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A new view aboard the Potomac

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Our college days may be long gone, but my wife and I always love a trip back to the East Bay. From oddball corner cafes and aromatic bakeries to sweeping San Francisco Bay views and sudden encounters with untamed gardens, Berkeley and Oakland always seem to boil over with possibility.

Typically, we set nothing more on our agenda than a daily workout, leaving hours free to wander the streets and visit old haunts. The center of gravity of these trips never strays far from the hills, from UC Berkeley and from the here and now.

But a co-worker suggested that a return to the area might benefit from a slight geographical and temporal recalibration — toward the bay and the past. We agreed. On this weekend, we would lay down a historical baseline to go with our standard cosmopolitan be-bop.

Before departing with our three kids for the six-hour drive north from L.A., Alison and I reserved tickets online for a bay cruise on the Potomac, Franklin D. Roosevelt's "floating White House," which somehow found a home on the West Coast. And we scouted the location of another World War II-era site, the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.

We had, frankly, never heard of either. But both seemed novel and timely destinations, given that our trip fell within days of the world's tributes on the 60th anniversary of D-day.

Out on the bayOn a sunny Saturday morning, we arrived at the Oakland dock near Jack London Square where the Potomac was moored.

The cruise was not due to get underway for half an hour, so we had time to visit the ship's landside office and watch a video about the 165-foot vessel. It cleared up the initial mystery — explaining why the yacht of the quintessentially Eastern Roosevelt would end up on the West Coast.

After FDR's death in 1945, the Potomac fell into private hands. It passed to myriad owners, including Elvis Presley and Danny Thomas. Later, drug smugglers took ownership before the government seized the boat in San Francisco Bay. When the Potomac's hull was accidentally pierced in 1980, it sank at Treasure Island, between San Francisco and Oakland.

The laborious salvage and restoration was started by the Port of Oakland, which paid just $15,000 to obtain the Potomac. The boat opened to the public in 1995. (For a schedule of cruises, go to http://www.usspotomac.org and click on "Education.")

From the dock, the Potomac — with fat smokestacks and large, shaded fantail — presented a handsome profile at dockside. But upon reaching the gangplank, 4-year-old Hank saw only the expanse of water beyond the ship. Not yet a swimmer, he whimpered that he preferred to stay ashore.

To the rescue came a tall man with wire-rim glasses, a black nautical cape and a worn fedora. Propped insouciantly between his lips was a cigarette in an impossibly elongated holder. FDR? Actually, it was the president's double — a retired Berkeley history professor who is the greeter for the Potomac cruise.

The faux president helped divert Hank's attention just a bit. Soon the dock was behind, and the boy was happily exploring.

Cole, 11, and Libby, 10, needed less coaxing. A vague curiosity about the long-ago president had already been sparked when we visited the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. And the Potomac kept them engaged — the beep, beep, beep of a telegraph machine, the roar of the enormous engines below deck, the blare of the boat's horn.

We learned that Roosevelt used the Potomac mostly as an oasis from the pressures of Washington. Cruising on Chesapeake Bay, the president liked to fish or play poker with a few friends. Sometimes he would retreat to his austere cabin, with its modest single bed, or study his beloved stamp collection on the wide leather couch that rings the stern.

The Potomac saw its share of history too. It was on board that Roosevelt sent a message of condolence to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler after the airship Hindenburg disintegrated in flames in 1937. Not many years later, the boat transported FDR on the first leg of his journey to a secret rendezvous with Winston Churchill; the two discussed how to contain Hitler and the Nazis.

When we weren't exploring below deck, we enjoyed a sunny cruise that looped north from Oakland, under the Bay Bridge, around Angel Island and past the Marin County coast before turning back past Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. A confetti of bright sails fluttered all around us "like colorful flowers in a garden," Cole said.

The mostly volunteer crew answered our questions with enthusiasm, their obvious love of the old boat one of the most winning aspects of the two-hour cruise. The commentary delivered over the boat's public address system, however, was a bit relentless and, at times, redundant.

The price of the Potomac cruise ($35 for adults and $15 for children ages 6 to 18) seemed worthwhile if one kept in mind that the money went to the nonprofit that rescued the vessel. Standard bay cruise (www.blueandgoldfleet.com) fares were considerably less (adults $20 and children 11 and younger $12).

After lunch, our tour shifted north to Richmond and the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park. The park, still in development, is just 20 minutes from the Potomac dock, in a rejuvenated section of the city's waterfront.

A harbor-side memorial of abstract steel sculptures forms a ship's likeness and pays tribute to the thousands of women who constructed the machinery of victory.

The memorial is a pleasant curiosity, but the park probably won't become a popular destination until other features are added. On this day, our crew simply didn't have enough gas left to tour the military transport ship Red Oak Victory (www .ssredoakvictory.org), which is moored nearby.

Luckily, we had a welcoming roost awaiting us, the Claremont Resort & Spa on the Oakland-Berkeley border.

The 89-year-old landmark looks like a giant sugar-cube castle — visible all the way from San Francisco because of its considerable white mass and location at the base of the green, eucalyptus-shrouded hills.

On the outside, the gracious old lady is showing her age — with chipped white paint and a mantle of dirt sullying the white rooftop. Inside, however, we found that a year-old renovation had left the hotel in top form.

The resort's website said the lowest room rate for our dates was $189 a night, but a call 10 days in advance produced a small miracle — a reservations agent who "found" a $139 nightly rate. With parking, taxes and "resort fee" for the use of the gym and pools, our total rose into the $180-plus-a-night range, still reasonable for the comfort and style of the accommodations.

The two pools had plenty of room for bigger kids to cavort, a wading circle made Hank comfortable, and open lanes allowed Alison and me to swim laps. The gym is bigger than many health clubs, with views of the bay and the pool from rows of Lifecycles, treadmills, strength-building machines and free weights.

Culinary samplerOur culinary journey for the weekend started a few blocks down the hill from the Claremont, at the concierge-recommended Filippos, on College Avenue in Berkeley.

This neighborhood restaurant pleased the grown-ups with a delicious spin on chicken cacciatore and primavera with asparagus and green beans, while the kids enjoyed the pasta on the children's menu.

All of us wanted ice cream afterward. That could mean only one destination in this neighborhood: Fentons Creamery on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The old-fashioned parlor is known for good ice cream and gargantuan portions. I shared the Black & Tan, a 10-inch-high temple of toasted almond and vanilla ice cream, topped with caramel and fudge. Really, really good.

After our ride on the Potomac, we had lunch at the venerable jazz club Yoshi's. The sunken, Japanese-style tables were mostly empty and the chance to take off our shoes and sit on the floor was most welcome. We regretted only that we were a day too early for the Sunday afternoon family jazz series.

Our final dinner, at Breads of India on Sacramento Avenue, brought us back to Berkeley's gritty urban core. The children enjoyed platters of naan, while Alison and I stuffed ourselves on curries — and began to talk about our next trip back.


James Rainey is covering the presidential campaign for The Times.*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Budget for five

Expenses for this trip:

Lodging

Claremont Resort & Spa,

two nights with parking,

resort fee and tax $370.36

Cruise

Potomac $100.00

Cruise parking $5.25

Dinner

Filippos $59.36

Ice cream

Fentons $20.54

Lunch

Yoshi's $55.09

Dinner

Breads of India $49.73

Other meals $87.55

Gas $84.02

Final tab $831.90

CONTACT:

Claremont Resort & Spa, 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, CA 94705; (800) 551-7266 or (510) 843-3000, http://www.claremontresort.com .

USS Potomac, (510) 627-1502 1215, www.usspotomac.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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