ONE minute I was pointing my merry (rental) Oldsmobile through an urban stretch of West Sacramento, chain stores looming, and the next I was on a bucolic two-lane road under a canopy of oaks.
About a mile ahead lay Freeport, the “gateway to the Delta.” It’s the first town on California 160, which winds over levees and through pear orchards, vineyards and farms, crisscrossing the Sacramento River on drawbridges, passing through tiny towns existing in yesteryear.
In Gold Rush days, paddle-wheelers plied the river. Today the California Delta, with 55 major man-made islands and 1,000 miles of waterways, is a mecca for boating, fishing and water sports. Remote yet easily accessible, it makes an appealing road trip.
Driving south from Sacramento International Airport, it’s about 25 minutes on Interstate 5 to the Pocket/Meadowview exit. A left turn, then a right onto Freeport Boulevard and you’re on 160.
You can make a leisurely drive from Freeport to Rio Vista in the south and back -- 90 miles -- in three hours, but it’s more fun to roam, backtracking at will, riding six-car ferries across sloughs just to see where they go.
On an April weekend I meandered 200 miles around the delta, overnighting at a B&B; in Isleton, home each June to the Crawdad Festival, and at the restored 1920s Art Deco Hotel Ryde, a former speakeasy in the hamlet of Ryde (although its mailing address is Walnut Grove). I toured Snug Harbor, a good family place to stay. Sometimes I ate at places where low fat isn’t even a concept.
I drove miles without seeing another car (although summer vacation season may change that). Along the way were pristine Victorian farmhouses, which looked as though they had been sent from central casting for a movie musical, and vacation homes with boats at dock. Road signs are good, and it’s hard to get lost.
Just beyond Clarksburg, County Road 144 leads to Bogle Vineyards, open daily for wine tasting. In Walnut Grove are remnants of early 1900s Japanese and Chinese communities settled by immigrants who built levees and worked the fields.
Few Chinese remain in once-bawdy Locke, but the rickety wooden buildings that housed dens of iniquity remain standing -- barely. Al’s Place serves peanut butter and jelly with its burgers and steaks (the pb&j; can be slathered on grilled bread), and the bartender may show you how to make a dollar bill stick to the ceiling. The ceiling money, collected yearly, funds a community liver-and-onions dinner.
A few doors away is the Dai Loy Museum, a former Chinese gambling house with a fascinating collection of artifacts and the original tables where games of chance, such as fan-tan, were interrupted by raids, sending gamblers fleeing out the back.
Isleton is showing signs of gentrification along Main Street’s historic district, where a rusting tong building still stands. At the Del Rio Hotel downtown, a sidewalk cafe plaque notes, “Reserved for Harley bikers. Violators will be prosecuted.” Very funny, I thought, until I saw the Saturday morning biker invasions here and in Locke.
Rio Vista has a terrific little museum with an eclectic trove, including old buggies and a 1900 Chinese noodle-making machine. Inexplicably, the town’s major draw is Foster’s Bighorn, a cafe and bar where hundreds of animal heads stare down at diners through glass eyes.
A waterfront marker honors the visit of Humphrey the humpback whale, who made a wrong turn in San Francisco Bay in 1985 and swam this far before being cajoled back to sea.
Hotel Ryde, 14340 Highway 160, Walnut Grove, CA 95690; (888) 717-7933 or (916) 776-1318, fax (916) 776-1195, www.rydehotel.com. Doubles from $140. Friday and Saturday dinner, Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch in Art Deco riverfront room. Live music for dancing on Saturday. Dinner entrees $16-$27.
Snug Harbor, 3356 Snug Harbor Drive, Walnut Grove, CA 95690; (916) 775-1455, www.snugharbor.net. Inviting “Snuggle Inns” (cottages) from $125 on waterfront site.
Grand Island Mansion, 13415 Grand Island Road, Walnut Grove, CA 95690; (916) 775-1705. Sunday brunch only -- a treat -- in opulent 1917 Italian Renaissance villa. Entrees $20-$25. Reservations suggested.
Giusti’s, 14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road, west of the town of Walnut Grove; (916) 776-1808. Lunch and dinner in 1896 landmark with world-class baseball cap collection on ceiling. Entrees $11.50-$21.50. No credit cards.
Riverboat II, 106 W. Brannan Island Road, Isleton; (916) 777-4884, on the marina-dotted 10-mile Delta Loop recreation area. Lunch and dinner in converted steamship with heated waterfront terrace. Dinner entrees $10-$24.