Who can resist the charm of an early 20th-century riverboat — a true paddle-wheeler that once offered prohibition-era drinking, jazz bands and gambling for its fun-loving passengers? Fortunately there's no need to travel to the Mississippi — and no, we're not talking Disneyland. The Delta King awaits your exploration dockside in Old Sacramento.
Just like passengers back in the 1920s, today's guests enjoy enchanting river views, great food and drink and a cozy stateroom unlike any other accommodation you may have experienced. But unlike those early passengers, you will have to be content with scenery that remains pretty constant. The Delta King isn't going anyplace anytime soon.
But then it doesn't need to. This historic 285-foot boat is docked along the Old Sacramento riverfront which, today, has been turned into a hip collection of good restaurants, eclectic shops and trendy night spots that draw millions of tourists and local residents alike. It's the perfect stop-off during your Northern California vacation -- "voyage" into California history you won't forget.
The Delta King and her identical twin, the Delta Queen, were christened in 1927, the same year that the vessels began voyages between San Francisco and Sacramento. The trip took more than 10 hours and staterooms were available for $3.50. But for a dollar, you could bring your own blanket and find a spot to sleep on the cargo deck. This river service continued for about 13 years until the boats were moved to San Francisco Bay and used by the U.S. Navy as net tenders, floating barracks, troop transports and hospital ships.
After World War II, the Delta Queen was sold and moved to the Mississippi where she still operates. And therein lies the reason the Delta King doesn't travel too much these days: the Delta Queen took the Delta King's engines. The Delta King has been towed ever since.
As if that weren't enough indignity for the King, the boat sank in San Francisco Bay in 1982 and remained underwater for 18 months. It took a five-year renovation to bring the Delta King to its present tip-top condition.
The elegance and craftsmanship are apparent the moment one enters the lobby area where the rich red oak paneling and fixtures create an impression of opulence. The dining room, too, has that feeling of classic comfort, and a wide stairway and oak banisters bring to mind those images of the grand stairway in the Titanic. It's easy to imagine how special this river voyage must have been for 1920's revelers anxious to slip away from a hard week's work to enjoy a taste of the forbidden fruit (i.e. alcoholic beverages).
The staterooms on the Delta King are actually twice the size of the rooms back in the boat's river-going days. There are 44 rooms located on a couple of decks and offering either a view of the river, or a view of the ongoing activities along the dock front in Old Sacramento. The river views are slightly more expensive.
We found even the larger rooms to be small, but no smaller than expected for a stateroom on board an authentic riverboat. Our room had a queen bed on one side, a single bed on the other, and a tiny bathroom — with an unusual six-foot high toilet tank -- in the middle. Color TV with cable was available on the queen bed side. The stateroom was a cozy place to kick off your shoes and read the paper or relax — but there was much to experience just footsteps from the Delta King dock.
Old Sacramento, as one local visitor official told us, was once the skid row of Sacramento until, in the 1960's, a major re-development project was initiated to restore many of the historic buildings and attract new business into the area. As it was explained to us, somebody made a huge mistake putting Interstate 5 within just three blocks of Sacramento's prime riverfront and, until the re-development, that had the effect of cutting off this very historic and picturesque location from the rest of downtown.
The history of Old Sacramento dates back to 1839 when this became the first commercial settlement in the area. When gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1849, the business community along the Sacramento River began to boom. Hotels, saloons, bathhouses and outfitting stores were all set up to take care of the local miners.
Today, Old Sacramento attempts to re-create much of that early atmosphere and it seems to be working — it now attracts more than 5 million visitors each year. Although we noticed several commercial vacancies in the area, that might just be because Old Sacramento is now considered one of the most expensive places in Sacramento to do business.
The area has been restored with cobblestone streets, gas lamps and wooden sidewalks, and you do get the feeling of walking through a town from the Old West. Of course there are a few tip-offs that this particular Wild West town has been somewhat tamed: T-shirt shops seem to abound and there are plenty of candy and chocolate stores, not to mention pizza and just about anything else today's explorers may want to eat.
Just down the dock from the Delta King, we had dinner at Joe's Crab Shack — not unique to Sacramento by any means, but a place that seemed to attract the city's 20-somethings in droves. We also read someplace that Old Sacramento — with some very nice restaurants including the Delta King's own Pilothouse -- had been voted in a magazine poll as the best place in Sacramento to take a first date. That gives you some idea of how the area has become to Sacramento what the Gaslamp is to San Diego, or Pioneer Square is to Seattle.
For history buffs, Old Sacramento also has a number of museums including the California Military Museum, Discovery Museum History Center, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum and the Wells Fargo History Museum. Trips to historical locations like these really make for cheap vacations -- admission prices are always reasonable and sometimes free.
Maybe topping the historical list is the California State Railroad Museum which is said to be one of the country's best railroad museums. The 100,000-square-foot museum features many actual railcars as well as a million-pound steam locomotive. A train station replica allows you to see what a 19th Century station was like and, in spring and summer months, the museum offers steam train rides.
The shops in Old Sacramento — no matter how tacky some of them may be — are almost all housed in historic buildings. Among those 53 buildings still standing is a firehouse built in 1853, California's first threater, and the B.J. Hastings Building which was the western terminus for the Pony Express.
And if that's not enough to see and do, the Delta King offers one more little surprise: The boat offers dinner theater, combining fine dining with live entertainment in the Delta King's theater. Show tickets are available with or without overnight accommodations.
Whether it's boats, trains, history or eclectic shopping, Old Sacramento and the Delta King are an "excursion" into history worth taking any time of year.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Delta King is located in Old Sacramento, just off Interstate 5 in Sacramento and just a few blocks from the State Capitol and other government offices and attractions. Any California vacation HAS to include time spent in this historic city.
WHAT: The Delta King is an authentic sternwheeler that has been refurbished to provide cozy accommodations in a colorful location.
WHEN: Any time of year. The Delta King offers dinner theater for several multi-week periods throughout the year. Old Sacramento crowds are much bigger in summer.
WHY: An excellent combination of unique lodgings, fine restaurants, shopping and many historical museums. The Old Sacramento area is just 28 acres altogether which means that everything is within walking distance, including nearby state attractions. Often there are great travel deals in this part of the state, and be sure to check with the Delta King about any vacation packages that might be available.
HOW: For more information on the Delta King, phone 1-800-825-5464 or go to www.deltaking.com. Overnight accommodations are just under $200, which varies depending on your location on the boat. For more information on Old Sacramento, go to www.oldsacramento.com.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If the Delta King is your kind of California vacation, be sure and check out California Weekend's other articles on Gold Country, Bodie, the Calaveras County and California river rafting.