrian malls, so shoppers can catch a few rays (it's sunny over here!) en route from Banana Republic to Juicy Couture to Nordstrom. Shopping fatigue is easily cured with a latte or Orange Julius at shaded cafe tables near potted flowers.
When the gray summer fog rolls over Oakland and Berkeley, there's a warm private tub where you can soak in a tiny, serene bamboo garden under the stars, just a half-hour away. At American Family Hot Tub (2367 Pleasant Hill Rd., Pleasant Hill, 925-472-0852, FamilyHotTub.com), you can bring the family (they loan plastic ducks) or soak by candlelight with your sweetie after a couples massage.
Watch double features of first-run flicks with Concord's balmy nights as a backdrop at West Wind Solano 2 Drive-In (1611 Solano Way, Concord, 925-825-1951). It's like traveling back in time to an era where catching a movie meant cuddling your date in the front seat and paying less than $10 for a ticket.
Moms with strollers jog the paved, 2.7-mile loop around a clean, sparkly lake at Lafayette Reservoir (3849 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, 925-284-966, EBMUD.com/services/recreation/east_bay/lafayette/). Hard-core hikers scale the dusty, six-mile high road. Wild turkeys roam the meadow. Retirees catch bass from secluded docks. Rent a rowboat, climb at the playground, or check out the closest thing the Bay Area has to Connecticut-quality autumn leaf peeping.
The Warehouse Cafe (5 Canyon Lake Dr., Port Costa, 510-787-1827) is an exquisitely dizzy mash of classy and tacky, dusty and lusty, with kitsch from all nations crammed in all corners, as if an antique store had run away with the circus. Cheap barbecue on Sundays, free potluck buffet on Mondays, a taxidermied polar bear, and 350-plus beers (that's more beers than Port Costa has residents) make this legendary watering hole the county's prized carousing spot.
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