Forward to the Past : Great eateries, a steam train and a boardwalk reel in that '60s feeling

Chris Rubin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

I left Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late '70s, and spent the next three years living and studying in the halcyon environs of one of the country's most liberal communities, a bastion of progressive politics and alternative lifestyles that happened to be situated in a charming, once-conservative beach town.

As a student on a tight budget, I limited myself mostly to the campus, the beaches and forest, and just a small part of town--the area with the best cafes and least expensive Chinese restaurants. I hadn't been back much, until mid-September, when my wife, Nan, and I decided to hop in the car and hit Interstate 5. I soon discovered there's a lot more there than what I was aware of in my student days.

We had decided to stay at the Babbling Brook Inn, a 12-room bed and breakfast within walking distance of Santa Cruz' main drag, Pacific Avenue. We were given the Toulouse-Lautrec room, upstairs in one of several small, free-standing cottages on the lavishly landscaped property.

Eating in Santa Cruz has always meant one place to me: India Joze, an eclectic restaurant that was affordable for special occasions even in student days. So after unpacking we set out on foot for dinner through the rapidly cooling evening air.

Joze serves an assortment of Asian dishes as well as weekly globe-trotting specials. We started with "portobello chut," Joze's name for a chutney made with the mushrooms, served over organic greens in a tamarind dressing. Nan opted for the wok-cooked red snapper with mushrooms, bell peppers and a "pesto" of fresh basil, ginger and tamarind. I chose the calamari stir-fried in Indian spices with a chile-lime glaze. Everything was as exotic and delicious as I remembered, and Nan now shares my love of the place.

Later, we walked along Pacific Avenue, our first chance since arriving to really see the town. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake hit Santa Cruz hard and, even today, some stretches of Pacific Avenue are nothing more than weed-covered vacant lots. But the street scene was more vibrant than ever, with crowds spilling out of cafes, New Age crystal shops and used book and CD stores, now interspersed with World Wide Web designers and other computer-related businesses. Santa Cruz is a place where there's no nostalgia for the '60s because they never went away; but the town has come into the '90s. We saw both facets represented on a pedestrian who sported a Grateful Dead T-shirt, a pierced eyebrow and a post-punk hairdo.

Tired, we rested over a late-night (decaf) latte at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co., watching the crowd drift past. None of it was a shock to Nan, who spent her undergrad years at Berkeley.

Eventually, we returned to the inn and our large, comfortable bed, where we were soothed by the sounds of the stream that runs through the property.

Breakfast is one of several good reasons to stay at the Babbling Brook. We feasted in the living room on croissants and poppy seed bread, fresh fruit and granola, ranch eggs, and countless cups of orange juice and hot, fresh coffee.

We drove up to the university, which ranks high on the list of things to see in Santa Cruz for its unusual architecture, natural beauty and sheer size. UCSC is perched in the middle of a redwood forest high in the hills above Monterey Bay. Despite many new buildings, most of its sprawling 2,000 acres (by contrast, UCLA has only 419) are still in their natural state.

Then we were off to see something I'd long heard about but never witnessed--The Roaring Camp Narrow-Gauge Railroad, steam-powered trains built more than a century ago for logging and freight that now carry only tourists. With something between fog and drizzle misting the windshield, we drove 20 minutes up a windy mountain road through increasingly thick redwoods to the town of Felton, from which the train departs year-round on two routes: a 90-minute loop up Bear Mountain, the other all the way down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and back.

Unfortunately, there was one extremely large group waiting at the station that Friday and they were given the open-air cars while the rest of us were relegated to a covered caboose. So as we chugged up into the hills and back for 90 minutes in the Henry Cowell Redwoods, we had to crane our necks to look out and up at the majesty of the trees, some of them 800 to 1,200 years old and towering nearly 300 feet into the sky. It's a less than thrilling ride and narration, but the scenery is stunning.

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We drove back into town hungry for lunch and stumbled across Clouds, a 1-year-old trendy restaurant just off Pacific on Church Street. With its bright contemporary art and copper-mesh-covered halogens, Clouds is more San Francisco than the Santa Cruz of my memory, but it is very much what this city is about today.

The menu emphasizes local goods, so we shared a tender artichoke from nearby Castroville ("The artichoke capital of the world!") with a creamy basil-scented dip. Santa Cruz may have one of the largest percentages of vegetarians anywhere, a town of militant herbivores for whom k.d. lang is a hero for coming out . . . against beef. The "vegetarian steak sandwich," a mix of mushrooms, zucchini, roasted peppers and goat cheese, won over Nan. I had the Chinese chicken salad, a pleasant if unexciting mix of lettuce and grilled chicken breast with a soy-wasabi vinaigrette.

The clouds in the sky had long since cleared, and we walked up and down the side streets surrounding the mall, window shopping and people watching. We stopped in at the Break Room Billiard Club on Soquel Avenue, enticed by the idea of a few games before dinner in a, naturally, smoke-free establishment. The tables were a little worn, but the jukebox was well-stocked and the crowd a mix of students, unemployed construction workers and businessmen; on this day, entirely male. (The Break Room charges by the hour: $4.20 for one person, $6.40 for two, with happy-hour specials.)

On a friend's suggestion, we went to El Palomar, a restaurant in a renovated residential hotel of the same name dating from 1929. With its intricately painted cathedral ceilings, southern Mexican specialties and roving mariachis, it was appealing.

We had to wait for a table, so we joined a couple dozen others in the loud and friendly bar. The list of 20 or more tequilas made for a tough choice, but we ordered--superb margaritas with Herradura Silver--and made our way (OK, my way) through two bowls of chips and fresh, spicy salsa. Then we dined on fresh salmon and tuna, and a chocolate-dusted flan that our waitress insisted we try.

In the morning, I woke first and went up to the lobby, where I filled a tray with coffee, juice and fresh fruit, which we enjoyed in bed. Time was running out on this getaway, so we gathered up our belongings and checked out of the Babbling Brook.

We headed north on Highway 1, past spectacular and secluded beaches--and the less impressive, even funky, vegetal odors of Brussels sprouts, pumpkins and other crops--to visit Bonny Doon Vineyard. Run by UCSC alumnus Randall Graham, Bonny Doon emphasizes less popular grapes, which actually are grown on land in nearby Monterey because of a pest that wiped out the crop on the Bonny Doon Road property. We had stopped at Zoccoli's, an Italian deli on Pacific Avenue, and so were prepared to picnic at the winery's tables in a clearing surrounded by blackberry bushes gravid with the last fruit of the season. We tasted a couple of different bottles and settled on Graham's Cardinal Zin (all his labels are puns), which went well with our turkey and sprouts sandwiches.

Back down the mountain and into Santa Cruz, we pulled up at Espresso Metro, a Fotomat-size booth, and ordered one for the road (a double espresso, that is) before aiming the Miata toward Highway 1 south.

What a long, strange--and delightful--trip it had been.

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Budget for Two

Gas: $35.75

Babbling Brook Inn, 2 nights: 212.38

Train and parking: 31.00

Picnic, Bonny Doon: 22.74

Lunch, Clouds: 34.00

Dinner, India Joze: 83.15

Dinner, El Palomar: 61.00

Billiards: 9.40

FINAL TAB: $453.67

Babbling Brook Inn, 1025 Laurel St., Santa Cruz 95060; (800) 866-1131.

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