December 15, 2001 -- Although Southern California has long been considered the birthplace of the movies, real film aficionados may be surprised to learn that many classic early silent films were shot in and around Niles and Pleasanton, two towns about 40 miles east of San Francisco in the Tri-Valley area. Charlie Chaplin and Tom Mix spent a lot of time up here . So did actress Mary Pickford when she worked on location at the Little Brown Church in Sunol to film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
What is the "Tri-Valley?" Originally a marketing concept to advertise the undeniable beauty and charm of neighboring valleys and towns, it's now a common regional moniker used to designate the three valleys of Amador, Livermore and San Ramon and their corresponding town centers of Pleasanton, Livermore and San Ramon. (The other big town in the region, Dublin, straddles the Amador and San Ramon valleys.)
Today, visitors come for the famous wineries, a touch of history, and gorgeous ranges of rolling hills, eminently suitable for hiking. There are several good golf courses (at least two with 27 holes), an aquatic center in Pleasanton, a swim center in Dublin, an aquatic park in San Ramon, as well as horseback riding, mountain biking, swimming and fishing opportunities galore. Shopping is especially pleasant given the unique weather of the Tri-Valley area. (It's the cool breezes coming in from San Francisco Bay that keep the grapes from getting too hot in the Livermore Valley, which uniquely runs east to west about 20 miles, as opposed to most valleys in the state, which run north to south.)
If you're driving here from San Francisco, the entrance to the Tri-Valley area is just 35 miles east on I-80 over the Bay Bridge, then I-880 south to Bay Fair, where you take a left eastward along I-580 to Dublin and Pleasanton. I-680 gives access from the south (Silicon Valley) or north (Sacramento).
Wine lovers should feel at home in the Livermore Valley, where there are at least 19 wineries that have visiting hours and tastings. Although many are open only on weekends, some offers weekday hours. Plus, several -- such as Garre, Stony Ridge and Wente -- have restaurants or cafes.
Livermore has its own appellation and is one of the country's best areas for growing wine-producing grapes. Although some bottles are pricey, you can get a wonderful Ivan Tamas 1999 Chardonnay or a 2000 Pinot Grigio for $9.95, or a Concannon 1999 Sauvignon Blanc for just $8.95.
Wente Vineyards is one of the giants of the area, with several locations and two places for entertaining visitors. There's a Vineyards Estate Winery & Tasting Room on Tesla Road, and a Vineyards Restaurant and Visitors Center down on Arroyo Road near the Wente Vineyards Golf Course. The Estate Winery is open daily from 11 to 4:30 (phone 456-2305), the Visitors Center ditto (phone 456-2405). The Restaurant at the Visitors Center is open daily for lunch/brunch and dinner, phone 925/456-2450. (Meals, while absolutely delicious, are not cheap.)
Get a free brochure detailing hours of operation for all 19 Livermore wineries from the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, 1984 Railroad Avenue (A), Livermore CA 94550, phone 925/447-9463, fax 925/447-0433, Web site www.livermorewine.com.
Amazing is the only word for the Blackhawk Museum, which operates in association with the Smithsonian Institution and features a spectacular display of 100 vintage automobiles as well as other permanent and traveling exhibits. Don't miss Stalin's old parade car, looking very much like a Packard of the previous year, the 1901 Toledo Steam Car, as well as Clark Gable's yellow 1935 Duesenberg convertible. The museum also features an excellent Natural History department and has the advantage of being located in the prettiest shopping center I've ever seen. 3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville, phone 925/736-2280.
Railroad buffs will want to ride the Niles Canyon Railway, out in Sunol, where you can hop an old train (closed cars, open cars, and covered cars) for a one-hour ride along part of the first transcontinental railroad. Volunteers running the operation will fill you in on all you want to know about the route. They aren't allowed to use steam engines any longer because that violates the pollution laws! Since there isn't any way to turn some of the trains around, you may ride backward one-way between Sunol and Niles.. Two highlights of the tour are the Farwell and Dresser bridges, dating back to the turn of the last century. Suggested donation is $7 for adults, less for kids. Operates every Sunday, April through September; 1st and 3rd Sundays, October through March. Departures from Sunol run from 10:30 to 3. Niles Station, phone 925/862-9063, Web site www.ncry.org.
Among the least expensive, yet thoroughly reputable, places to stay in this area is the Homestead Studio Suites Hotel in San Ramon, where a studio suite with queen bed runs only $64 if you book on the Internet. For $74, you can get a deluxe studio suite with king bed and sleeper sofa. Each suite has a full kitchen. Contact them at 18000 San Ramon Valley Boulevard, phone 925/277-0833 or 888/STAY HSD, Web site www.stayhsd.com. You can save 10 percent more by booking through Homesteadhotels.com.
At the Best Western Monarch Hotel, rooms for one or two persons start at $89. This is an attractive, full service hotel on two floors, with 236 rooms. Each has TV with HBO, two phone lines with dataport and T1 line access, ironing board and iron, coffee maker and hairdryer. Hotel facilities include a mini gym, indoor pool, day spa center, business center, free parking and free continental breakfast buffet. Contact them at 6680 Regional Street, Dublin 94568, phone 800/422-4656 or 925/828-7750, fax 925/828-3650, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Web site www.monarchhotel.com.
Rooms for one or two persons at the Ramada Limited Livermore can start as low as $59.95 in the chain's Best Buy program, but otherwise start at $98, continental breakfast included. In a pleasant setting and ambiance, you will find in each of the rooms a 27-inch TV with free HBO, dataport with high speed Internet access, two independent phone lines, automated voice mail, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, iron & ironing board plus a hairdryer. Hotel facilities include an outdoor heated pool, fitness room, coin-operated laundry facilities, and free newspapers. You can contact them at 7600 Southfront Road, Livermore, phone 800/2-RAMADA or 925/456-5422, Web site www.ramada.com.
Topping the list, price-wise, is the AmeriSuites in Dublin, where a suite (not a room) starts at $110. The price, which includes a "bountiful" breakfast buffet, entitles you to one of the 128 suites, each having iron and ironing board, voice mail service, hair dryer, refrigerator, microwave, wet bar and coffee maker, cable TV and free daily newspaper. Hotel facilities include an outdoor heated pool, a state-of-the-art business center, fitness center and laundry/valet service. You also will be invited to a manager's reception during your stay. The rooms are spacious, the ambiance standard and pleasant. Conveniently, you'll also be right in the Imax Theatre Complex, with 21 cinema theaters, 16 specialty shops and 13 restaurants. Contact the hotel at 4950 Hacienda Drive, Dublin 94568, phone 925/828-9006, Web site www.amerisuites.com.
Jitr Thai in Pleasanton is the place to go if you like food from Southeast Asia. Pad Thai noodles cost $7.95, curries run from $8.50 Contact them at 4000 Pimlico Drive (106), at Santa Rita Road and Highway 580, across from McDonalds in Pleasanton, phone 925/463-8944.
One of the most pleasant places to dine in either Pleasanton or Livermore is Pastas Trattoria, where a fettuccine Venezia dish costs just $11.95, a pizza Margherita $8.95. Both branches have super clean kitchens and a bright and airy ambiance. The staff is extra friendly, too. In Pleasanton, they're at 405 Main Street, phone 925/417-2222; in Livermore, they're at 4040 East Avenue, phone 925/456-3333.
For more information on the area, contact
Tri-Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau
260 Main Street
Pleasanton CA 94566
Phone (888)874-9253 or 925/846-8910
Web site www.trivalleycvb.com