It's been more than 20 years since I moved to L.A. from New York City, but certain things about wild California never lose their exoticism. Joshua trees. Hummingbirds. Migrating whales. Redwoods.
And then there are monarch butterflies. Starting every October, thousands of monarchs from the northwestern U.S. and Canada make an epic journey down the California coast to spend the winter, their numbers peaking in November and December.
The state is speckled with overwintering spots, some in Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But one of the most renowned butterfly sites is at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz; the city even holds an annual festival to welcome back the creatures. It seemed a great place last month for a getaway that would focus on nature.
To avoid the 350-mile slog up Interstate 5, my husband, Tony, and I decided to splurge: We would fly from Burbank to San Jose and rent a car for the half-hour drive to Santa Cruz. After trolling the Web, I settled on the Sea & Sand Inn, rated No. 1 in the city by Trip- Advisor.com. I tried for one of the standard $149 queen-bed rooms, but they were sold out weeks ahead, so I winced and reserved a deluxe king for $199 -- a hefty premium just for a larger bed. (Travelers who drive instead of fly and who book lodging further in advance can do this trip for at least $300 less.)
We arrived in downtown Santa Cruz midday on a Friday and had lunch -- one sandwich of blackened ahi, another of roast beef with grilled onions and Swiss cheese -- at the Walnut Avenue Cafe, a homey place that, judging from the crowd, was a local favorite.
A quick spin along coast-hugging West Cliff Drive brought us to Natural Bridges State Beach, where a boardwalk leads from the visitor center to a viewing platform in the eucalyptus grove where the insects roost. Tours are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 15.
At first it was hard to spot the critters, except for a few flitting overhead. But Tony had remembered to pack binoculars, and a look through them in nearly any direction revealed butterflies hanging from tree limbs in clusters of dozens to hundreds, folded so only the muted colors of their undersides showed. Because the day was gray and chilly, most remained dormant in the trees. Amber Cantisano, an interpretive specialist at the park, said that on warmer, brighter days -- above 60 degrees or so -- they bask in the sunlight and feed on nectar.
A few other people came and went while we were there, some taking photographs (with very long lenses), first-time visitors oohing and aahing when they realized that what they had thought was a branch of dead leaves was actually a cluster of butterflies. The calm was captivating.
We strolled down to the beach. Just offshore, its one remaining natural stone bridge was crowded with pelicans and gulls. To our right were low mudstone cliffs that held tide pools. Grateful that we had happened upon the beach at low tide, we scrambled up.
The rock underfoot and in the cliff face was beautiful, its crevices and color variations resembling rough-hewn, sculptural pottery. We soon came to a sign saying, "Tide pools contain a diversity of marine life equal in variety to all the marine life found in the ocean."
The rock was pockmarked with dozens of them, shallow depressions from a few inches to a foot or two in diameter, populated with limpets, mussels, anemones, barnacles and other creatures I couldn't identify. At the cliff base, orange sea stars clung to rocks in the tide line. High school students on a field trip examined the tide pools too, seeming uncharacteristically absorbed.
From Natural Bridges we drove back along West Cliff Drive, stopping at Lighthouse Point, home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. We didn't go in, but we did admire the earnest, life-size bronze statue of a surfer -- erected in 1992 to honor the sport -- and a nearby bench inscribed, "In memory of all surfers who have caught their last wave ... Santa Cruz Surfing Club." A big rock looming just offshore was draped with barking, bellowing sea lions, while below us a swarm of Homo neoprenus dotted the waters of the popular surfing spot called Steamer Lane.
It was dark when we reached the motel. The reception area did not promise grandeur, and my heart sank as we entered our perfectly ordinary room: $200 a night for this? The bed nearly filled the space; a bland, beachy framed print hung on one wall; the bathroom's tired flooring was curling at the edge.
Come morning, though, much was forgiven. Daylight revealed the Sea & Sand's pretty gardens, sloping down toward the beach. The inn is nicely situated, its panoramic views taking in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with its enormous vintage roller coaster, and the city wharf as well as a broad expanse of open sea. We helped ourselves to continental breakfast and, later, to wine and cheese -- all included in the rate -- in a pleasant lounge overlooking it all.
Into the redwoods
We hadn't hugged a redwood in a long time, and that was the goal for Saturday. Unable to choose between the two nearest state parks with old-growth redwood forests -- Big Basin and Henry Cowell -- we visited both.
We headed north on Route 9, past Cowell park and through the towns of Felton and Ben Lomond, to the eastern entrance of Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek.
Established in 1902, Big Basin is the oldest state park in California. A couple of hours roaming through the woods gave us only a taste of its 18,000 acres, but a chat with a hiker fired me up to return one day for the Skyline to the Sea Trail, which has a 12-mile section leading from park headquarters in the redwoods down to the Pacific. Can there be a more quintessentially California experience?
From Big Basin we returned to Henry Cowell, equally lovely but different in feel. Big Basin is a hiker's wilderness. In much smaller Cowell, the oldest and largest trees are reached by a flat 0.8-mile loop trail accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. The redwoods along that gentle path seemed even more spectacular than those in Big Basin.
To check out more domesticated flora, we visited Antonelli Brothers Begonia Gardens, in business since 1935. Wow. Thousands of brilliant blooms -- some resembling roses, some camellias, some begonias on steroids -- spilled from counters and hung from the ceiling of the half-acre Santa Cruz greenhouse.
That evening we had our most interesting meal at the Afghan restaurant Parwana, in a simple but evocatively decorated storefront in Santa Cruz. Starters of aushak (steamed dumplings filled with leeks and green onions and topped with a sour cream sauce) and buranee kaddu (chunks of slightly sweetened pumpkin topped with the same sauce and sprinkled with dried mint) were followed by a tomato-dill noodle soup; a spinach-topped rice platter called sabzi challow; and, for dessert, sweet mint tea with firni, a delicate boiled custard. All were satisfying and stylishly presented.
Sunday, before catching our return flight, we found one more way to commune with nature.
I'd seen mention of the free arboretum at UC Santa Cruz, particularly its collection of plants from Down Under, and was curious. We found ourselves lost among the mostly unmarked paths of the sprawling Australian Garden. But, even in the fog that blanketed the arboretum on the day of our visit, it was clear that the stars of the show were dozens of species of banksia, shrubby trees with spiny leaves and weird, flamboyant flowers that resemble fat brushes, spikes or sometimes ears of corn. The otherworldly flowers are joined by bizarre seedpods, some recalling mussel shells in various stages of opening.
Other primitive-looking proteas in the South African Garden were cool too, but the banksias were bewitching.
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Burbank-San Jose round trip $288.40
Sea & Sand Inn, two nights, tax $439.30
Walnut Avenue Cafe $23.92
Other meals $89.90
State parks, beach admissions $12.00
Car rental, gas $84.00
Final tab $974.68
Sea & Sand Inn, 201 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060; (831) 427-3400, www.santacruzmotels.com.
Antonelli Brothers Begonia Gardens, 2545 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95062; (831) 475-5222, www.antnellisbegonias.com.
Natural Bridges State Beach, 2531 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060; (831) 423-4609, www.santacruzstateparks.com or www.parks.ca.gov.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006; (831) 338-8860, www.bigbasin.org or www.santacruzstateparks.com.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, 101 N. Big Trees Park Road, Felton, CA 95018; (831) 335-4598, www.santacruzstateparks.com or www.parks.ca.gov.
UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064; (831) 427-2998, www2.ucsc.edu/arboretum.