Daytrips & Getaways: Hidden havens of the north Delta

From Walnut Grove to Clarksburg, California’s rare estuary is filled with old school hideouts

The historic Ryde Hotel lies south of Walnut Grove along the Sacramento River.

The historic Ryde Hotel lies south of Walnut Grove along the Sacramento River.

In a dim corner of Giusti’s bar, near faded photos of dangling sturgeon, a newspaper article from 1970 is nailed to the wall. It’s a tribute to Erle Stanley Gardner, whose smoke-drenched mysteries and lurid pulp novels made him a midcentury king of American crime writing. But for Gardner, the real mystery was here in this Walnut Grove bar. In the last decade of his life, Gardner haunted the lost waterways and rickety sanctuaries of the north Delta, desperately trying to distill the enigma of its twilit charm. And Giusti’s was one of his favorite spots.

Giusti’s lies south of Georgiana Slough, tucked away along the vine-laced channel that surrounds Dead Horse Island. The former trading post and ferry tavern was already a relic when Egisto Giusti bought it in 1912. Four generations later, Egisto’s family is still firing the skillets, pouring the wine and serving tipsy farmers who happily hide from the world. It’s a great place for laying low, enjoying plates of sand dabs, fried oysters, grilled salmon and burly calamari steaks, all paired with Delta Syrah and Giusti’s garlic-tinged, creamy linguine. An afternoon in this anglers’ Eden can evaporate the mystery around Gardner’s obsession.

West of Giusti’s, boaters eventually drift by the David Lynch-like dimensions of a hotel towering over the Sacramento River. Known as The Ryde, this old three-story retreat was built in the Jazz Age and once had a secret rum-runner’s tunnel puncturing the levee under its Art Deco shadow. Today, the historic landmark still rents rooms that look out on skiffs and trawlers gliding on the river. On Sunday mornings, the Ryde’s nostalgic dining room is open for brunch, offering a chance to wander by the Egyptian statues in its halls and up the passage of its marble-carpet staircase. And then there’s venturing into the hotel’s lower ballroom, a gala hall reminiscent of the one Stephen King conjured in The Shining. To linger in the empty chamber is to almost hear the voices from the Prohibition-era parties hosted here. Don’t miss a chance to explore the Delta’s version of Hotel California.

Another lapping channel of local memories flows along the edge of Sutter Island. It was here the ambitious captains and riverboat gamblers of yesteryear stopped for supplies on their way to the capital. Now it’s a stop again, with the century-old pear orchards that spread from its landing connected to the Delta’s newest restaurant, which happens to be owned by one of Sutter Island’s oldest families. The Neuharths recently decided that, in addition to being fifth-generation farmers, they’d also start grilling burgers, baking scones and mixing crisp pear Prosecco floats for travelers stopping by. The result is Steamboat Landing, a place offering everything from hot lunches to pickled green beans and jalapeños grown on regional farms. It’s also an ideal spot for sitting around sipping Hemly pair cider, a drink made by a family whose rustic Victorian mansion looms just down the river.

North of Steamboat Landing, vineyards start rioting across Merritt and Lisbon islands. Those blooming rows are the backbone of Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill, a massive Depression-era factory converted into a brick maze of elegant tasting rooms. Word has gradually gotten out about the top-tier wines that are poured here, including Larry Dizmang’s mind-blowing chenin blanc, Todd Taylor’s vibrant vintages of cabernet sauvignon and Matt Cline’s Evangelho zinfandel, made from 130-year-old vines down in the South Delta.

While the Old Sugar Mill’s a fun place for the Dionysian splurge, it’s hardly an unknown corner of the region. Julietta Winery, on the other hand, is a garden hideaway quietly nestled on the back end of Clarksburg’s sprawling fields. It’s a tribute to casual tasting, with shaded and sunlit patios flanked by olive trees, oleanders and a flower-studded waterway. It’s the perfect place to kick back, drink a Rhone blend and maybe watch a cottontail rabbit duck by—and to contemplate the mysteries of the Delta, California’s least known and most threatened treasure.