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Weekend Escape: Sacramento

Train Spotting : Tracking history and character at the Railroad Museum

March 23, 1997|SHERRY STERN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Sherry Stern is the Deputy Calendar Editor

SACRAMENTO — "Look!" Josh exclaimed. "Look over there!"

My 6-year-old nephew's delight stemmed from riding, of all things, the parking lot shuttle to the Ontario International Airport terminal.

The object of his glee was something I'll bet escapes the average passenger: the maze of railroad tracks surrounding the airport and the freight trains continually rolling on them.

We were leaving from Ontario (because that's where we found a less expensive fare) to visit the highly regarded California State Railroad Museum in the state capital. The sight of those boxcars meant our train vacation had officially begun and if Josh was happy, then so were his aunt and uncle.

In lieu of a cookie-cutter motel, we were splurging on the Sterling Hotel, a refurbished Victorian mansion built in the 1890s and located on the edge of downtown. It's one of those places you would call gracious--stately enough to appeal to the business traveler it covets, yet genial enough to satisfy families. Our room was spacious, handling two queen-size beds, elegant furniture and plenty of floor space.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 30, 1997 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 4 Travel Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Sacramento--A map for Weekend Escape ("Train Spotting" March 23) incorrectly located the California State Railroad Museum and the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Both are east of the Sacramento River, not to the west as shown on the map.

After a Carl's Jr. fast-food meal, we drove 10 minutes to Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Sacramento's first settlement. I thought Josh could inspect the living quarters and blacksmith area and visualize how California's pioneers lived. Instead we may have broken the record for the quickest visit ever to Sutter, where Josh's most frequent question was, "Is it over yet?" When it finally was, he was pleased because, "We hated that."

So we gave up on history and moved right into fantasy. Next stop was Fairytale Town, an odd little area across from the Sacramento Zoo. The combination playground and animal park is a low-tech place that's been around for 39 years and, happily, feels like it.

We had a tough time pulling Josh away, but we wanted to see Old Sacramento before it got dark. The historic riverfront area is about eight city blocks of gas lamps, wooden sidewalks, cobblestone paths, horse-drawn carriages and more than 100 buildings restored to mid-1800s mint condition. The businesses include only a few chains and, thankfully, few T-shirt shops. Locals hang out here, so you feel you're strolling around a real place.

Our plan was to take a water taxi along the Sacramento River ( the taxi runs April through October) and have dinner at one of half a dozen restaurants along the boat's route. At the last minute, we thought a better plan with a 6-year-old was simply to take the boat's 90-minute round-trip tour and eat back in Old Sac, where we wouldn't be at the mercy of the taxi's return schedule. The ride was a treat, a leisurely open-air trip shared with three other families. The riverside is surprisingly undeveloped, but the waterway is active, with speedboats, houseboats and old-fashioned paddle-wheel boats to watch.

We had dinner at the first waterfront restaurant we came upon, the upscale but casual Rio City Cafe, then drove to the hotel and dealt with its one drawback--no on-site parking. But that proved no big deal as we found a garage for $2 a night just a block away.

In the morning, Josh delighted in the richness of our room's marbled bathroom, where an oversized Jacuzzi tub with lots of push-buttons beckoned. With the raison d'e^tre ahead of us, we headed to Old Sac and parked near the Railroad Museum at the corner of 2nd and I streets. Before heading inside, we stopped at the family-friendly Union Restaurant in the building that housed the Sacramento Union newspaper around the turn of the century.

We couldn't finish eating and leave for the museum soon enough for Josh.

*

Once inside, he delighted in every sight, starting right at the entrance, where he squealed over a steam locomotive built one-third actual size that ran at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Josh dashed from one car to the next, especially thrilled to find he could go inside many. He was not alone, as we watched train aficionados of all ages and many nationalities read every sign and make note of every insignia.

Josh has seen other collections of trains, usually in various stages of disrepair and in nondescript spots. The 100,000-square-foot Railroad Museum was clearly the best. Its 105 restored locomotives, streamliners, freight trains and caboose cars sparkled.

We looked inside plush passenger cars from the late 19th century, trying to imagine life in that era. My husband and I especially enjoyed the Gold Coast, a private train owned in the '40s by a pair of bon vivants who lived in the exquisitely furnished cars.

If you can judge by return visits, Josh's favorite spot was the 1930 dining car, complete with a real waiter, period china and the rocking motion of a moving train.

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