In this election year, we cast our ballot: Sutter Creek is the best town in the Gold Country.
Yeah, there are other strong candidates, like Murphys and Nevada City. But consider what you encounter when you turn off State 49 and take the bypass into Sutter Creek. Set in a tidy green dell - Sutter Creek is the kind of town that makes you recall words like "dell" - is a Main Street lined with balconied 19th-century buildings. The prettiest Main Street you've ever seen? Quite possibly.
Nearby, on Spanish and Church Streets, are Victorian homes that run from mansion to cottage, almost all boasting gardens that make you vow to mulch the minute you get back home.
Sutter Creek is not short on Gold Rush history: Mining wealth built these handsome buildings. But what you feel now is the buzz of the new - first-rate home stores, restaurants that reach beyond the steak-and-whiskey Gold Country staples, and wine-tasting venues that celebrate Amador County's way with the vine.
Sutter Creek is on State 49, about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento via States 16 and 49, and about 45 miles northeast of Stockton via States 88 and 49.
Sutter Creek is compact - everything you want to see and do is along a few blocks of Main Street. The Sutter Creek Visitors Center (closed Tue-Wed; 71-A Main; 800/400-0305) has maps and info. History buffs can see exhibits of 19th- and early-20th-century life at Monteverde General Store Museum (donation suggested; reservations required; 11-A Randolph St.; 209/267-0493). Two other good attractions lie a bit farther out. On the north edge of town, the Sutter Gold Mine Tours ($16, $11 ages 4-12; 13660 State 49; 209/736-2708) are great for kids, who get to wear hard hats, ride deep into the Earth, and experience creepy total darkness when the tour guide turns out the lights. On a brighter note, Sutter Creek is the gateway to Daffodil Hill (10-4, weather permitting, through mid-Apr; donation suggested; from downtown, take Gopher Flat Rd. 12 miles east and follow signs; 209/296-7048). Each spring, it blooms in Wordsworthian splendor (remember "And then my heart with pleasure fills" from English 101?).SHOP
Like most Gold Country towns, Sutter Creek has its share of traditional antiques stores. More surprising are the contemporary home-furnishings shops. At Topia Home and Garden (closed Wed; 33-A Main; 209/267-0600), Bay Area transplant Marcy Miller has fashioned a shop - airy, elegant - that would fit nicely in the toniest San Francisco neighborhoods. Fine Eye Gallery (71 Main; 209/267-0571) has striking contemporary American crafts, fine art, jewelry, and furniture. In a class by itself is Chaos Glass Works (closed Mon-Tue; 121-A Hanford St.; 209/267-9317). After a stint at Stanford University, David Hopman returned to Sutter Creek to create handblown vases and dinnerware of astonishing beauty.
EAT AND SIP
As with shopping, dining has risen in sophistication. Caffé Via D'Oro ($$; closed Mon-Tue; 36 Main; 209/267-0535) offers stylish California cuisine, and Susan's Place ($$; closed Mon-Wed; 15 Eureka St.; 209/267-0945) has good Mediterranean food, a terrific roster of Sierra Foothills wines, and a pretty courtyard setting. If wine is all you're after, stop by Scott Harvey Wines (closed Mon-Wed; free tastings; 21 Eureka; 209/267-0122), where you can try and buy forceful Amador County Zinfandels. At Sutter Creek Ice Cream Emporium (51 Main; 209/267-0543), you can settle down to a sundae and listen to owner Stevens Price play a mean ragtime piano: Traditional pastimes have their merits, especially when hot fudge is involved.
For a tiny town, there's a good selection of places to stay. The Foxes Inn of Sutter Creek (7 rooms from $160; 209/267-5882), Eureka Street Inn (4 rooms from $125; 209/267-5500), and Grey Gables Inn (8 rooms from $115; 800/473-9422) all do the small, historic B&B thing very well. Hanford House Bed & Breakfast Inn (10 rooms from $109; 800/871-5839) is a little less froufrou and better for families with kids.