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Savoring Sacramento

If you're looking for hot nightlife and a wild bit of debauchery, Sacramento wouldn't be your kind of town.

As California's capital, it's a buttoned-down sort of place. Though I didn't see any of the "girlie men" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complains of, there were more regular guys in white shirts and ties than I believe exist in all other California cities combined.

But Sacramento is a graceful, pleasant, easygoing place. Sandwiched between the American and Sacramento rivers, it's a great town for history, politics, biking, walking and floating, either on a riverboat, in a water taxi or in a tube.

Although the city is small, its neighborhoods are varied. The Capitol is graced by giant sequoias and palm trees that line the grassy mall.

A district filled with fine, old homes is reminiscent of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. In central downtown, the outdoor cafes and coffee shops and bookstores lend the feel of an upscale college town.

Old Sacramento brings to mind the gold rush, the great transcontinental Atlantic-Pacific Railway and the Pony Express, all of which once began and ended here.

Now that JetBlue's entrance into the market has forced other carriers to slash their fares from the East, Sacramento is positioned to resume its place in history as a gateway to California.

From the city it's about an hour's drive to Napa Valley, about an hour and a half to Sonoma Valley wineries and the spas of Calistoga, and a hop and a jump to old-time gold rush country. It's a very short, pleasant drive to snow-capped mountains, lakes and whitewater, and about a three-hour drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Oregon border.

I toured the city for two days, which is just about right, unless you want to use it as a base to nearby attractions.

Most of my first day was spent in Old Sacramento, which boomed for a time in the 1800s, when gold was found in the nearby foothills. The old part of the city fell on hard times in the 1900s and became a slum. City planners carefully resurrected it in the 1960s.

It could easily have become one of those dead, re-created villages where people in period customs are stationed, not fooling you for a minute. Instead, the city allowed merchants to open real restaurants and shops in some of the 53 historic buildings, making it feel not only historic but alive.

The 28-acre site has National Landmark status. It holds several small museums, such as the Wells Fargo History Museum and the 100,000-square-foot Museum of Railroad History, part of the California State Railroad Museum complex.

The railroad museum exhibits 21 restored locomotives and cars from the 1860s through the 1960s.

I had planned to rent a bike to explore the extensive paths along the river and the city after hitting a couple more of Sacramento's 15 museums. But I happened to be there in July, when daytime temperatures average 93 degrees.

By October, that average falls to a balmy 78 degrees. The winters are mild, with sunny days in the 50s and 60s. May and June averages are in the low 80s.

Even in the hottest months of July and August, temperatures dip into the 60s in the evening and early morning. So on my second day in Sacramento, I strolled to the state Capitol, a building similar to but somewhat more luxurious than the U.S. Capitol.

Guided tours are available, but I chose a self-guided walk. Once you pass through a metal detector, security officers allow you free rein.

Check the walls for the portraits of former governors. My favorite display was of the somber portraits of Pete Wilson (1991-99) and George Deukmejian (1983-91) looking very important and official, hanging next to a somewhat wild and abstract, closeup rendering of the face of Jerry Brown (1975-83).

From the Capitol, I headed to Sutter's Fort, where the first settlers set up camp in 1839. Next door is the California State Indian Museum, a modest, somewhat dusty place, but the exhibits are worth a look.

One of the facts you learn is that there were an estimated 150,000 Indians in the area on Jan. 24, 1848, when James Marshall stuck his hand in the American River and pulled out a shiny nugget of gold. But 10 years later, only an estimated 20,000 natives survived.

It was legal to kill American Indians in California until 1866, according to the exhibit.

Those displays did away with my interest in the nearby fort, so I headed to a downtown IMAX theater that shows about a half-dozen different movies each day. I chose one about the Lewis and Clark expedition and the amazing Indian woman, Sacajawea, who not only helped lead the men and translate for them, but also gave birth during the journey. She was no girlie-girl.

If you go

GETTING THERE: There is connecting air service between Sacramento and Tampa Bay.

STAYING THERE: The Delta King Hotel offers rooms in a 1927 paddle wheel boat moored on the Sacramento River in the midst of Old Sacramento. Doubles start at $109. 1000 Front St. Call toll-free 1-800-825-5464; www.deltaking.com.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's choice when he's in town is the Hyatt Regency. Because it caters to business travelers, rates are lower on weekends; I paid $129 per night on a Friday and Saturday night. Weekdays are typically $189 and up. 1209 L St. Call toll-free 1-888-591-1234; www.sacramento.hyatt.com/ property/index.jhtml.

A good B&B option: the Amber House, where breakfast is served in your room. Rates begin at about $149. 1315 22nd St. Call toll-free 1-800-755-6526; www.amberhouse.com.

EATING THERE: The Esquire Grill (1213 K St.) is one of several Sacramento restaurants favored by the governor. American-style food; I had a steak with blue cheese butter that was grilled to perfection. Entrees begin at $13.75.

Other restaurants frequented by Schwarzenegger include Lucca Restaurant and Bar (1615 J St.), specializing in California Mediterranean, with entrees beginning at $8.95; and Biba (2801 Capitol Ave.), a classy Italian restaurant operated by TV chef and cookbook author Biba Caggiano, with entrees beginning at $18.50.

BEYOND MUSEUMS: Try horseback riding at Gibson Ranch Park Equestrian Services, a 365-acre county park and ranch. Call (916) 991-7592; www.gibson-ranch.com.

Cruise and dine in a Victorian setting on the riverboat Spirit of Sacramento. Board at 110 L St. Call toll-free 1-800-433-0263; www.spiritofsacramento.com.

Hit the whitewater on rafts or kayaks with W.E.T. River Trips (toll-free 1-888-723-8938; www.raftwet.com) in Sacramento or several outfitters just outside of town. Check the visitors bureau's Web site (see below).

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For details on museums and other activities, check the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, toll-free 1-800-292-2334; www.discovergold.org.

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