Santa Cruz -- a serene combination of beach and forest

When it comes time to plan their summer vacations, many travelers are faced with the same basic decision year after year: Should it be in the mountains or by the sea? Others don't bother to choose and simply enjoy both by heading to Santa Cruz.

For in and around this pastel-shaded town that hugs the northern edge of Monterey Bay, they know there are several expansive beaches conducive to swimming, sunning, and exploring tide pools. They also know that camping, hiking, and tree gazing are options available in cathedral-like redwood forests just a few miles to the northeast.

But not all of Santa Cruz's pleasures are natural; more than a few, in fact, are man-made. Architecture buffs find that the town is a veritable gingerbread cake of Victorian architecture, with splendid examples spread throughout charming neighborhoods and the revitalized downtown. And as a major crafts center, the downtown abounds with a lively mixture of unusual shops.

A good way to get introduced to what the town has to offer is to stop by first at the Santa Cruz Convention and Visitors Bureau on Church and Center Streets, or to write to it at PO Box 921, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95061. Among other information, the bureau has maps of what it calls the Tree-Sea Tour, a 29-mile drive that winds past a choice selection of beach, forest, and historic sites. The drive is possible to take even without a map, as pale blue signs are posted every few blocks.

Having grown up in Santa Cruz County, I have long been familiar with the little blue signs. But like most natives, I had never bothered to follow their trail. It wasn't until I recently returned to Santa Cruz in a new role as a tourist from the East that I was prompted to see where they led. The tour, especially if augmented by a few serendipitous detours, is highly recommended by tourist and native alike.

If one begins by heading out Highway 1, the coastal route leading to San Francisco some 70 miles to the north, the blue signs soon indicate a turn toward Natural Bridges State Park and Beach. How the park got its name is immediately apparent as one overlooks the sheltered cove with its spectacular sandstone "bridge" sculpted out of an outcropping by the pounding surf.

As elsewhere in Santa Cruz, it is possible to enjoy both beach and forest at Natural Bridges. Although many northern California beaches are fog-shrouded and have treacherous currents, Natural Bridges, like other Santa Cruz beaches, is a happy exception.

Behind the beach area is a loop trail where, with the aid of an informative park brochure, it is possible to take a self-guided nature walk. The first leg of the walk leads into a tranquil eucalyptus grove where thousands of orange and black monarch butterflies make their home from mid-October through mid-March, some traveling from as far away as Canada. On winter days below 55 degrees F. the eucalyptus trees become towering veils of butterflies as they cling to the leaves unable to fly in the colder temperature.

The rest of the trail loops past other sanctuaries, including a placid lagoon that shelters a variety of birds ranging from great blue herons to red-winged blackbirds. On the ridge above it are thickets of coyote brush, a tough and wiry plant with tiny cottonlike blooms. At trail's end there is a characteristic northern California sight -- a grove of cool, black-green Monterey pines.

From Natural Bridges the Tree-Sea Tour follows West Cliff Drive along tall cliffs above the ocean. An especially scenic vista is available at Lighthouse Point, which marks the northernmost tip of Monterey Bay. Beyond the small lighthouse is Seal Rock, on which a herd of the frolicking creatures can be observed. Just as visible here is a herd of surfers maneuvering their boards over waves thought to be the finest for this sport in northern California.

The rest of West Cliff Drive curves inward along the bay and leads down to the Santa Cruz Beach-Boardwalk, a seaside amusement park that has been drawing tourists since the turn of the century. Alongside it is the Municipal Wharf, the wooden piers of which support a row of tempting fish markets and seafood restaurants.

A particularly good fish market here is Stagnaro Brothers, with heaps of salmon, red snapper, and sole brought right in off the boats. This is a good place to get a takeout crab or shrimp cocktail and stroll along the wharf listening to the barking seals that swim and dive in the water below.

From the wharf and boardwalk area the blue signs lead across town and up Glen Canyon Road through the Santa Cruz Mountains, an area dotted with covered bridges, trout streams, and impressive stands of redwood trees. It was once a heavy lumbering region, and the vestiges of this turn-of-the-century industry can be enjoyed at Roaring Camp just outside Felton. At regular intervals a narrow-gauge railway takes passengers through the redwoods to Bear Mountain.

A good place to stop and appreciate the redwood giants is at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The park's loop trail is lined with ferns, Douglas fir, and laurel, but the star attraction are the ancient redwoods, some almost 300 feet high. A few are of historic interest and have been named in honor of famous people.One is the Fremont Tree, so-called because legend has it that the explorer John C. Fremont once camped in its hollow base. Others are the McKinley Tree, the General Grant Tree, and the 261-foot-high Theodore Roosevelt Tree, the only one where the president so honored was on hand for the dedication.

Narrow, forest-shaded Highway 9 leads from Cowell Park back into Santa Cruz, the blue signs still in evidence. Remaining sections of the tour explore scenery of a different sort -- splendid Victorian mansions and cottages that are reminders that Santa Cruz has long been a popular resort town.

For appreciating them on foot, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has a handy leaflet outlining four popular walking tours of neighborhoods studded with architectural gems. Most historic is the Mission Hill tour, which includes the site of Mission Santa Cruz, which was built in 1791 and then gradually succumbed to decay by the mid-19th century. Nearby is a replica of the original. A reminder of the Spanish colonial past that is still intact is the long low Neary-Rodriguez adobe house on School Street.

As in other preservation-conscious cities and towns, Santa Cruz has spruced up many of its vintage downtown buildings, many of which now house appealing restaurants and shops. A fine example is the Richardsonian-style Cooper House, which occupies a central spot on the Pacific Garden Mall, a lushly landscaped shopping area closed to auto traffic. For many years the Cooper House was the Santa Cruz County Courthouse, but now several levels of unusual gift shops are contained behind its mellowed exterior of ocher-colored bricks. A sidewalk cafe outside the front entrance is a good place to relax and hear some of the impromptu street-corner music which is nearly always in full swing.

Around the corner from the Cooper House is another old building serving a new purpose --county's Hall of Records in 1882, the tiny eight-sided building is now a free museum of local history. Its greatest treasure, however, is not inside, but rather is the building's own rough brick exterior with its gingerbread trim and fanciful shape. Like much else in Santa Cruz, it has enough beauty to please the eye of any beholder.

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