Author Jack London was already working in a canning factory when he was 14 years old, saving enough money to buy a small boat that he anchored in the San Francisco Bay. As a teen he became an oyster pirate, pilfering the bivalves at night and then selling them illegally. It was a rather romantic waterfront adventure, a boy alone with his boat harvesting aphrodisiacs under the stars. Like Ernest Hemingway, London, who may have had relationships with men as well as women, according to James L. Haley (author of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London), spent many years creating a hypermasculine public persona. His first major success came in 1903 with the publication of his survival-of-the-fittest tale The Call of the Wild.
Today, his childhood haunts offer an affordable and unexpected romantic getaway in Oakland, Calif., in the neighborhood that is now called Jack London Square. Unlike the seaport of London's youth, Jack London Square is a surprising bayside gem that holds on to the author's past but makes way for some 21st-century pleasures.
While some travelers may be more likely to associate Oakland with its famed Occupy protests than romantic dining and luxury hotels, Oakland offers almost as much as San Francisco, with fewer crowds and, per capita, many more lesbian couples. Just across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland is California's seventh-largest city, and its Jack London Square area is small and walkable (no need for a car), water-centric, and host to foodie and artisan events galore, with good grub and hot jams around every corner.
Everything revolves around the Waterfront Hotel, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from San Francisco (the ferry departure gate is at the hotel's back door), and Oakland's much busier downtown is only three minutes away (via BART, the area's subway system). The hotel looks out on the bay, with sea birds landing on your patio and sea lions barking in the distance. It opens to a harbor of small boats, a collection of tiny piers, greenery, and knotty wooden walking paths.
There are half a dozen local urban wineries, making a walking tour a must. Water sports are easily accessible here: Just outside the hotel you can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards at California Canoe and Kayak (CalKayak.com) or take sailing lessons at J World Performance Sailing School and Club (Sailing-JWorld.com), ranked the top sailing school in the U.S. by Practical Sailor. J World's sailors are prepping for the 34th annual America's Cup (AmericasCup.com) and its lead-up races, taking place on San Francisco Bay July 4-September 21.
At night, head to the world-famous Yoshi's (Yoshis.com/Oakland). The legendary jazz club has presented the greats, from Dizzy Gillespie to Diana Krall, since its trio of founders brought it to Oakland in 1977. It moved to Jack London Square in the late '90s, and now the 17,000-square-foot club is one of the East Bay's most popular destinations. The menu (once you eat there, you'll never question the combination of Japanese food and jazz again) has kicked up a notch too, under the supervision of executive chef Shotaro "Sho" Kamio, one of the Bay Area's hottest chefs.
Another city institution is a must: Everett and Jones Barbecue (EAndJBBQ.com), a Southern-style music and 'cue joint opened in 1973 by Dorothy Everett, her nine kids, and one son-in-law (he's the only Jones in the restaurant's name). Today, the restaurant still serves some of the best ribs and brisket (thanks to its prize-winning Q Sauce) along with live soul, funk, and jazz music.
Romance Factor There's nothing like a working seaport to make a girl hum the '70s sailor love classic "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," and though the woman in that song lost her lover to the sea, Jack London Square offers plenty of opportunity for you to swoon. The tiny streets, tucked-away boutiques and bars, and romantic, fog-drenched seascapes all make for amour. But if you're a Star Wars fanatic, there's something more: Look to the sky from your hotel and you'll see the iconic Oakland loading cranes, giant white metal creatures that are said to be George Lucas's inspiration for the All Terrain Armored Transports (the four-legged walking robots called AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back). It's a chance to geek out with your heart out.
Eat If you do deign to leave the Square, don't miss a chance to eat at the LGBT-friendly Hawker Fare (HawkerFare.com), an eatery that does Southeast Asian rice bowls with fascinating ingredients. Owner James Syhabout is the Michelin-star chef from Commis, and Hawker Fare, which he opened in 2011, has received rave reviews.
Stay The nautical-themed Waterfront Hotel (JDVHotels.com) has the usual amenities (pool, sauna, gym, and giant flat-screens) and patios that open to the bay. Play Sailing and kayaking can be done from just steps from your hotel room, but if you want some loftier fare, hit the Oakland Museum of California (MuseumCA.org), a delightful little spot that offers special LGBT history tours in June and September to coincide with San Francisco's and Oakland's Pride festivities. Rotating exhibitions often include LGBT artists (gay photographer Bob Walker's collection is housed here) or themes of interest to an LGBT audience. Last year's "The 1968 Show" was a brilliant and breathtaking montage of that pivotal year's most compelling cultural touchstones from the women's movement to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., from the horror of Vietnam to the delicious shock of Rosemary's Baby.