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Janet Fullwood: Ever-changing party themes on the rails of RiverTrain

Yolo County traditionally hasn't been strong on tourist attractions, aside from Raley Field. Sure, there's Davis, with its proud university, toad tunnels and to-die-for Nugget grocery store. Woodland has a historic downtown and a farm-implements museum. Winters has The Palms.

Not exactly a vacation wonderland.

But things are stirring on the west side of the Sacramento River -- and we're not just talking about the hotly awaited Ikea store.

Guests got a recent sneak peek at a new and improved excursion train that's serving up dinner, murder mysteries and heaps of fun on a 28-mile route between Woodland and West Sac. Meanwhile, the old sugar-beet town of Clarksburg, just south of Freeport on the Yolo side of the river, is awakening from a decades-long slumber with a major new attraction sure to create a tourism rumble.

First things first: The Sacramento RiverTrain, which began operations two years ago on a route once traveled by the Yolo Shortline, shifted into high gear this summer with new cars, new goals and a new schedule.

"We're offering four types of evening trips -- dinner trips, barbecue-by-the-river trips, murder-mystery trips and party trains with dancing and dinner," said company president Chris Hart.

Themed excursions include a three-hour "Reggae on the Rails" party-train trip ($35) on July 15 and 3 1/2-hour "Great Train Robbery" trips on summer Saturdays. The latter feature onboard Western characters, gunfights on the shore of the Sacramento River and a barbecue lunch at Elkhorn Park ($55 general, $35 children).

The RiverTrain, pulled by a diesel locomotive, has three open-air passenger cars, three air-conditioned cars and an open concession car, all recently painted and refurbished to reflect what Hart describes as a "relaxed, plantation-style" theme.

The Burrard car at the rear of the train is unusual by any account. One of the last open-platform cars to be built by Pullman-Standard, in 1954, it features a beer garden/patio, a lounge, a dining room and seven sleeping compartments. The streamlined car looks -- and rides -- like one of those vintage treasures parked at the California State Railroad Museum.

Close your eyes as the train rolls along, and you can pretend you're swaying through mountains or down the coast. Open them, and you'll get close-up views of Yolo County agricultural lands and wildlife preserves that look surprisingly different from this perspective than from Interstate 5, which parallels the tracks along much of the route. A scenic highlight is crossing the 5,200-foot-long Fremont Trestle, the longest wooden trestle in the West.

The RiverTrain is one of three California excursion trains operated by Sierra Railroad. The other two are the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train out of Oakdale and the Skunk Train running between Fort Bragg and Willits.

For fare and schedule information: (800) 942-6387 or www.SacramentoRiverTrain.com.

Down in Clarksburg, curious eyes are watching the gradual transformation of an abandoned sugar-beet factory into a destination dripping with sweet potential.

The Old Sugar Mill, being developed by local investors John Carvalho and Vince Stanich, will open later this summer with several wineries and tasting rooms tucked into two converted red-brick warehouses.

Eventually, the 106-acre project will include retail, commercial, light industrial and residential space, along with a special-events plaza, a conference center, a small inn and a pier where visitors arriving by boat can dock, said project spokeswoman Maureen Grijalva. Water-and waste-treatment plants also are part of the picture.

"The short-term goal is to attract people to come for an afternoon. The long-term goal is to keep them overnight," Grijalva said.

The Delta sugar-beet factory operated from 1935 until 1993, when it was abandoned and later sold and partially dismantled. In its heyday, Grijalva said, the mill processed 400 truckloads of beets a day, employing three shifts of 100 workers, many of whom lived in Clarksburg. The prosperity it generated supported two local car dealerships, two markets, two gas stations, a lumberyard, a hardware store, a barber shop, two bars and two restaurants.

Commercial activity in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town has since shrunk to one market and one restaurant - two if you count the Dinky Diner, operating seasonally out of a mobil concession stand parked on the riverbank.

The current mill owners have been honing their economic-development plan since 2001. Two wineries -- Carvalho Family Wineries and and Wilson Vineyards -- have leased space for production and tasting-room facilities. There's room for a half-dozen more in the smartly renovated warehouses, which have been joined together with an interior passageway and dubbed "Galeria do Vinho" (gallery of wine, in the language of the Portuguese farmers who settled the area during Gold Rush times).

Agriculture around Clarksburg has experienced a firm shift from sugar beets to wine grapes in recent years. The 56,000-acre Clarksburg appellation now boasts 10 wineries, though not all of them have tasting rooms.

The Old Sugar Mill should "do great things to help preserve the agricultural economy and support the tax base," said Mark Wilson, vice president of Wilson Vineyards.

A "soft opening" of the Galeria do Vinho is planned for later this summer, with a grand opening to follow in fall.

It remains to be seen what use will be found for the hulking, five-story main building at the center of the mill complex.

Rubberneckers can get a look-see from their car windows by taking Freeport Road south from Sacramento to the town of Freeport, crossing over the Sacramento River at the first bridge and continuing four miles south on River Road to Willow Point Road, where signs for the Old Sugar Mill point the way.

For more information: www.oldsugarmill.com.

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