"NotHING exciting ever happens in Sacramento." That's the oft-repeated rap against the state's capital, which has the misfortune of being so near and yet so far from tourist magnet San Francisco, just 90 freeway minutes away.
The put-down was repeated -- and then rebutted -- by former Sacramento TV anchor Stan Atkinson, emcee for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's inauguration. Nonsense, he said, pointing out that Sacramento is home to the NBA's Kings and "now we're command central for Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Locals are weary of having their city dismissed as some slumbering backwater. And they're right -- it deserves more than a cursory peek at the beautifully restored State Capitol, especially if you haven't visited in a while.
Schwarzenegger sightings were a popular local pastime while I was in the city during inauguration week. While no one expects voyeurism to bring flocks of tourists, his star power can't be dismissed.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger's presence has definitely increased interest in Sacramento, both from domestic and international travelers," said Steve Hammond, president and chief executive of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. "With a larger-than-life governor and an improving economy, the optimist in me hopes for a 20% increase in visitors." (Tourism now brings in $2 billion annually.)
The city is frequently seen on screen but, alas, rarely as Sacramento. With its tree-shaded streets and old frame houses, it can pass for Anywhere, USA. "We've been Harrisburg, Pa.; Cleveland; Kansas; and a Mississippi shantytown," said Lucy Steffens, the bureau's film commissioner. The Capitol has masqueraded as the nation's capitol and Alabama's capitol.
Sacramento boasts of being the birthplace of Tower Records and Shakey's Pizza, writer Joan Didion, actress Molly Ringwald and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Still, is there any there there? And is a movie-star governor apt to give the city a bit more pizazz?
I began my quest for answers by talking with some locals pressed against the chain link fence at the Capitol on inauguration day. All were hoping for an Arnold sighting.
What of their city's image as a cow town?
"I guess that's wrong now," Mary Phillips said.
Her friend and fellow State Department of Education employee Mia Gardner wasn't so sure that the city is destined for happening status. "Sacramento? Well, there are the Kings," she said.
Michelle Smith, who works for a student loan company, said, "Our biggest thing is the Kings. Other than that, it's going out of town."
Will a little Hollywood be a good thing?
"Oh, definitely," she added.
With a population of 460,000, Sacramento is a manageable size. It's hard to get lost in the central city, where streets are laid out on a grid, numbered streets running north-south and lettered streets east-west. (The missing M is for Capitol Avenue.) The city is dotted with green spaces, including 40-acre Capitol Park.
But not all is what it might be. Much of the pedestrian-friendly K Street Mall downtown is decidedly grungy, with cheap stores, fast-food joints, empty storefronts and, at night, homeless people sleeping in doorways. Old Sacramento State Historic Park, the city's No. 1 tourist attraction, has, sadly, attracted mostly shops of the T-shirt and taffy ilk.
As a good tourist, I started my explorations there, lunching at the pleasant Rio City Cafe overlooking the American River. Readers of Sacramento magazine chose it as one of the city's best restaurants. I then headed for the splendid California State Railroad Museum at 2nd and I streets.
A $4 ticket includes a simulated ride on a 1929 Pullman car that actually rattles and sways. Imagine a time when -- as the Pullman Co. once advertised -- 100,000 guests slept in Pullman berths every night. Then there's a walk through an old Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe diner, its tables set with linens and fine china. A far cry from today's snack cars.
Alan, our guide, had a wealth of railroad trivia under his black derby. We learned that the May 10, 1869, ceremony at Promontory, Utah, to mark completion of the transcontinental railroad was delayed two days while unpaid workers held some railroad cars hostage. And that there was an embarrassing swing and a miss as California Gov. Leland Stanford tried to hammer in the golden spike.
Otherwise, the best part of Old Sacramento is just strolling the plank sidewalks and cobbled streets and soaking up the architecture of the restored or reconstructed Gold Rush-era buildings. Self-guided walking tour maps are available at the Old Sacramento Visitor Information Center, 1104 2nd St. (telephone  442-7644).
If you have a car, you may want to head to South Sacramento and drive past the "thrifty 30s" to the "fabulous 40s," an area of grand homes in a mix of architectural styles. The big white brick house at 1341 45th St. is where the Reagans lived when Ronald was governor.
And you might peek through the imposing twin gates of La Casa de Los Gobernadores at 2300 California Ave. in close-in Carmichael. It's the governor's mansion that never was -- not finished in time for the Reagans and rejected by bachelor Jerry Brown. The nine-bedroom, 11-bath, 12,000-square-foot estate with ballroom is for sale for $5.9 million. But the owner will sell it to the state for $3.5 million -- if it's for the governor.
Are the Schwarzeneggers interested? Listing agent Geoff Zimmerman said she's "not at liberty" to say, "but there's definitely interest right now from different people in government who've looked with him in mind."
The Arnold buzz is big around Sacramento. At Ettore's -- a diet-dooming bakery, deli and cafe at 2376 Fair Oaks Blvd. in East Sacramento's "gourmet gulch" -- the new pastry chef is Vienna-born Peter Wimmler. Just a coincidence, said manager Joe Thompson, but a fortuitous one. The bakery made Austrian strudel for two pre-inauguration gatherings, and "I'm assuming our strudel count will begin to come up," said Thompson. Wimmler plans to make more Austrian treats, Linzer tortes and such, "as a thank-you for the tax break on my car registration."
The California wine flows
At David Berkley, an upscale wine shop-deli-greengrocer in the tony Pavilions shopping center on Fair Oaks Boulevard, we found jovial owner David Berkley tasting wine -- California wine. He doesn't expect Austrian wines to be poured at gubernatorial galas: "California wine is a significant part of the economy."
Berkley, a wine consultant to the White House since 1981, was at a pre-inaugural event where "they were pouring good wine" and sushi and sashimi were on the menu -- "not the usual fare at a Sacramento political function. When Arnold said business not as usual ..."
At Casillas Cigars, Cuban-born Macario Casillas' midtown shop at 2201 16th St., there's a "Join Arnold" poster on the door of the walk-in humidor and photos of a cigar-puffing Schwarzenegger on the walls. A client walked in, asking, "Has Arnold been in yet?" Not yet, said Manny Chaquico, who was brandishing a foot-long "Terminator" cigar, the same blend as the Casillas No. 1, a $5.50 smoke favored by the governor.
A must-see attraction is Sutter's Fort State Historic Park at 2701 L St. in midtown. It's a reconstruction of an adobe fort founded by John Sutter in 1839. The self-contained community was a shelter for weary settlers who trekked West, among them survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party. When gold was discovered 50 miles east at Sutter's Mill, it spelled ruin, not riches, for Sutter. His fort became a way station for transient miners, and he was victimized by swindlers, squatters and thieves.
The day I visited, costumed third-graders from a local elementary school were chopping apples in the primitive kitchen, building miniature wood furniture and learning to make candles.
The Crocker Art Museum at 216 O St. is worth the $6 ticket, if only to see the opulent 19th century mansion built by Judge E.B. Crocker, a onetime State Supreme Court justice, and his wife, Margaret, as their private art gallery. (They lived next door.) The gallery has tile floors, a carved double staircase and massive doors. The eclectic collection includes Pieter Brueghel the Younger's "Peasant Wedding Dance," drawings by Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt, a Rufino Tamayo, contemporary sculpture and a gallery of early California art, much of it by artists from Europe and the East Coast who were lured West by the Gold Rush. There's a wine and jazz concert at the Crocker on the third Thursday of each month. And the gift shop is terrific.
The old Governor's Mansion, a Victorian relic at 1526 H St., can be seen by tour only ($2). Versailles it's not. Furnishings include a 1903 Steinway piano and a 1954 Sylvania TV. Built by a prosperous hardware merchant in 1877, it's been home to 13 governors, including Reagan, who got out as quickly as possible (after only 3 1/2 months). A docent pointed out the crimson toenails on the claw-foot tub in the master bath, attributing the artwork to a young Kathleen Brown. My favorite room was the 1950s kitchen, a real hoot.
Our docent mentioned how a robed Gov. Pat Brown used to walk to a hotel across the street to go swimming until friends of the governor, thinking that unseemly, had a pool built at the mansion. But, she said, "he still kept going across the street because there were voters there."
The receptionist seemed startled when I walked into the Golden State Museum at 1020 O St.; I was the first visitor in two hours. Too bad, because it's worth a peek for the election memorabilia dating from the 19th century and photos documenting the immigrant experience.
An old bus serves as a metaphor for journeys of immigrants to California. You can sit inside, press a button and hear the "voices" of those who have arrived by wagon, car, train, plane and boat. The names are very different -- Williams, Santiago, Tran -- but the hopes and dreams are very much the same.
There used to be an old joke: "Where do you eat in Sacramento? In San Francisco." No more. Things are looking up. The power breakfast spot is the Fox & Goose at 1001 R St., a pub dishing up omelets, eggs Benedict Arnold, bangers and such. Check out the Guinness posters and the old photos of the royals, then nip in next door and take a look at the Tea Cozy shop -- with all things tea -- and the Art Foundry gallery.
In one day I had two Arnold sightings -- at lunch at the Esquire Grill (we both had Cobb salad) and at dinner at Biba, where owner Biba Caggiano was taken by surprise by a booking for the Schwarzeneggers and wife Maria's parents, the Sargent Shrivers. She'd taken the day off, instructing the staff to "call me if anyone important calls." The governor and I both had pasta, red wine and dessert.
One evening I stopped for a drink at Tunel 21, the Old Sacramento bistro/bar/club owned by Kings center (and former Laker) Vlade Divac and his wife, Ana. Kings action -- at Utah -- filled multiple screens, but it was a slow night. The bartender said the real action here is after Kings home games, when fans rub elbows with the players, whose retreat is to the dark downstairs club.
Biking and Belly Flops
IF the calories are piling up, the region offers plenty of outdoor activity.
A scenic biking and hiking trail starts in Old Sacramento and winds for 32 miles to Beal's Point at Folsom Lake. Called the Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail, it honors the pioneering spirit of that 19th century mountain man. Bike Sacramento at 1050 Front St. rents bikes for $6 an hour or $20 a day and is open seven days a week year-round. A path from the bike shop leads to the trail head at Discovery Park, which is at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers.
The river-view bike trail, which cuts through stands of oaks and sycamores, is part of a 5,000-acre protected habitat, the American River Parkway. Each year the parkway -- the jewel of Sacramento's outdoor attractions -- lures 5 million visitors. Wildlife abounds. There are camping accommodations at Folsom Lake, which is rich with trout, bass and perch, and is a magnet for anglers.
Those visiting Sacramento with children may want to make a 45-minute detour to Fairfield, home of the Jelly Belly Candy Co. There you can buy Belly Flops (misshapen or off-color beans) and, in the Jelly Belly Cafe, eat pizza, hot dogs or burgers shaped like jelly beans.
I stopped by just in time to join 14 others wearing silly paper hats for the factory tour, where we learned that this facility, one of two (the other is near Milwaukee), turns out 1.3 million jelly beans every week. Blue, orange, yellow and green beans were stacked in huge flats, waiting to be sugarcoated and then polished in big steel vats. Of the 50 flavors, very cherry is tops in popularity.
As we left, we were handed little bags of jelly beans. A sweet ending.
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A new sheen in Sacramento
From LAX to Sacramento, nonstop service is available on US Airways, United and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $120.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hyatt Regency, 1209 L St.; (916) 443-1234, fax (916) 321-6631, www.sacramento.hyatt.com. Location, location, location. Great people-watching at this 503-room hotel near the Capitol. (It will be the governor's temporary home.) Big rooms, but at $300 a night -- a jacked-up inauguration rate -- they might have tossed in bath gel and lotion. Published rates for doubles $99-$229.
Delta King, 1000 Front St., Old Sacramento; (800) 825-5464, fax (916) 444-5314, www.deltaking.com. This 1920s sternwheeler, now a floating hotel, is not for everyone. The 44 queen-bedded staterooms are a bit snug, the baths small and old-fashioned. But it's fun. Be prepared to schlep your own luggage. Choose a corner room aft with a Tower Bridge view. Doubles $119-$184, including continental breakfast in the attractive Pilothouse restaurant.
The Inn at Parkside, 2116 6th St.; (800) 995-7275, fax (916) 658-1809, www.innatparkside.com. Recently opened Asian-inspired bed-and-breakfast is in a 1930s house once owned by Nationalist China's representative to the U.S. Honeymoon suite is huge; all seven rooms are nice. Out-of-center location. Everything's a bit quirky. (Breakfast may include Chinese dumplings.) Complimentary wine and cheese hour. Doubles $119-$295.
Sterling Hotel, 1300 H St.; (800) 365-7660, fax (916) 448-8066, www.sterlinghotel.com. This converted Victorian mansion has 17 luxurious, generously sized rooms and suites and inviting public rooms. Ideal downtown location. Internet and elevator. Chanterelle restaurant gets good marks from locals. Doubles $179-$359, including continental breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Esquire Grill, 1213 K St.; (916) 448-8900, www.paragarys.com. There have been several Arnold Schwarzenegger sightings at this clubby, wood-paneled downtown restaurant. Politicians are frequently seen here at lunch. Dinner entrees -- steaks, chops, fish -- $14-$24.
Lucca, 1615 J St.; (916) 669-5300, www.luccarestaurant.com. Attractive new spot in a former car dealership. California-Mediterranean cuisine served in brick-walled dining rooms linked by an open kitchen. Dinner entrees $9-$15.
The Waterboy, 2000 Capitol Ave.; (916) 498-9891. Popular restaurant named for the Irish rock group. Excellent French- and Italian-inspired food and imaginative menu. Dinner entrees $15.50-$24.50.
Biba, 2801 Capitol Ave.; (916) 455-2422, www.biba-restaurant.com. A favorite owned by cookbook author Biba Caggiano. Northern Italian cuisine. Big and busy, with popular piano bar. Schwarzenegger was spotted here. Dinner entrees $19-$23.
TO LEARN MORE:
Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1303 J St., Suite 600, Sacramento, CA 95814; (800) 292-2334, www.discovergold.org.
-- Beverly Beyette